Before natural horse-manship, “breaking” a horse was long assumed to be sound training. Then along came Monty Roberts, known as the “horse whisperer,” in the 1950s, and everything changed. His observation of horses interacting with each other in the wild led him to understand and use their communication versus dominating horses with physical force; he learned to read their body language instead of instilling fear. “He would eventually call this silent tongue ‘the language of Equus,’ … when a horse does this with his body, it means something quite specific and when a human does that with his body in response, that action also conveys a particular message to the horse,” wrote equestrian-themed author Lawrence Scanlan in the introduction to The Man Who Listens to Horses.
Wylie Bell of Bennettsville, South Carolina, does not consider herself a professional trainer, yet has trained at least 50 horses over nine years in some capacity. When explaining her knowledge of natural horsemanship, she says, “I am a backyard trainer who is self taught by reading books and magazines, watching YouTube videos of Monty Roberts and many others, going to clinics, and picking the brains of every horseman or horsewoman I run into. But most importantly, the horse has taught me what I know.”
Wylie grew up riding horses for fun but never competed.
“After college real life began, and I always thought horses were just a thing of my past.” Thirteen years later, Wylie and Leighton, her husband, were biking when they saw a loose horse in a field near the house in which she grew up. They coaxed the horse with food and secured it in a fenced-in pasture. “I put an ad in the newspaper looking for its owner. I finally tracked this guy down, and he said he’d paid $100 for him at the horse auction and never could do anything with that horse. He said the horse had been missing for about two weeks, and he’d figured he’d ‘been eaten by the gators.’ So he was not interested in getting him back.”
Wylie suddenly became responsible for a reactionary horse she could not lead or tie. “I ended up finding a family that had housed him for a short time as a rescue horse. Their 12-year-old daughter, Kim Hill, worked with him. That was the first time I’d ever seen any type of natural horsemanship. She began doing groundwork with him, which was totally foreign to me. But I was mesmerized that this little child could do more with this horse in less than five minutes than I had been able to do with him in two or three weeks. Kim was using techniques she’d learned from renowned horse trainer Pat Parelli.”
Around that same time, Wylie acquired Monty Roberts’ book. “So that little girl, now in veterinary school, sparked a completely new interest in horses that I’d never known or had. I couldn’t read enough, study enough, and learn enough about horses and horse training from that point forward.”
Wylie learned that a simplistic explanation of natural horsemanship is, in a sense, knowing the horse is in the right. “The horse is going to act like a horse and think like a horse,” she explains. “If we want to enter their world and teach them anything, we should respect their natural instincts and not impute any of our human attributes on them.”
Trainers must try to create an environment that is conducive to how a horse learns, according to Wylie. One principle of training for Australian clinician Warwick Schiller is that the horse must already know the answer to the question. “What he’s saying is the horse must be able to find the right answer. It’s about asking ‘yes questions’ and building on that obedience and success in small steps,” Wylie says.
Now she and her husband have a small farm called Bell Broke Stables where they own four Marsh Tackies, the South Carolina State Heritage Horse. Wylie says she is a continual student of horses. The abandoned horse that changed everything for her, an Appaloosa now named Apache, ended up becoming a competing hunter-jumper owned by a rider in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Monty Roberts opposed what he deemed the brutal methods of forcing horses into submission adhered to by his father and other Nevada cowboys of his childhood. “It all dates from those summers alone in the high desert, me lying on my belly watching wild horses with my binoculars for hours at a time. Straining to see in the moonlight, striving to fathom mustang ways, I knew instinctively I had chanced upon something important. I did not know it would shape my life. In 1948 I was a boy of 13 learning the language of horse,” he says.
The “old school” method of horse breaking relied on horses’ instinctual fear and counted on literally breaking the fighting spirit. Most creatures will eventually stop resisting after enough time proves that it is useless. Wylie says, “So back in the day, people who strapped a saddle to a horse and then jumped on and said ‘yeehaw’ were not setting that horse up to find any right answers. They were creating a situation of panic and confusion. Can you make a horse succumb to your will that way? Yes, but I wouldn’t want to try it. Also, I don’t want to ride something that is fearful and reactive. I want to ride something that is focused and responsive. And I’m willing to take the time that the horse needs to learn.”
Elizabeth Grove, an equestrian trainer in Eastover for many years, as well as Heathwood Hall Episcopal School’s upper school counselor, had an opposite experience to that of Monty Roberts’, who observed his father abusively breaking horses. “My mom and dad, Betsy and Billy Cate, have always had a soft and understanding way with animals, so I learned by watching them that a rough hand wasn’t necessary to gain respect from a horse. My mom began studying natural horsemanship in the mid-’90s, and she inspired me to learn about it as well when I was struggling with one of my horses,” she says.
She explains that when she was in college, she had a young mare that was learning quickly and seemed to be enjoying the work, but when moved to a new barn about a year into her training became stressed to a degree that was unmanageable.
“I thought she was losing her mind, and I couldn’t figure out how to help her. I had little experience with emotionally unstable horses,” says Elizabeth. “Mom and I had both read The Horse Whisperer and were fascinated by the ways in which the traumatized horse in the book was able emotionally to recover with the training techniques the trainer offered. Mom suggested we spend my spring break working with a trainer who could teach us about natural horsemanship, so that’s what we did. After only a week of this trust-building communication with my horse, she had relaxed and was more willing than I had ever seen her. It was amazing, and it made so much sense.”
What Elizabeth learned about natural horsemanship has carried through with her to the present. “Essentially the human uses body language to communicate with the horse the same way that horses communicate with each other. This makes the horse feel safe and builds trust. Once a horse trusts you, you can begin to ask more of it. It is much easier to convince a 1,000 pound animal to do things your way if they trust you.”
Kelly Sigler of Looking Glass Farm in Wagener, South Carolina, was an equestrian practically from the time she could walk. At age 4, she jumped her cousin’s horse over a small fence. She began taking lessons at age 8 to learn how to jump horses properly, and by high school, Kelly developed an interest in eventing, which is an equestrian sport in which competitors must take part in each of several contests, usually cross-country, dressage, and show jumping. She began making a name for herself in competitive circles and acquired a top-notch show horse, George.
However, even though Kelly knew how to ride well, she had never learned to truly connect and communicate with her horse. When George failed to load into the horse trailer one day, a person trained in the Pat Parelli method of natural horsemanship assisted.
“I had no idea what she was doing,” Kelly says. “It looked so foreign to me. Within 15 minutes, my horse was loading in and out calmly, then standing without trying to run out backwards. I was amazed. I asked the lady how she did that, and I asked if she could show me some of these methods.”
What followed was a deep dive into the Pat Parelli natural horsemanship instruction. Kelly was so taken with it that she became a certified Parelli trainer and even toured with the group teaching and training all over the United States.
Natural horsemanship philosophy spawned a generation of popular trainers besides Monty Roberts, including John Lyons, Pat Parelli, Clinton Anderson, and others. Although unfamiliar names to non-equestrians, they are considered the stars of horse training with videos, books, and sought after clinics. Dramatic videos show a feral horse, often a mustang, after a short time donning both saddle and rider, all due to natural horsemanship techniques.
A 26-novel series by Lauren Brooke called Heartland portrays a young horse whisperer, Amy Fleming, training often mistreated horses; the novel series prompted a 12-seasons-and-counting television series of the same name and premise. Main character Amy Fleming’s oft-practiced “Touch” is classic natural horsemanship. “The method uses circular movements of the fingers and hands all over a horse’s body to improve equine behavior, performance, and health, and to induce relaxation and decrease anxiety during training,” says Dorothy Stephenson in her article, “How To Do A Touch For Horses.”
“I learned that reading a horse is so important,” says Kelly. “It’s a skill every equestrian needs, and it solves so many problems people have with horses. If everyone would have a foundation in natural horsemanship, emotional and control issues would be gone. Everyone is happier and safer.”
Instead of competing, Kelly is committed to teaching others natural horsemanship, helping students both young and old lay a strong foundation for their horse and develop a connection and a relationship that leads to better performance, both in and out of the arena.
Jennifer Stoudemire, who resides in Lexington, began taking lessons with professional equestrians at age 6 and spent years competing. At age 40, she achieved a United States Dressage Federation bronze medal rider award and was working towards a silver medal rider award when she learned her beloved Friesian-cross horse, Prince, had a torn suspensory in his right hind leg, along with other hind-end lameness issues that were not diagnosable.
“It was in this moment I realized that there was so much more to horses than awards, shows, performing, and riding the best you can ride,” says Jennifer, now 43. “There was a much deeper connection that I was missing. This was when I started my journey into natural horsemanship. I wanted to dive into more of a spiritual connection with horses and really understand them.”
Currently, Jennifer is program director and head riding instructor of Dream Riders, located on a family farm where she resides; she is also a Professional Association of Therapeutic Riding International certified riding instructor and United States Equestrian Federation bronze-level para-equestrian dressage coach.
Jennifer says, “Natural horsemanship builds a horse’s confidence, helping them to cope with all kinds of situations. I am loving this new journey and plan to continue on it; the benefits of it prove to create true harmony in the horse-human relationship.”