A Primer on Old Indian Tricks & Natural Horsemanship

Last Updated on March 2, 2022 by Allison Price

This excerpt is from the Volume, “Hooked on Horses,” of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s Final Report for a Proposed Tribal Horse Program. It is currently under discussion (February 2003). Tom can be reached via [email protected]

Natural Horsemanship, which is a way of caring for horses that focuses on their well-being, is a method of riding them where you “work with their nature rather than against them.” This will be the hallmark of the Umatilla Tribal Horse Program. This technique is a lot influenced by “old Indian Tricks” to gentling horses. Cayuse horsemen were known to have raised horses almost as human-like as they were in the past.

“Cayuse horses range in size from twelve to fifteen hands high. They are all small and are often white or spotted. Although they are energetic, they can be difficult to get into a saddle or harness. They are superior saddle-horses to American horses. Their speed and endurance are unmatched. Major Barnhart of Umatilla owned a Cayuse about thirteen hands high that could gallop to the Columbia river for thirty-one miles in just two hours with a man on the back and return at the same pace. . . . Through kindness, the Indians teach their horses to be gentle. “- Wigwam, War-Path by A. B. Meacham, Boston, 1875.Background

This paper contains very few traditional Indian Horsemanship techniques. These were often called Old Indian Tricks by whites. You can still hear this admiring phrase at natural horsemanship clinics. It would take months to gather all of them together, and this is not the focus of the current study. The following essay captures the essence of Indian horsemanship at its finest. The Umatilla Horse Program’s horse elders such as Mr. Ham Patrick and Chief Raymond Burke, Inez Rees, and many others can help to establish that fundamental philosophy. It’s still there. It’s still there when Mrs. Inez Reves smiles at me and asks, “How is that little black pony?” She knows horses.

Old Indian Tricks & Natural Horsemanship

Recently, it dawned upon me (!) It is not hard to see why some horse trainers want to quit the profession, while others are unhappy being riding instructors. The trainers realize that the problem with horses is not with the horse, but the riders. The riding instructors have a hard time dealing with horses that are not fully finished and clients with little knowledge about horses and how to work with them. They don’t know horses.
Natural Horsemanship is a combination of horse training and riding instruction. It has been around for fifteen years. You may hear the names Tom and Bill Dorrance and Ray Hunt and John Lyons and Pat Parelli and Monte Roberts. They are horsemen known as “clinicians” and hold horsemanship clinics that help you and your horse improve. Natural Horsemanship is not new, but as we have already mentioned, they aren’t new. It is something that some Indians have known for a long time.

First words

It’s obvious that there is an old and a new language spoken in horse yards all across the country. While some would suggest it is being whispered, others believe that it’s more common-sense. “Gentling” horses has replaced “breaking horses”. “Flags” have replaced whipping in favor of communicating with horses through body language and communication. It’s all about time for professional horse trainers, wranglers and riding instructors.

Second, the Umatilla Confederated Tribes can sell horses. . .
Horses with life are safe, happy, and willing to sell. These horses are sought after by many people. Horses today are in demand because they are raised and trained in an equestrian tradition that encourages good temperament, behavior and attitude. If they have a good reputation, people will buy Spanish Cayuse Indian horses. A horse that is easy to market and inspires confidence in riders will be a winner.

Third, Americans’ insatiable fascination with Native American spirituality will be heard by a horse who can see “his soul” through his eyes.

“Two Days later, the Cayuses arrived. Three hundred people arrived. Their constant war with the Snakes kept their numbers down. They were the most fierce fighters among all the tribes, and made their entrance with the wild dash that was characteristic of their style of war. They circled the camp with whoops and yells and displayed feats of horsemanship rarely equaled. Then they retired a little and entered camp.
-The Treaty Council of Walla Walla (1855). To the web

American Indians on the Columbia Plateau were considered master horsemen and riders. I reached out to Spanish Colonial horse enthusiasts on the Internet on January 12, 2001 to get their help in defining today’s Natural Horsemanship. This can be linked to several Indian traditions. And it is this same mindset that drove the Indians and the Spanish horses to the brink. They used to say, “The wild horse” in these parts.

This level of hostility exists still in Indians and whites. It is important that the gallant Cayuse horses return home to a place that values them and allows them to show their skills. They need a partner to do that.

After many good exchanges on Spanish Colonial’s message board, someone suggested The Trail Less Traveled, an Internet message board. This website is dedicated to Natural Horsemanship Training. The following was posted on January 24, 2001:
Please, help me. I am a consultant for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Oregon. The Tribes plan to return the Spanish Mustang Registry-registered Indian horses. The plan is being written by me. Raymond Burke, an older horseman and chief on the Umatilla Reservation made a comment recently that there were always Indians who were “gifted” with horses, who would gently handle them. There were also those who loved to cowboy and break horses. Another elder Tribal member, Mr. Ham Patrick says that he prefers horses who are “willing to get to know you and to work with your horse.” This is what I’d like to do. Is there a quick definition of Natural Horsemanship? It has been discussed on the Spanish Colonial Mustang website, but we are still not there. Have any suggestions?>I received many guidance from my two WWW-based requests for assistance. I also got the following, which I have edited with attributions whenever I could.

The Primer in Natural Horsemanship

1. Natural Horsemanship is a way to respect the horse’s intrinsic nature as prey animals and his spirit. It involves methods of communication and handling that are based on understanding how horses react to and how they learn. It creates a partnership between horse and human in its best form. This is based on mutual understanding of how horses feel, timing, balance, and not on force, equipment, or coercion.” -Sue Terrell

2. Communication, respect, psychology and understanding are the keys to good horsemanship. This is in contrast to fear, intimidation, domination and fear. It’s a two-way road.” – “Anonymous” and “Virgo.”

3. “Horsemanship is based on the nature and abilities of horses. This is how Bill Dorrance and Tom Dorrance live and die, I believe. Both study horses to learn from them what to do.

4. Bill Dorrance: “It’s not natural that a horse be around people. It’s also not natural for someone to sit on him.” These words (natural horsemanship), refer to what the horse does within his own limits.

5. Tom Dorrance’s cues were “something magical, almost inaudible” and the horse was immediately at attention when the old man touched it.

6. In Natural Horsemanship, one must apply increasing lightness. Your thought is the most effective aid you have. . . . I am currently working towards this lightness and dreaming about spade bits. . . . True trainers and natural horsemen are not warriors, but shamans in every sense of that word. “Training horses to me is a shamanic path which impinges upon every part of my existence.” -Robert Gear

7. Natural horsemanship is “communication by thought combined with intention, patience, understanding, and intent.” This is key to building strong relationships with horses.
-Susan Catt

8. Robert Painter: “Natural Horsemanship is about what the horse understands as a horse and not being asked to think or act like a human.”

9. “Natural Horsemanship” is any approach that works with nature rather than against horses. – Emily Kitching editor, The Trail Less Traveled

10. Robert Miller speaks about gentle training techniques and all “competent horsesmen.” He said that natural horsemanship requires perception as well as sensitivity. It involves controlling a horse’s natural flight response. This creates submissiveness when done properly. Round pens are why trainers use them.

11. GaWaNi Pony boy, one of the most respected and sought-after equine speakers/clinicians in the world, credits elders from different tribes for showing him the “old ways” of horse training. “Relationship training is what I do. It’s my name for how I train horses. The focus is on the relationship.

12. He said, “When you ask a question of your horse or pony about it, take a step back and ask yourself: ‘Does that make sense?’ Not ‘Does it make sense?’ Horses don’t have the same common sense as humans, so riders need to remember this in order to communicate with them.

13. Barry Cox, Wallowa-based rancher and cowboy, horseman and trainer, as well as a clinician and breeder of Spanish Mustangs, says that Natural Horsemanship is a way to handle horses. It allows you to become more horse-like, and communicate with the horse on his level. It is a form of communication between horse-human. It’s a feeling of being in touch with one another, a natural way to understand each other. This is in contrast to normal horsebreaking techniques, where you rely on fear and force to get the horse to obey your wishes. This type of horsemanship is what I believe Native Americans practiced. The horses seem content to be with the Indians in the photos of them and their horses that I have seen. This is what it all boils down to. Horses don’t lie. Their expressions will tell you where they are at.

14. Barry also said that: “Introduce to your horse and say, “Hey, I’m not in any hurry. I’m here all afternoon. This is for entertainment only. . . . First, I want to understand and find meaning. Then I want to live. . . . If your horse is making plans to travel, get some life going. They are always learning. . . . Keep smiling. Find some happy middle ground between being a wreck or asleep. . . . He will be able to comprehend the meaning of your words and his eyes will become brighter and more brilliant when he does. . . . I have learned to look deeper into myself and not blame the horse. . . . Soon, she will be saying, “Boy, it sure would be nice to get along with you!” Build understanding, not speed. . . . Each horse must find their way in life. They look to you for guidance and help. . . . Doing new things can help build courage in horses. Horses love adventures just as we do.

15. “A horse that is good will learn things by himself. It’s easy to see his heart. He won’t do anything if you aren’t watching. He is all in one. You can’t force a horse to do something he doesn’t know is wrong when you have him there. He’ll fight you over it. Mistreating him can almost kill him. A horse that is good has justice in his heart.”
Cormac McCarthy, author the Texas Trilogy which includes All the Pretty Horses.

16. Ray Hunt states, “The horse is entitled to its thoughts and has a mind,” and “give the horse work.”

17. Keyadani: Spanish Colonial Messenger Board, January 27, 2001
Let’s dispel some myths about being a Native (primarily Lakota). Because Natives are human with human behavior, not all were horse trainers. Don’t romanticize Natives as Horse Whisperers. Instead, see us as a people that before being ‘conquered” were more gentle and connected with all that was a part our lives. We lived with the earth’s rhythms and not against them. The trust method was used by most Natives: “I respect you and the things you bring to me, my people. Therefore, I ask you to do mine as a gesture of trust that we speak the same language. You don’t have to ride me. You don’t ride me. 18 Natural Horsemanship aims to create a harmonious partnership between horse and human in the most graceful way possible. Harmony is also a part of all this.” Tom Hebert

19. Peggy Smith: Natural horsemanship involves pushing your limits and accepting your flaws, while also striving to be a part of something beyond our current comprehension. Natural horsemanship allows the individual to recall, with the assistance of the horse about secrets to harmony that the universe and ourselves have forgotten. It’s a relationship between horse and human where the roles of student, teacher, leader, follower and leader are continually examined and learned from until perfection is reached. It is a way of living.

20. “Two of my premises are:’rewarding the slightest attempt’ and’make it easy, but the wrong way a lot of work.’ These lessons can also be applied to people. . . Linda Royer, Equine Facilities Architect.

21. It all comes together when Plenty-Coup (a chief of Crows) told his biographers what he and his fellow soldiers felt when they went on a war party.
“To be with our war-horses alone at such times teaches them to comprehend us and us to understand them. My horse is always there for me. He fights alongside me and eats with me. If he wants to be my friend in battle, he must have a good understanding of me. According to my ears, the white man is almost a god and yet a fool. He doesn’t believe the horse has a soul. This is absurd. My horse has his soul. I have seen it many times. That day, on that knoll, I saw his soul in his eyes. His soul was in my eyes.

From Alan Bell, Greenville (TX), Spanish Colonial Message Board, January 29, 2001
I believe there are principles to “Natural” horse training. If a particular principle can be applied to your work with horses, then it will satisfy them. They should be interrelated. These are not things I invented, but things I learned from others during my personal odyssey.

2. It is important to make the right thing easy, and the wrong thing difficult.
3. When the session is over, the horse should be calmer.
4. You can’t force the horse to stop, and the horse won’t choose.
5. It should be the horses’ decision.
6. A learned response is one that occurs every time.
7. Always finish with what the horse has learned.
8. To teach a horse to move, it takes movement.
9. Horses naturally move away from pressure.
10. Horses can be put under pressure verbally, physically, and emotionally.
11. It is more about the horse learning than it is about the human.
12. Learn from the horse.
13. Assist the horse to adjust to a human environment.
14. Be consistent and precise.
15. It is easier to ride a horse in its desired direction.
16. Horses learn from you all the time.
17. Firm but not too hard; soft but not yielding.
18. To move 1000 lbs, you will need 4 ounces
19. 4 ounces is an end point, not a beginning point.
20. It’s not fun. . . . don’t do it.
21. Tomorrow, tomorrow, there’s always tomorrow
22. Instead of fighting through a problem, go back to training.
23. Pulling on the reins or lead should feel like “catching an eggs.”
24. Segment the horse.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!