I use the Natural Lifemanship model to work with my horses in the round pen, to help them develop self-regulation and learn to connect with me. Although the work derives from natural horsemanship, there are some important differences: mainly, in Natural Lifemanship, we’re not asking the horse to be submissive. Instead, the work is informed by an understanding of brain function. Submission is a lower-brain survival function, a kind of mindless autopilot. On the other hand, cooperation is a freely chosen action, arising from an integrated, whole-brain process. A cooperative horse knows how to calm down, think, and decide to do the right thing for his relationship with his person. Natural Lifemanship helps us develop the horse’s brain in this very intentional way.
The beauty of the work is that it helps human and horse simultaneously. While we make requests of the horse and respond to his signals, we develop our own self-awareness and self-regulation; the horse gives us continual feedback on the energy we’re projecting. We’re asking the horse to connect with us, and in turn, we need to be a safe person for the horse to connect with. That means we need to appropriately control our own emotional and physiological energy, which the horse senses all the time. In other words, how we do things matters just as much as what we’re trying to do. Which leads to one of the core NL principles: No matter the task or activity, connection is always the goal.
Nabokov is a six-year-old gelding who came to us with a lot of anxiety about being ridden. He also had trouble calming himself down in the round pen. He’d spook and run around without regard for whatever I was doing. Over the course of several sessions, he learned to connect with me and settle down. I saw him developing self-regulation: something would startle him; he’d spook and buck; then he’d pause, slow down, come over to me and take a breath. He’d learned that connecting with me was a way to calm himself down. Importantly, this is not about me controlling him. It’s about him learning to appropriately control himself. The connection between us simply helped him get there. When I’m calm and he connects with me, that helps him settle his own energy. Connection feels good to both of us.
And what connection means, specifically, is an attuned relationship in which we both do the right thing for the other. Not coercing, not placating, but communicating appropriately and clearly—and enjoying each other.
If that sounds like what we want from all our relationships, it’s because Natural Lifemanship is also a model of equine-assisted therapy and equine-assisted learning. It’s a powerful way of healing trauma, and the relationship principles we learn in the context of working with the horse help us in all other areas of our lives.
In these videos, I’m working with Nabokov on attachment (following with connection), detachment (moving apart from each other with connection), and getting comfortable with riding.
Learn more about Natural Lifemanship here.