Is Natural Lifemanship Just “Joining Up?”

May 23, 2017

“Isn’t Natural Lifemanship (NL) just joining up?” I hear this question frequently from family, friends and students who are learning Natural Lifemanship. If they know anything about Natural Horsemanship, horse training methods with the intent of developing rapport with a horse based on herd dynamics, they assume that attachment in NL is “joining up.” Since joining up is getting the horse to see you as his leader and to follow you, observers often confuse this with attachment and connection in NL. Attachment can involve having the horse follow you but can also be achieved in many different ways. Further exploration of the process of attachment in NL reveals not only different expectations and beliefs about the process but a different process altogether. The beliefs and intentions of Natural Horsemanship and NL are not the same but both have important places in the world of horses.

In this blog I break down the components of joining up and attachment and compare and contrast them to help students of NL better understand the differences. Joining up and attachment have different purposes. Joining up is an intervention used by men and women (who we will call “trainers”) to train horses using principles from herd dynamics and attachment is part of NL, a psychotherapy model that strives to help humans obtain healthier relationships with themselves and others.

Joining Up is a term that is frequently used in Natural Horsemanship to communicate the process of a horse respecting the trainer as his/her leader. How this is done varies slightly from person to person. Monty Roberts explains it this way:

Working in a round pen, one begins Join-Up® by making large movements and noise as a predator would and begins driving the horse to run away. She then gives the horse the option to flee or Join-Up®. Through body language, the trainer will ask, “Will you pay me the respect due to a herd leader and join and follow me?” The horse will respond with predictable herd behavior: by locking an ear on her, then by licking and chewing and dropping his head in a display of trust. The exchange concludes with the trainer adopting passive body language, turning her back on the horse and without eye contact, invites him to come close. Join-Up occurs when the animal willingly chooses to be with the human and walks toward her accepting her leadership and protection.

From an NL perspective what is involved in this type of joining up? The horse trainer uses the horse’s natural fear of predators and approaches the horse with predator type behavior which frightens the horse and drives the horse into the survival part of his brain causing him to run away from the threat. From the survival part of his brain the horse responds instinctually.  When the horse cannot escape the threat, he submits. The change in the trainer’s behavior to less threatening and more passive body language offers possible safety. The horse seeking safety, looks to the trainer for this and begins to ask for permission to approach. When the horseman allows the approach, the horse submits to the trainer as the leader.

Horses are accustomed to being dominated or being the dominant one, so in Join-Up® the interactions reinforce the hierarchy of the herd dynamics. From a horse training perspective this is a much kinder way to get a horse to comply with your requests than to “break” him. From a psychotherapy or NL perspective this interaction is about dominance and control. The horse is not given an option to cooperate because cooperation only occurs when the neocortex (the thinking part of the brain) is engaged and not only the lower regions of the brain. The trainer has all the power in this interaction and though Mr. Roberts uses the word “choice” the horse is not given a choice since he is operating out of the survival parts of his brain. True choices are made from the neocortex.

Let’s look at the above interactions through the lens of human relationships because NL is a psychotherapy model designed to help humans with relationships. A very important principle in NL is “a sound principle is a sound principle no matter where it is applied.” So, in NL we believe that if a principle is sound it will work across different types of relationships.  The transfer of these principles is imperative in a therapy model.

When applying the principles from the Natural Horsemanship Join-Up® process to human relationships we see the following:  One person has all the control, the relationship is based on a strong, benevolent leader that must be obeyed in order for there to be safety and order. The other person is not allowed to have any control because they may make poor decisions and submission is desired because it is good for the relationship. When viewed within this lens very few people would say that is the type of relationship they want and many would say that it is abusive. Since NL is a psychotherapy model, if we used the Natural Horsemanship principles of Join-Up® we would be teaching people unhealthy ways of relating.

Another very respected natural horseman is Pat Parelli. Like Mr. Roberts he is a well-known and a highly respected horse trainer. In his trainings Mr. Parelli explains how important it is to control a horse’s movement because it raises the trainer’s status to one of leader in the horse’s eyes. In this interaction the trainer is using the herd principle of whoever moves the other’s feet has the status. In this way the person controls the horse by influencing the horse’s feet. Sometimes this involves blocking choices that the horse can make. Sometimes the trainer decides which direction and how fast the horse will go. Leadership is seen as an essential component of the horse and horsemanship relationship. Mr. Parelli notes that if the trainer does not make the decisions then the horse will. Unlike Mr. Roberts, Mr. Parelli does not take the stance of a predator in order to drive the horse away. He uses only the amount of pressure necessary to control the horse’s feet.

When examining these beliefs, we see the following: The trainer controls the horse’s movements and takes away choices as necessary to obtain the horse’s compliance, and the horse cannot appropriately control himself without leadership.

From a human relationship perspective once again one person has all the control and decision making ability as the benevolent leader. The leader controls the other person and limits the choices available to insure appropriate decision making. Like the outcome of Join-Up® these dynamics do not reflect a healthy human relationship pattern.

All of these Natural Horsemanship interactions use operant conditioning, pressure and release, to teach the horse the desired behaviors. NL also uses pressure and release but in a different fashion.

One small part of NL is requesting attachment by applying pressure to the hip of the horse. From the untrained eye this appears similar to Join-Up® or other joining up interactions. There are many significant differences, however.  

In NL the intention of every interaction with a horse or human is connection. Submission is seen as an instinctual behavior that the horse or human makes from the survival part of his brain and is undesirable. In order to avoid submission, the trainer/client uses the smallest amount of pressure necessary and abides by the three principles of pressure which are: Ignore- increase, Resist- remain and Cooperate- release and/or decrease.  

The process of attachment in NL looks like this. The trainer/client makes a request of the horse in order to begin their relationship. The trainer/client applies pressure to the hip of the horse in order to give the horse the most choice about how to respond (the intent is not to drive the horse). The horse can choose to ignore the request (seem to not notice the request, do nothing in response to the request), resist the request (seek a different answer than the one that is being requested) or cooperate with the request.

Before a request is made the trainer/client must first decide if the request is appropriate, fair, and good for both the trainer/client and the horse. If the request is not good for one of them then it ultimately is not going to be good for the relationship. Each request is made with the smallest amount of pressure possible, usually beginning with just a thought. For example, the thought could be, please look at me. In order to use the smallest amount of pressure the trainer/client must be emotionally regulated and be in control of herself. The trainer/client holds a belief that he/she can only appropriately control himself/herself and the horse can appropriately control himself. If the horse responds to the smallest amount of pressure, then the pressure is released to communicate to the horse, yes that was what I asked for.

However, if the horse ignores the request, that is the trainer/client did not apply enough pressure to convey the request, then the pressure is increased incrementally with warmth and compassion. The decision to increase the pressure incrementally is done so as not to drive the horse into the survival part of his brain and to give the horse the choice to respond with the least amount of pressure possible.

In order to increase the pressure a little the trainer/client may take a deep, long breath to bring up the energy in his/her body while seeing in his/her mind the horse looking at him/her. If the horse responds by looking, the pressure is immediately released. But if the horse responds with a different answer, the trainer/client keeps the pressure the same in order to convey to the horse, that is a nice try but not what I requested.

By keeping the pressure the same the trainer/client does not drive the horse deeper into the survival part of his brain. As the pressure remains the same the horse can come out of the initial survival mode and begin to use his neocortex in attempting to find the answer that the trainer/client requested. The trainer/client keeps the pressure the same as the horse explores what the answer to the request is.

This dance continues until the horse chooses on his own to cooperate with the request. The desire is for the horse to engage his neocortex and to think and to choose connection with the trainer/client. If the horse submits instead of cooperating, then the trainer/client knows that he/she increased the pressure during resistance (hunting an answer).  This is an undesirable outcome and the dance begins again with the smallest amount of pressure until cooperation is achieved from the horse’s neocortex.

The dance of asking the horse to follow is built on scaffolding of the requests. It may start out with the request for an ear, or an eye then move to a whole head turn, then the horse’s body turning to face the trainer/client, then the horse making a step toward the trainer/client and lastly them taking a walk together. The request to walk together is made out of a desire for connection and not to be the leader of the horse.

If we examine attachment and these steps of getting a horse to follow through the lens of a human relationship, we find respectful requests made with warmth and compassion, allowance and respect for another’s choice, a genuine desire to connect, acceptance of the other’s response, compassion and warmth in helping them find the right answer to the request, and a respect for and allowance of the thinking process and autonomy of another. In this process the trainer/client and horse are equal partners, each brings strengths and weakness to the partnership. This would be the same for all relationships, such as couples and friendships.

When the intention and principles behind the processes of attachment in NL and joining up in Natural Horsemanship are fully examined, attachment in NL is very different from Join-Up® or joining up in Natural Horsemanship. Remember, in NL there are infinite ways to ask for attachment, putting pressure on the hip is just one of them. Attachment can be requested any number of ways, and how it is asked depends on creativity and attunement in the relationship.