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Learning to Live with Horses

by Franklin Levinson

Horses are like magnets for humans. People of all ages are drawn to the horse because of their beauty, grace, power, majestic stature and the mystery of their noble being. It's been that way throughout recorded history. In modern times, it has been clinically documented that just being around horses changes the brain wave patterns of humans, lowers blood pressure and reduces stress. We calm down and become more centered and focused in the present moment when we are merely view horses. We are transformed in a very positive way when in the presence of horses. It is no wonder that the beneficial effects of positive and appropriate interaction with horses should prove life enriching to grownups and children alike.

As I have been a professional horseman for nearly 50 years, I have known for a long time that horses can produce positive mental and emotional effects within the humans around them if the interaction was appropriate and mutually successful for both horse and human. Unfortunately, although many humans are attracted to horses, they often do not have any idea of how to approach and greet a horse safely. This stems from a lack of any solid knowledge about the horse itself. The only concept many humans have of horses is that people ride them. This sort of thinking objectifies the horse and places it in the category of a motorbike, carnival or circus ride. The horse is a sentient, thinking, feeling and relationship based animal. It is naturally curious when it feels safe and wishes to make friends with those near it who show respect for it and communicate with it in an appropriate way.

Showing respect for a horse partially means not simply unconsciously moving into its personal space and touching it. We would not do this to another human and we do not wish a stranger to walk up to us and put their hands on us. Often people walk up to a horse and attempt to touch its face, nose or mouth. Sometimes they receive a bite on the finger for this rude indiscretion. Or, the horse might swing its rear at the human and try to kick them. These behaviors are not the horse being bad. The behavior is defensive and born out of fear that comes from another being not showing any respect for the animal's concerned reactions to their inappropriate and invasive behavior. Horses communicate through body language. They evolved this way because, in the wild, if they make sound, they alert a predator to where they are. Thus, they are experts at body language communication. We humans are not and mostly are unaware of our own body language and the messages we convey unconsciously to others via how we move, or simply just sit or stand. The horse most often has tried to tell the human approaching it that it is not happy with what the human is doing. But, we move forward unconsciously with our agenda and we either miss the animal's communication entirely or we ignore it. Then, when we get kicked or bitten because we did not pay attention to what the horse was trying to tell us. Then we judge the animal as bad. When we judge an individual as bad, we can then tend to think that punishment is called for. No matter what the behavior of a horse or how dangerous it is, it is always innocent and never, ever deserves to be punished. I have seen horrible abuses heaped upon horses by ignorant humans seeking to punish this innocent animal who was merely acting out of fear for its own survival. There are appropriate consequences for unwanted behavior that teach rather than punish.

I had a ranch on the Hawaiian island of Maui for 30 years. Many years ago at that ranch I began The Maui Horse Whisperer Experience, which was an experiential, interactive, hands-on experience of horses for non-horse people. Of course horse owners were invited as well. The positive effects of the successful inter-species communication were immediate and, sometimes, life altering. The confidence and self-esteem of individuals who were able to bond and communicate successfully with the horses dramatically improved and the improvement was immediate. People would drop their projections, misconceptions and judgments about the horse, and themselves, once the communication became conscious, appropriate and mutually successful.

For children with mental, emotional and social challenges, the benefits of the experience with the horses was frequently profound. Children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD and ADHD) would magically focus on the horse for long periods of time when either grooming or leading the horses. Once they understood how to ask for and receive cooperation from the horse, their self-esteem went sky high. What a wonderful sight it is to see a shy, withdrawn, fearful child standing tall and confident as they lead a 1200 pound animal through an obstacle course of a series of twists, turns and stops. Autistic children who would come to me mostly withdrawn and very much in their own world, would begin to say new words and attempt to express themselves as rarely seen by their parents and therapists. Given the lead rope of an appropriate horse they would proudly lead the horse around the ranch for extended periods of time and not want to give them up. Observers would stand there with mouths wide open and tears streaming down their faces to see such profound and wonderful responses in their children and wards. Young toughs and bullies quickly learned that they cannot push such a large individual as a horse, around. They learned that success was determined through how much trust they could earn. Once again the horse is easily recognized as a positive force and influence for humans. Prisons in the US have instituted programs to assist in the rehabilitation of inmates by teaching them how to train wild horses. Untrained horses from the open ranges of several states are given over to some prisons so the prisoners can train and gentle these horses to get them ready to be adopted out. Techniques are shown the prisoners on how to gently communicate with a fearful horse and develop the trust needed to help the horse accept human contact and interaction. The inmates discover that respect, gentleness, thoughtful requests, mindfulness, compassion and kindness go a lot farther than brutality, dominance and force. These programs are so successful as to have become the single most effective form of rehabilitation for the penal system in America today.

At about the same time The Maui Horse Whisperer Experience came about, I began the 'Leading With Quiet Strength' program. This is a leadership/teambuilding program developed for corporations seeking to advance the leadership qualities and skills of top executives. There are now a few programs in several countries that focus on these goals for the corporate world utilizing guided, successful interaction with horses. In this age of corporate greed, poor management, distrust, and wide spread fraud, a program that teaches responsibility, accountability, respect, trust and mindful interaction via success with horses, was a natural development for me. 'Enlightened leadership' is a goal being pursued by many top organizations and even some governments, around the world. Accountability and responsibility are taught through the quality of the interaction with the horses and the feedback is immediate. The success or failure of the interaction and communication is tossed back into the face of the human right away by the responses of the horse. If there is a problem, it can be quickly recognized and corrected by the human through a change in attitude and/or behavior. Once everything is back on track, the interaction again becomes successful. A horse will forgive us our mistakes. If a horse is abused by a human and eventually the human changes their way of dealing with the horse consistently and over time, the horse will forgive the human their mistakes and accept the friendship if it is offered sincerely and appropriately.

The principles of mutually successful interaction with horses are basic and easy to understand. The horse is the perfect mirror of the human that is with it (horses do not lie). If the human is afraid, so is the horse. If the human is angry, the horse is afraid. If the human is confused, the horse is afraid. If the human is frustrated, the horse is afraid. Anything that does not produce feelings of safety and peace within the horse, produces fearful feelings. The horse is looking to have feelings of safety and peace always. This is because the horse is a 'prey' animal always looking over its shoulder for the 'predator'. If the human is trying to control the animal for whatever reason, this produces fear within the horse. If the human is unconscious around the horse, this makes the horse fearful as well. If the human is disrespectful of the horse (inappropriate touching, movements, sounds, thoughts or feelings), this produces fear with the horse too. When the human begins to make conscious, thoughtful movement and appropriate requests, rather than demands of the horse, cooperation begins to happen. When a human waits for and notices the responses of the horse to the human's communications that is showing acknowledgement and respect for the horse. Trust and respect are earned with horses in much the same way as with people, with the added aspect of great guidance and leadership coming forward from the human. It is the human's responsibility to approach the horse as a great parent approaches a child. Along with the love, compassion, patience and consistency of a great parent, comes confident, skillful, knowledgeable guidance and leadership. In the wild, the horse gets its sense of peace and safety from the herd leader. Unfortunately for the domesticated horse, there usually is no great human leader filling that role of the herd leader. Relationships between domesticated horses are somewhat confusing and difficult for horses, as stables and barns are an un-natural environment for horses. There are few humans making appropriate requests that the horse can easily understand and comply with. Horses miss this good leadership. What is often the case, are humans making unconscious, inappropriate demands, trying to control this big beast through dominance, punishment and restraint and abusing the animal through ignorance and misconception. Compliance is frequently sought through bribing with food or inducing fear. A child, even one with mental or emotional disorders, given a little insight and guidance into joining appropriately with a horse, becomes the natural leader the horse is looking for. Peace abounds and cooperation and compliance come forth from the horse when the communication from the human is kind and appropriate. Actually, children can often become successful with a horse quicker and easier than many adults. This is because children are frequently less judgmental, less controlling and more open to 'heart to heart' forms of communication than many adults. They have no big agenda other than to just be there with the horse. We adults tend to want to always be doing some activity. We have forgotten the magic and peace that comes from just 'being'. Many do not even have a concept of what this might mean. Simply 'being' with a horse quietly can help remind us.

Simple, clear, conscious requests are what the horse is looking for. Stop, go, backup and turn this way or that, are examples of simple requests that a human can make of a horse, clearly and consciously. When the horse complies, a 'thank you' in the form of a total release of pressure of the request (stop asking for anything and offer the animal a few moments of peace) is all that is needed. Horses understand the acknowledgement of being shown simple respect. They know that they are being thanked and acknowledged when peace and a little praise is offered. I am not talking about fawning over a horse because it is compliant. Overdone praise becomes shallow and meaningless. A simple "Good Boy (or Girl)" and a short quiet time, is all that is required. There is a balance to be struck. We humans seem to have a tendency to either over do or under do something. Being out of balance has become our way of being in this modern, technologically based world. Many of us seem to be missing out on any sort of experience of our 'natural' world. There is a natural balance to a horse's being. There is to ours as well but we do not see or feel it because of our need to 'control'. Or, it seems out of our reach due to perceived demands of our 'modern' lifestyle. This puts us out of balance a lot in our lives. We are either too much or too little. Or, at least it seems that way. Appropriate, successful interaction with horses can lead us back to that natural balance because to be successful with a horse that natural balance has to be present in the communication. A natural balance begins to appear when there is consideration, thoughtfulness, awareness and kindness present in the interaction. 'Balance' is another of life's great lessons and attributes that can be learned through mutually successful interaction and being with horses.

The benefits of this type of simple, yet successful interaction with horses, is immediate, profound and wide reaching. It is part of my personal mission, and that of my wife and partner Ilona Staikou, to bring these incredibly beneficial aspects of being with horses to the forefront of all our seminars and teaching.