Sweet Nothings

Just when you think you know everything about a subject, along comes someone to blow apart a lifetime of assumptions.

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Monty Roberts’ father was virtually destroyed by his son’s belief in ‘horse-whispering’, as a far more humane and less exhausting method of breaking and training horses. It’s no secret that Monty took a severe beating for it.

A remarkable man, Roberts went on to foster disadvantaged children, using much the same wisdom and insight he’d learnt through studying horses and their social groups in the wild. It’s too easy – and often misguided – to bestow animals with human emotion, but maybe trust is rooted in the same place in humans as in horses, and observation and interpretation is all that’s required to make a valuable connection, regardless of language. And isn’t whispering usually far more effective than shouting? Much the same as writing good fiction; and if we’re talking analogies there’s nothing worse than clunky dialogue. Is Natural Horsemanship simply natural dialogue?

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Guido Louis Leidelmeyer: “In the words of the horse: ‘Listen’ by observing me, and communication between us will come naturally and silently. In my words: Can I help you do that?”

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As with most things that work well, it’s based on a simple concept of alignment with nature. Horses like to hang in a crowd (herd), follow the leaders – usually the older mares – and be out in the open simply because if there’s a predator, they’re more likely to bolt, than stand and fight. That’s about it. If a horse is singled out he is more likely to turn to us without fear or aggression once he comes to realise that we are not predatory, and as a surrogate leader can offer the ultimate protection. And that’s where the ‘following’  or ‘joining-up’ comes in.

This principle works with wild/un-handled horses as well as re-training by reiterating the relationship of horse and leader for equines who have formed bad habits, or those with anxiety issues.10359322_877879128921403_340646845329328715_n Actually, most bad habits stem from anxiety and a lack of leadership. It’s a little like your pet dog – and dare I say children, too? – needing to know their safe and secure place in the family pack, although the body language between dogs and horses is rather different. Flattened ears in a dog is more likely to mean subservient greetings whereas a horse … well, watch out!

Not everyone agrees that these principles are quite so cut and dried, and as is often the case with a lot of unquantified skills, there is perhaps some sixth-sense at work gleaned from years of experience. There are many equine behavourists who claim the ‘following’ principle is flawed. But the proof is in the pudding. I’ve watched Guido use these techniques on a couple of riding-school horses – both of whom he’d never ‘met’ – with amazingly fast results: 20 minutes to resolve a problem with electric clippers on a mare which had for some 12 years, aggressively avoided the issue. The owner was quite rightly, open-mouthed. But the problem isn’t solved in its entirety, as Guido explained: Tilly’s owner needed to learn and understand the process for herself, and as is the case with most success stories, a certain measure of self-belief is required. It’s this psychological leadership which is perhaps where the sixth-sense bridges that gap between human and equine.

dscn3582I think we can also safely assume that nothing much in life is achieved through bullying or force, certainly cooperation would be bottom of the list so far as horses are concerned; and there’s no way we’d win any kind of fight with an animal quite so strong and fleet of foot as a Lusitano stallion. Yes, Guido’s horses are compliant, but they are also as naturally spirited as they are trusting. Once that bond of trust is formed, the sky’s the limit; demonstrated in perhaps more extreme style by Guido’s stunt riding – swinging beneath galloping horses and leaping fire is pretty spectacular to watch. Some of these moves were developed from Cossack riding, which in turn originated from wartime ploys to fool the enemy.

10376907_877878922254757_6039860932867977420_nGuido has an interesting, somewhat unconventional history too. From humble beginnings in a circus, he’s achieved worldwide acclaim in a number of disciplines: Cossack riding in Germany, the formation of Rockin’ Horse Productions, top trainer for the Royal Cavalry in Oman… I’m sure there’s a novel in there! 

Horses have been a lifetime’s passion for me. No surprise that they feature in most of my novels, more so in MIDNIGHT SKY and PALOMINO SKY.  Both books draw on the principles of horse-whispering and the power of self-belief – but I take on this theme in a fictional sense rather than a technical sense. It’s so easy to swamp the narrative with too much unwanted detail. And yet, it’s the minutiae of life which underpins the storyline in PALOMINO SKY. As with horse-whispering, it’s the observation of perhaps something seemingly inconsequential which can change an entire situation. If you’re not horse savvy or enjoy only a passing interest, I’ve tried to portray the equine aspect as secondary to the storyline in these books. On the other hand, horse enthusiasts will hopefully embrace the setting.

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3 thoughts on “Sweet Nothings

  1. Hi Jan, I’m not sure if this of interest or may help horse lovers or not, I too met an amazing master horseman by the name of Shane D. Olver his love of horses and horse-whispering drove us to produce a series of horse training videos, I loved working and learning about horses, if you are interested, you can see the videos at the following vimeo site.. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/shanedolver I sincerly trust you may find them interesting. cheers, George

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  2. Hi Jan. I loved Monty Roberts’ work and remain a believer, even though I no longer ride. You talk about whispering sweet nothings to the horse and I once had a wonderful Appaloosa, formerly a trail-riding horse. Used to riding in company in the middle of a single file, he found solitary hacks with me on board and nothing but the surrounding bush to be very stressful – he imagined large kangaroos and snakes at every turn. Treading on a snapping eucalyptus branch was a gun going off. A bird flying out of a tree? Don’t ask…
    I have never sung (for sung you could insert whisper) so much in my life!
    We would ride for an hour or more, he and I, and I would sing every Broadway song I knew. His neck would lengthen, head dropping, his stride would slow and lengthen and his ears would twitch back and forth, his tail stopping its agitated swish. I could ride on a perfectly loose rein. It was amazing – like giving him a valium.
    And I’m not even a very good singer!
    So more power to all of Monty Roberts’ ilk, they are doing wonderful things for horses. And riders.

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