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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Horse Whispering

Air Date: Week of

The seven million horses in the United States owned for racing, showing, rodeo, leisure riding and polo are worked in a variety of different ways. Many trainers start the process by "breaking" horses into following commands which often involves some physical abuse. But others are bucking that trend, taking a kindlier, gentler approach. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson introduces us to a real life equine psychologist. This new method is getting some attention these days, thanks to a popular Hollywood film.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood.
Pony rides. Rodeo. Dressage. Racing. Polo. The 7 million horses in the United States are worked in all kinds of different ways, but they all had to be trained to do what they do. Many trainers start the process by "breaking" horses into following commands. And breaking often involves some physical abuse. But others are bucking that trend, taking a kindlier, gentler approach. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson reports, their method is getting some attention these days, thanks to a popular Hollywood film.

[Hoof falls of trotting horse; neighs and whinnies]

NELSON: "Colors" is an aptly-named 9-year-old blue-eyed pinto. She sports big chestnut-colored spots over a pure white coat. Colors is a beautiful horse, but the first time Nancy Hamer saw this mare, she knew it had problems.

[Loud, long neigh]

NELSON: The horse was anxious around people. She wouldn't tolerate anyone in her stall. And she reared up if anyone tried to ride her.

HAMER: And she's just had this problem from day one.

[Trainers talking softly in background. Horse snuffling.]

HAMER: In fact, when I took my daughter to view her, for purchasing, she went straight up in the air then, and my daughter just said, she didn't care, she wanted her.

NELSON: So, Hamer bought the horse for her daughter. She figured, with the right training, everything would be fine. And, one trainer was able to correct the horse's behavior.

HAMER: And so, when we came to see her, she was a whole different horse, and we asked what method she was using to make such a change-about. She refused to tell us. She said, "You don't want to know."

NELSON: And Hamer didn't ask again, though she suspects the horse was whipped and beaten until she yielded.

[Whinnies, impatient hoof movements]

NELSON: But soon, the horse's old habit of rearing resurfaced. So when Hamer heard about an alternative training clinic, she signed Colors up, and that's where she met Frank Bell.

[Clopping of trotting horse]

BELL: If you had a 3- or 4-year-old child that was freakin' out, what do you do? You don't bale out on 'em, and say, "Good luck! Figure it out! When ya get it figured out, come back!" Ya nurture 'em. Ya hug 'em. It's kind of the same idea with a horse. You just show 'em a way to deal with it, and before too long, it's no big deal.

NELSON: Frank Bell calls himself a "horse whisperer." Chances are, you've been hearing a lot about horse whisperers lately, because of the Robert Redford movie. No one knows for sure, but Frank Bell says the term can be traced back to the mid-1800's, and an Irishman named Dan Sullivan. Sullivan had a way with problem horses, but never disclosed his technique. Legend has it his secrecy is what led to the name, "horse whisperer." But Frank Bell says what he does isn't a secret. It's just a gentle, step-by-step training method that builds a bond between animal and human.

BELL: We all know how to get a cat purrin' on our lap, and make friends with dogs, and have 'em waggin' their tail, and wanting to be with ya, and this and that, but, when you deal a 1,000-lb animal, typically people think that they have to get much more forceful, and it's exactly the opposite. In other words, the animal, first and foremost, just wants you to be their friend. They just want to be loved, and that's where my whole system started. And the first step is bonding with the animal. Ya gotta have a friend before ya can even think about gettin' on their back.

(Low sounds of an expectant crowd)

NELSON: Frank Bell just met Nancy Hamer's horse, Colors, a few minutes ago. He's demonstrating his technique for an audience in Jenison, Michigan. He's working with Colors in a round pen, twirling the horse's lead rope, tapping it gently against the saddle, to get the mare to walk.

BELL: Y'know, if the horse knows that you really care, and enjoys being around you, then the learning part should be fun. Just as we had good teachers in school, and bad teachers. And that's what it's all about, is making it interesting for the animal. So that the learning's fun.

(Patting sounds. Voice of Bell: "This is a great way to find out if the horse is ready to ride!")

NELSON: As he works with the horse, Bell makes shushing noises, and other sounds, to either encourage or discourage the animal.

(Bell explains to crowd: "You can make the wrong thing difficult, and the right thing easy")

NELSON: After about an hour of gentle encouragement and positive reinforcement, Bell mounts the horse, and rides her around the pen. It's hard to believe that for 9 years, this horse would rear up when anyone tried to ride her.

BELL: Most people avoid problems. They say, "Oh, you can't touch my horse's ears," or "Don't go over to that side of the barn if something scares my horse." When I find things like that, then I lovingly try to help the horse through their issues, so they can become, y'know, reach their full potential, so they can really blossom. But if you live in that zone, and you kind of enable them, and don't deal with those things, then before too long, the horse has a few things you can do, and a whole lot of things you can't do.

NELSON: Bell uses a lot of psychology buzz words. He talks about issues, and enabling. He says he tries to get inside the horse's mind, by reading its body language, and how it reacts to certain stimuli. He says, working with horses is much like human psychotherapy. In fact, before the term "horse whisperer" became popular, Bell called himself an "equine psychologist." Bell says anyone can successfully use his techniques, and he's seeing more and more interest in this training method. And he says, if the movement toward so-called "natural horsemanship" happens to be due mostly to a popular movie, well, so be it.

BELL: If you don't have an understanding of what this is all about, if you're beatin' on horses, and, y'know, gettin' on 'em, and tryin' ta ride the buck out of 'em, and, doin' it the ol' way, it's, it's--living in the dark ages.

[Horse neighs]

NELSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson.



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