The Ties That Bind
Article by Karen Boush, Photographs by
By Permission of Karen Boush
Horseman, September 1998
"The ONLY way to have a friend is to be
one," Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely pointed out, and his advice can aptly be
applied to our relationships with horses. The horses in the greatest need of a
friend, however, are often the most difficult to befriend. How do you get
physically let alone emotionally close to a horse who's busy biting, rearing,
and bucking? Or to the horse who's a bundle of nerves and shies for the
seemingly smallest of reasons? In other words, how do you help anxious,
distrustful, and downright nastyhorses?
Horseman and clinician Frank Bell, Larkspur, Colo., does it with kindness.
Having built his own particular brand of horse handling on the cornerstones of
touch and intimacy, he's created a seven-step safety program he teaches in
3-day clinics around the world and demonstrates at fund-raisers for therapeutic
riding groups. Last year he raised $25,000 for North American Riding for the
Handicapped Association centers across the country. The philosophy underlying
Bell's work is straightforward: Lasting, positive behavior changes come about
as a result of the give and take of any close friendship. "It's like with
people," he says. "You want to develop a rapport with someone before
you ask them to do something for you. If you give, give,give to horses, then
they'll want to give back."
Bell first establishes a relationship with the horse on the ground, long before
he gets in the saddle or asks a horse to do something that might frighten him,
like walk into a trailer. Whatever theproblem, whether it's loading, saddling,
cross tying, bucking and rearing, or being ridden, Bell bonds with the horse
before addressing the problem. The first three steps of his program are the
most important part of the process and can deepen relationships with any horse.
Each step builds on the previous one by creating a stronger level of trust and
laying the groundwork for the following four steps, which include desensitizing
the horse to loud noises and strange objects, simple dressage movements on the
ground, and-the final step-riding. Bell stresses the need to gain the horse's
you're actually in the saddle. That way, both you and the horse have familiar
techniques to fall back on in case there's a crisis or a differingof opinions.
In other words, you have a plan.
"I've got to have a friend, a relationship, before I get on," Bell
says. "With some of the dangerous horses, you have to be more careful and
go slower, but when you build a relationship on the ground, they'll let you
know when they're ready for a ride. I get an invite. That head will go downand
they'll say, 'Hey, let's ride.'"
The following steps hold the secrets to building a friendship. They can break
seemingly cemented barriers in minutes. Remember to go slow, however, and never
use intimidation. A horse's respect needs to be earned.
Step 1: Bonding
Before Bell asks anything of a horse he's just
met, he bonds with him through touch, the first and most important part in
gaining trust. Drawing on the hands-on healing methods of Linda Tellington
Jones and the gentling techniques of the Plains Indians, he "search
touches" for the places thehorse likes to be stroked, caressed, and
"I want to make the most incredible first impression with a horse,"
Bell explains. "I touch them in the vulnerable places they can't reach. I
rub their eyes, get inside their nostrils, and stroke under their tails. It
setsme in a whole other league with a horse."
Bell suggests getting to know the horse and finding his favorite spots, the
ones where he just melts when you indulge him in a good rub. Begin on either
the forehead or upper neck with a firm, reassuring stroke, then massage the
ears and eyes, inside the mouth and nose, around the girth and flank areas,and
under the tail.
Most horses appreciate having their eyes rubbed and the bug-bitten hollow of
the jaw scratched. Avoid "patting" the horse; horses prefer soothing
rubs, either hard or soft, rather than the more common slaps of encouragement.
When you can get to the point where you have one hand on the horse's face and
the other stroking lightly under the tail, know that the horse is expressing
ultimate trust in you by allowing two of the most vulnerable parts of his body
to be touched.
Step 2: Take and Give
After getting to know the horse, Bell asks him
to demonstrate his growing trust by "giving" to gentle downward
pressure on the lead rope. This exercise indicates a willingness to yield to
pressure and relaxes thehorse's spine muscles.
Standing to the side of the horse with your own head lower than his, pull down
on the lead with light pressure. If the horse doesn't respond after 15 or 20
seconds, gradually increase the pressure and don't let up until the horse
lowers his head. Do not use force; instead, maintain steady pressure and wait
until the horse has agreed to give on his own. When he yields, even slightly,
immediately reward him by releasing the pressure and praising him. Continue
with the take and give until the horse's head is near the ground. Lavishly
reward him each step of the way. Make sure he's working his mouth during the
process-use your index finger over his tongue if necessary. A chewing action
means he's relaxed, understanding the mechanics of take and give, and enjoying
the learning process.
By asking the horse to lower his head early on in the relationship, Bellteaches
the horse the basic vocabulary of all training pressure and release. When you
ask a horse to do something, whether you apply a subtle shift in weight or a
firm push, you're using pressure. Always start small and, if the horse fails to
respond, increase the pressure gradually.
Bell calls this "V thinking." Your initial request-symbolized by the
bottom of the V-is barely observable, optimally only a thought. Your last
resort isthe top of the V - extreme pressure, perhaps many pounds. Always start
at the bottom of the V and move up as necessary, all the while anticipating
compliance. At the moment of compliance, it's your turn to give, and do so
immediately. If you consistently reward the horse by releasing, in time
compliance will fall nearer the bottom of the V.
Step 3: Intimacy
Bell is now ready to ask the horse to bond with him on yet a deeper level,
one akin to intimacy. Using pressure and release, he asks the horse to bend his
neck to the side and rest his face next to Bell's for as long as he's
comfortable. Eventually, Bell says, the horse will turn his head at
just"the inkling of a suggestion."
Standing on the near side, put your left hand on the nose "handle"
just above the horse's nostrils. Be sure to keep your hand here throughout the
exercise, whether the horse complies with your request to turn his head or
altogether refuses and pulls away. It's important the hand remains, even
ifthere's no pressure, so the horse can learn that the best way for him to
escape pressure is by following your direction. It's his choice. Lightly tickle
the girth area with your right hand while softly applying pressure to the
handle. Most horses will turn their heads in response, and when your horse does
so, even just a fraction of an inch, immediately release 99 percent of the
pressure and praise him. As in the previous step, continue with the take and
give until the horse's head is close to, and even touching, his own side. Then
bend down, speak to him reassuringly, and blow in his nose. If the horse seems
relaxed, Bell suggests moving your left hand up the nose to cover the horse's
outside eye. This technique focuses the horse's attention on the cocoon of
warmth the two of you have created. "You can block the world out for
them," Bell explains. "With the really nervous horses, it's a big
deal. You can feel their whole demeanor change-it's wonderful."
Bell calls this intimate position between human and horse the "safety
zone,"and riders can use it to reaffirm mutual respect and trust whenever
the situation warrants. Bell says every time the horse's head is circled around
to this spot, he'll remember that humans are capable of caring for him and
feelings of calmness will be triggered. If a rider feels out of control in the
saddle, the rein can be used to turn the horse's head around to the safety
zone, and both horse and rider will relax, thereby remedying a potentially
dangerous situation in seconds.
Never Ending Love
The importance of bonding with a troubled horse
can't be underestimated, Bell stresses. With these three simple steps, Bell
makes friends quickly and the horse's trust level skyrockets. "I love
loving horses, and that's basically what I'm doing," Bell says. "I
take these horses to places they've never been before, and I get where I get in
seconds. Usually, if I can get a hand on them, they're in my pocket because I
can find their favorite spot." As with any good friendship, the giving
never ends. Bell tells his clients to praise their horses often and to practice
these steps daily, whenever they're with their horses. "Bonding is
something that has to be continuous," Bell stresses. "You would never
stop bonding with your child. The horse needs to know that what you and he are
doing has meaning, so continue to let the horse know he's doing a good job.
Give them feedback and make it fun for them. I treat horses the way I like to
be treated. If you ask the horse to do something for you, say thank you. And
how do you say thank you? You do it by stroking the horse's neck, through
Karen Boush is a free-lance writer living in
Parker, Colorado. She enjoys both dressage and western riding.
|| Frank Bell's company Dances
with Horses offers a variety of products to help horse owners of every
discipline in their quest to become better communicators.
"Dances With Horses has assembled an
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better communicators: 'Discover the Horse You Never Knew' - Frank's Foundation
Video detailing his 7-Step-Safety-System, Communication in the Saddle,
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the Horse You Always Wanted.
Please visit our website at www.horsewhisperer.com