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Published: Saturday, 8/9/2003

A way with horses


Years later, she purchased a horse for herself and another for her husband. Makona had been a spirited show horse. One February day in Oak Openings Preserve Metropark, Makona trod on a frozen puddle. It cracked. He spooked and ran. "We smashed into a tree," says Ms. Pelchat, 38, of Holland. She slid to the ground, the top of her shinbone shattered.

Julie Seymour bought a Montana ranch horse that seemed ideal for a beginner. Doc was deadbroke and had little spunk. "But it was one disaster after another," says Ms. Seymour, 31, of Swanton.

Doc was also barnsweet. "It was difficult getting him just out away from the barn," she says. A 300-foot walk took 45 minutes. On a winter ride, as he raced for the barn, they approached two sharp turns and a road. "When I bailed off, he kept going," says Ms. Seymour. Nursing broken ribs, she purchased a life insurance policy.

Doc and Makona don't have problems with their humans anymore. The women have learned how to "speak horse" by mimicking the gestures a mother horse makes with her newborn, and an alpha horse makes with a herd.

"In a scary situation the horse will check in with me to see if it's OK to go," says Ms. Seymour.

They have embraced a philosophy that's swept the equine world. Gentle and intuitive, "natural" horsemanship is based on respect for the horse's body, mind, and spirit. It requires knowledge of horse behavior and psychology, trust building, and lots of open-hand rubbing.

Tiffany Towell, 12, blows bubbles at Makona Tiffany Towell, 12, blows bubbles at Makona

"They mirror us," says Ms. Pelchat. "You have to admit that you're your horse's problem. But nobody wants to admit that they're wrong."

Humans are predators. Horses are prey animals, claustrophobic and suspicious. "Panic-aholics," says Ms. Pelchat. They like food and water, comfort and play.

"You have to be fair. You have to be very clear on communication. You have to be completely consistent. With horses, if you're not honest with them, they tune you out," says Ms. Pelchat.

Now, when she stands in the center of a fenced pen and waves her finger, Makona backs up. When she stares at and walks toward his hindquarters, Makona walks in a tight circle. She points left, and he gallops around the pen until she signals him to stop. She can hold his tender tongue outside his mouth, and stand behind him with comfort.

"And when we trailer load, we point and the horse goes in," she says.

In 2,500-year-old equine essays, Xenophon, an Athenian cavalry officer, advocated teaching with a light hand, and figuring out how to motivate a horse to do what he enjoys.

"I think these methods have always been around, but not everyone has been aware of them or had that mindset," says A.J. Mangum, editor of Western Horseman magazine.

Fueling the trend are baby boomers who have the money to buy a horse and the desire to train it themselves.

Adds Bob Welch, editor of The Trail Less Traveled magazine: "It's working more from the horse's perspective and less from the rider's agenda; more of a partnership than a slave-master relationship. It uses the horse's natural abilities and inclinations to accomplish goals." The popularity of natural horse training can be traced, in part, to California brothers Tom and Bill Dorrance. Their gentle techniques worked on even the most troubled horses. A protege of Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, has taught thousands of people at his clinics. Horse training, he says, is about making the wrong things hard and the right things easy. Humans need to develop discipline and patience before they can be effective with horses. When riders and horses understand each other, riders are safer, unafraid, and enjoy the experience much more, said Carol Coppinger, a master instructor with the popular Parelli Natural Horsemanship program. "They don't have to use force. All they have to do is ask. The more you're communicating with your horse, you know he's responding, not just reacting." Last week, she taught four days of clinics at Vail Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center in Oregon. Riding bareback and bridle-less, Ms. Coppinger, directs her horse, Ranger, to stop, spin, turn, and back up by using her "seat." Ranger responds to gestures as subtle as a turn of Ms. Coppinger's head. "Some people think it's tricks. But it's not tricks at all. The horse is truly thinking and calculating," says Ms. Coppinger, of Nashville. Can any horse be trained? "Absolutely. It's more a question of can any person be trained.

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