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Andrew Hoy by Nancy Jaffer
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Candice King Photo by Nancy Jaffer
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Sara Schmitt Photo by Nancy Jaffer
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"Why is everybody whispering?" asks David O'Connor with a bemused smile.
For this Olympic eventing individual gold medalist, the so-called "Horse Whisperers" hold no secrets. David, who is also president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, learned natural horse training techniques for the first time when he worked on a ranch during his youth.
"The big thing to me was how the horses out west knew what their job was. A lot of the tension and anxiety in horses comes from not understanding their jobs," maintains David, who tries to improve the lines of communication between riders and their horses.
He's a great advocate of round pen work, and often rides bareback with a halter. His "on line" training, with the horse at the end of a rope, enables him to place the animal wherever he wants it to go -- even if that is under a tent in the middle of a party. He demonstrated that with his Olympic mount, Custom Made, during a cocktail soiree at USEF headquarters in Lexington, KY, last spring.
But David isn't a wizard, and what he does is not a trick.
"It's a matter of looking at how horses think, and how they perceive their life," the Virginian says of the natural approach.
"I think it's going to become bigger and bigger. In Europe, it has become part of their instructional certification process," he says.
Australian Olympic eventing medalist Andrew Hoy agrees: "It's been around for thousands of years; every good horseman does it naturally. The top riders in stadium jumping, dressage and three-day eventing, the really, really good ones, are all natural horsemen. They all use similar techniques," Andrew says.
"There's no magic to what we do," he adds. "What people at the top of the industry and 'natural' horsemen do, they have a feel for what the horse is capable of doing and a feel for the way the horse thinks and that's what natural horsemanship is. Instead of trying to force a horse, you're working with a horse."
As Andrew points out, many of today's top professional trainers, riders and drivers are sensitive to their horses' needs and tailor individual programs for them that veer from the rigid training methods of a less-enlightened era. Kindness is what counts -- and what gets the most effective response -- along with a deeper understanding of how horses think and react. Instead of forcing them all into the same mold and throwing away the rejects, today's progressive trainers seek a rapport with their animals and try to work around or with their quirks. Some use innovative techniques; others go with common sense or a blend of styles that may have been popularized by others.
These trainers also are open to a wide variety of therapies, from acupuncture to chiropractic, magnets, massage and everything in between, which offers a broader range of options than traditional veterinary medicine.
It's all part of a fresh approach that encourages rapport and enables horses to feel well, both mentally and physically, so they can reach their true potential.
"I think it's the way of the world today," says show jumper Anne Kursinski. "Humans are using more holistic approaches, acupuncture, chiropractic. It's an evolution," she says. Clinics at her New Jersey farm include a holistic approach to horse health and psychological insights, as well as riding tips.
Candice Schlom King is also an advocate of holistic health care for her horses. "When you have something with a horse that a vet can't find, you need to look down the road to see what else can help them," she advises.
Looking "down the road" also applies to the way Candice works with her horses. "I have a different approach to training than most riders. I come from a background that was western," says the native Californian, who drew from the knowledge of such equestrian sages as Jimmy Williams and Clyde Kennedy. "All the old cowboys...that's who taught me when I was young, and at the end of the day, I sort of turn to that. I really have a one-on-one with my horse's mind, and not just their training. Sometimes, it might take me a little longer to get an end result."
But Candice, who lives in Florida, thinks the extra days, weeks and months are worth it. "A lot of times, I'll get horses that have had issues and people have given up on them. I try and take the approach of getting into their mind, rather than forcing the training issue. Verelst Camillo was pushed as a young horse. I did a lot of voice training with him.
"It's a lot of take and reward with them, and more reward than take. Each horse is different. I work with them in the barn; I don't just work with them when I'm on them." She pays attention to "those small issues that turn into big issues."
For instance, says Candice, "If I've got a really nervous horse who's bad about the in-gate, the day before the grand prix, I'll spend time at the gate and make them stand and get acquainted and take a breath. That way, it's not that every time they go to the ring, they have pressure on them."
Everyone has his or her own way of finding out how to best deal with each horse. Hunter/jumper/equitation trainer Frank Madden of New Jersey uses a variation on the round pen techniques. Frank turns fresh horses loose in the ring, usually with the aid of an assistant.
"We encourage them to work around edges of the ring in both directions. Real fresh horses like to run, play, spin around and buck," he says. "But after just a few minutes of free work, being allowed to work naturally with soft encouragement, they become more steady. It's a good way to give horses free time without over-exerting them."
There are many advantages over the all-too-common crutch of longeing a horse to get the kinks out. "This is a much bigger area to work in than longeing. And it's particularly useful in the winter, when turn-out is limited because of the weather," says Frank.
This "supervised playtime" also teaches a horse to balance itself without having a rider on its back collecting it. "It kind of clears their heads," says Frank, who compares the concept with a human being taking a half-hour for himself on the treadmill or other equipment before heading to work.
"If you have a little free time to exercise, you don't mind going to the office," he continues. With the free work before riding, "you can get what you want accomplished in a half-hour, instead of being on them 45 minutes or an hour and maybe never really getting a horse that is clear-headed enough to digest what you're asking them to do," he says.
Driver Sara Schmitt, a two-time member of the U.S. squad for the Pony World Driving Championships, has a special rapport with her little Morgan, High Country Doc, whom she can ride bareback in a halter.
The man who had given her horse the basics did a fine job, she says, noting he had used a round pen and taught Doc to want to be good.
Still, she had to establish her relationship with the stallion.
"Sometimes when I'm training, I can tell he's playing with me," she says, noting he does things "he'd never do in a competition."
"Now I realize that's just him," says Sara, who puts an emphasis on communication.
"Horses talk to me. It sounds funny, but what I do well is read their body language and figure out why they do something and how to make them work with you."
Sometimes, she learns that the horse isn't at his best because he has "the wrong food, or the wrong turnout schedule or even the wrong stall."
Some horses just want to do their own thing, like a mare she rides in dressage, a discipline she also teaches. For 20 minutes at the start of a workout, the mare likes to show her evil side, so Sara indulges her.
"After that, she's fabulous," says Sara.
In her view, "the hardest thing as a trainer is to get horses to start thinking. The reason horses do things for you is because you do something and they react to that. What you have to do is teach them that when you do something, they have to figure out what you want and they need to try stuff until they get the correct reward.
You ask a horse to bend right, and it doesn't bend right, so you turn its head, and it doesn't bend. Then you tap it and go through a repertoire of things to respond to until they do what you want and you reward them.
"They learn to keep trying things until they get the reward. I do a lot of voice reward," says the New Jersey trainer, who makes a big fuss, often in tones several octaves higher than her usual speaking voice.
"It's a lot like clicker training, which is a reward-based system," Sara says.
California dressage rider Steffen Peters, the 2005 national Intermediaire I champion and 2004 Olympic alternate, uses clicker training itself.
"When I train, 75 percent of what I'm doing is really training the horse mentally," says Steffen. "The other 25 percent, getting the horse fit and developing the muscles, really isn't that complicated. With a technique like clicker training, we have a chance of rewarding the horse as soon as he does something right, because he associates the noise of clicker with a reward."
Horses are usually clicker-trained at the start with food. "They need to understand when they do something right, more than just a pat. It's so important to keep horses out of the gray area. It's got to be black and white, right and wrong," says Steffen.
Jerry Diaz specializes in horses for exhibitions at shows, a job that often requires even more intense training than is involved with competition horses. One of his tricks involves circling his horse with a spinning lasso while mounted.
But whether he's in his tiny hometown of New Braunfels, Texas, or performing before a crowd of thousands at Devon, the Winter Equestrian Festival or the Olympics, Jerry thinks the key is to have his horses' confidence.
"It takes many years of schooling and lots of patience," he says. "The horse knows I'm his shield, I'm his comfort," which enables him to go through his act in strange surroundings, under the lights or in the shadow of a neon midway.
Confidence building starts out with 15 to 20 minutes of stroking all around the horse's body, to develop a connection. Jerry's animals also are tuned to voice commands.
"They respond not only to your voice, but also to the tone of your voice," he says. "There's no secret. You put your passion and heart into it. When you demand something, a horse gets more powerful. If you just show the horse what you want, 99.9 percent of the time, he'll do it.
"I feel my horse has complete confidence in myself, and I'm confident in him. When the horse is feeling good, I feel good."
And that's what natural training is all about.
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer has covered seven Olympics and dozens of championships around the world. The author of the recent eventing book, Life in the Galloping Lane (available through www.theequinecollection.com ), she is the secretary of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists. A longtime rider, she has competed in a variety of disciplines and continues to enjoy her own horses when she isn't working.