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The Horse Whisperer

By Mary Sinanidis
Uploaded to Athens News, 25 Oct 2009

Famed Horseman visits GreeceThose who say that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink have not met horse whisperer Franklin Levinson. In recent years, Levinson has been travelling the globe, teaching his highly effective gentle horse training techniques to horse owners and the public at large. His next seminar is at the Skouras Ranch at Sofiko, Corinth, where families will not only learn how to bond with horses, but also how to do it with each other.

Most people may wonder what it is that a "horse whisperer" actually does. The profession was popularised when Robert Redford so beautifully executed it in the 1998 movie, titled The Horse Whisperer.

In the film, special techniques were used to help a psychologically disturbed horse and its semi-handicapped owner forge new bonds with each other following a traumatic accident they both had. Cinemagoers were intrigued and animal lovers' imaginations were fuelled with the possibility that human beings could communicate so eloquently with horses.

Speak to Levinson and you realise that horse whispering is not a magic spell but common sense and caring mixed with experience. According to Levinson, anyone can learn to speak "horse" and the benefits are not limited to better relationships with horses.

Horses, being prey animals with a herd mentality that is based on a social hierarchy, need to be led, much like children. "The horse is an animal that fears being eaten by other animals," says Levinson. "It constantly wonders, 'Am I safe?' Horses tend to stick like glue once they feel secure. When they feel 'fear', they will suffer. In the same way, when we feel fear, we suffer."

Like children, horses need positive leadership in order to be obedient and disciplined. In fact when Levinson describes a good trainer, images of an effective guardian also pop to mind as he mentions buzzwords in every caring parent's psychology including "compassion", "kindness", "patience", "consistency" and "trust".

And the more poignant these qualities, the better the rider-horse or parent-child relationship.

"The truth is that sometimes parents who I train with horses tell me: 'I know I've been hard on my kid and I realised this when I saw how I was with my horse!'," says Levinson. "Put children in the role of their parents, however, and they also get something magical from the experience."

"Have you ever considered how empowering it is for children to be at such a high level looking down on their own parents while up high on a horse?" asks Levinson, pointing to how a child's self-esteem can benefit from the simple act of just sitting on a saddle after being used to looking "up" at the world.

Take training one step further, however, and the benefits are boundless, especially for children with disabilities. Levinson has worked with children with various handicaps ranging from physical to mental. He states that forging a relationship with horses can bring miraculous results, especially with autistic and ADHD children.

"Horses grab the attention of such children, becoming a living surface for them to exist on, while also teaching them important partnership skills," says Levinson.

Speak to Levinson of the dangers of an erratic horse and he jokes that he finds Greek drivers more unpredictable than any horse he's ever met. Joking aside, he refutes that there is even such a thing as a mean horse. "Too often, grand prix riders - even those with rooms full of trophies - are critical of horses that they describe as 'crazy' or 'stubborn' when they refuse to take a jump," says Levinson. "Usually, daddy just buys another horse. But there's no such thing as a 'bad' horse and we should not judge horses in human terms. Indeed, any horse can be inspired to change its ways."

Rather than criticise - horses or humans - we should first forgive and then ask ourselves "why". "Horses are all innocent," he says. "Unfortunately, they are sometimes seen as tools to serve human needs, something like slaves. Riders often focus on their own thrill and its all about them. The horse may as well be a bicycle rather than a living being."

Horse whispering may not even be as much about riding as it is about understanding the horse and, by extension, ourselves. Perhaps all that is required is the right guidance to trigger our own intuition and judgement. "Sometimes all it takes is one good look at ourselves to change something," says Levinson.