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Horse Power

by Jerome Kellner
Maui Island Weekly, August 8, 2000

"My fear of horses vanished as I took command of an animal that was a lot smarter and wiser than I ever thought possible."

I've had a lifelong fear of horses, so the Maui Horse Whisperer Experience ad caught my attention: "fear of horses vanish." It was time to leave this fear behind me, I decided, and made reservations.

Horses can be powerful allies in humans' quest for self-knowledge. One of the many beauties of these beasts is that we can learn so much about ourselves by learning about them.

The Maui Horse Whisperer Experience explores equine-human connections, expanding on the knowledge of "horse whisperer" Monty Roberts, subject of a novel and motion picture by the same name.

Franklin Levinson, who owns Adventures on Horse-back, teaches the Horse Whisperer Experience. He was assisted by Lee Jampolsky, a horseman and psychologist from California. Jampolsky set the tone by urging participants to simply experience the day - "there is no right or wrong way to do it." One of the highlights of the experience is what Levinson calls a "dance" between human and horse. Dancing with the beautiful beasts can be a delight - or something else, depending on how the dance went.

The dance proved to be an enlightening wrap-up to a day dedicated to learning about horses, and what people can learn about themselves through interacting with these majestic, powerful and frequently misunderstood creatures.

The misunderstanding starts with the idea that horses are dumb brutes. They are actually highly sensitive, keenly aware animal beings. To understand horses, the fourteen Horse Whisperer Experience participants had to learn and understand horse language. Although it is not spoken, horse language has all the communicative power that spoken or even written human language has, Levinson said.

The participants had various reasons for attending. Some loved horses and wanted to know more about them, particularly the newer insights uncovered by horse whisperer Roberts and educators like Levinson and Jampolsky. Like this writer, a number of the participants feared horses, or have had unpleasant experiences with them. One young man had been a cowboy and learned the old, rough ways of handling horses, and wanted to learn newer, kinder methods.

Many people are intimidated by the sheer size and strength of horses. Even at rest they quiver with muscularity and awe-inspiring power. Levinson explained that tension is important for the horse. As grass eaters, horses are prey for predators; they carry tension as part of their flight response - they're ready to run.

Also, horses are herd animals, as the herd provides safety. So horses are tuned to live in relationships, and to have a successful relationships, including those with humans, is very important to horses. As both prey and herd animals, horses are acutely spatial - aware of their place in the hierarchy of the herd, as well as the space about them, wherever they are.

All of these facts and many others influence a horse's way of communicating, the "words" of horse language. We learned a wealth of information in the introduction that led up to meeting the animals. Importantly, we learned that horses are perfect mirrors: if you are confused, the horse will be confused as well. If you're clear, the horse reflects that clarity perfectly.

Outside we met the horses, where we petted and groomed them, and learned to be around them so both horses and humans were comfortable. The earlier instruction paid off: instead of seeing dangerous, unpredictable beasts, I saw beautiful, muscular, animal athletes. Each had its own distinct personality - Zip was a dark, robust gelding; Champ, a sweet-natured chestnut; Mr. D, blue-eyed and more aloof than the rest.

We learned how to lead the horse, emphasizing moving as one energy, not "human-pulling-horse." The simple exercise became a metaphor about relationship, and lovingly supporting your partner.

After more learning and lunch, we were ready for the big dance. In the Maui Horse Experience equine-human dance, the horse and the human interact with each other in a riding ring on equal footing - both are on the ground. With body language, spatial positioning and spoken commands, the human leads the animal - directing the horse to walk, trot, canter, or change direction on command, without ever touching it.

First Levinson showed how to perform the dance, then left individual participants alone in the ring with the horse to do it on their own. In every dance, as promised, the horse mirrored the human perfectly: if the human was unsure, the horse was unsure. If the human was confident, direct, and clear, the horse reacted that way.

The most remarkable displays were those involving people who had had a fear or uneasiness around horses. Some not only lead the dance confidently, but fear turned to affection, appreciation and love, as horse and human established a relationship.

That was my experience with a horse named Champ. Without giving away too much of the magic, by the end of our time together, I felt a real love for the beautiful brown horse. My fear had vanished.

The experience is something I'd enthusiastically recommend to anyone, and particularly to individuals with a fear of horses. Such a transforming, hands-on experience with horses is rare, Levinson pointed out. At riding stables, riders are on the horse for the ride, and then off, with no real relationship or connection established.

What occurs at the Maui Horse Whisperer Experience Lee Jampolsky calls "a holy instant". Such an instant or encounter is available everywhere, with humans, horses, all living beings. "It's a brief encounter, and they're available to us all the time," Levinson said. "You can bring so much to it, and get so much out of it. It's an opportunity to open up, do good, and have a wonderful connection, if you open to it." That's an excellent description of The Maui Horse Whisperer Experience itself.