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Horse Sensitivity

The Maui News, March 7, 1999

“Maui's Horse Whisperer taps into the mystical magic
and other lessons these creatures have to teach us.”

There is something magical about a horse. The power, loyalty and beauty of the animal is the stuff of legend from Jonathan Swift's noble Houyhnhnms to the breathtaking flight of Pegasus to the purity of the unicorn to the merging of man and horse in the centaurs of Greek and Roman mythology.

Horse WhisperingUntil the last 80 years or so, horses were everywhere, carrying human beings on their backs or pulling them in wagons and carriages, plowing their fields, carrying them into battle, accompanying them on spiritual quests, serving as beasts of burden, and, sometimes, giving their bodies for food. As we head into a new millennium, very few people have daily contact with the animal that has been a partner to humankind through much of history.

We talked of horses one Saturday morning as the rain pelted down at Franklin Levinson's Huelo ranch. Through the large windows draped by curtains of rain, we could see Posey and her 4-month-old colt Honey Girl grazing placidly despite the lashing wind and water.

Franklin owns Adventures on Horseback, a trail riding excursion for residents and visitors across lush Huelo pastureland. But recently his love for horses has led him in a new venture that could be called therapeutic horsemanship, a way to learn more about ourselves. Franklin calls it the Maui Horse Whisperer Experience.

Horse programs are springing up all over the country, Franklin said. Some seek to alleviate mental disorders, others reduce stress, help those who are physically challenged, or provide positive experiences for inmates and gang members. Haku Baldwin's Maui Horse Center in Makawao has been providing equine therapy, mostly for physically challenged riders, for a number of years.

Franklin grew up around horses. His father was an avid polo player in the Chicago area, and at the age of 13, Franklin was the youngest registered player in the country. Moving to Maui 20 years ago, he established his riding stables. Franklin explained how creating a bond with a horse can be a life-enhancing experience.

"Even though horses have adapted to domestication, they haven't lost their wild spirit, " Franklin said. "When you bond with a horse, you're working with an animal that is fiercely independent. A horse will not cower or whimper like a dog."

A horse is a herd animal and a prey animal that will either run or fight, he went on. Horses always have their radar out, looking for danger. They're alert to body posture, smell, the look in your eyes.

"They don't do mental gymnastics like people do," he said. "They're always really present."

As prey animals, horses are sensitive to aggression of any kind. Thus we need to be sensitive, in tune with the horse, and this translates into being sensitive to others, Franklin said. "If we're not mindful, we can set a horse off into paranoid flight."

Hollywood and novels aside, it is not the stallions but the mares who run the herd when horses are in a wild state, Franklin explained. the mare in charge is known as the "alpha mare." she's the one who disciplines young horses by keeping them away from the safety and protection of the herd for a period of time, thus making them vulnerable to predators.

"We take the place of the alpha mare," he continued, "and send the horse away from us with our energy. When we take the pressure off, the horse will follow us around. We become a safe space, a giver and reliever of pressure, a peace bringer."
Part of the contract is to let the horse be a horse. "Horses don't make good lap dogs," Franklin added. "Don't treat a horse like a pet. They are mystical animals with magical qualities, innate dignity and a majestic nature. We need to let them maintain their dignity as wild animals."

"When a horse choose to respond to you, it's magical," he said. "It's wonderful to have a 1,200-pound animal put his head in your lap, great for self-esteem issues."

The horse acts as a kind of mirror. "Whatever you bring to the ring is reflected back to you by the horse. If you're nervous or unclear in your vision about what you want the horse to do, it's abusive to the horse because of his fight or flight instinct. He doesn't know whether to come or go. It's like dancing. Both partners know the steps and one person is the leader. As the human leader we have to be real clear. What is our goal, our intention?"

There was no letup in the rain, so a practical demonstration had to wait until another day. The warm breath and rich smell of horses saddled and waiting undercover for an unlikely trail ride, given the weather, provided a sensory valediction. The insights Franklin had shared for the past hour seemed to imbue the animals with a kind of brutish yet patient wisdom.
Several days later, a small group met for some hands-on experience. The first step was a visit to the pasture where Posey and Honey Girl grazed comfortably.

"We have to treat horses with a lot of respect," Franklin said. "We give and receive respect by not surprising them and not invading their space."

As we stood just inside the pasture gate, Honey Girl came over and examined each of us in turn, snuffling our bodies with her velvety muzzle. We allowed her to satisfy her curiosity without reaching out to her or making any aggressive gestures. She seemed to like us.

We then headed out to the circular training ring Franklin has constructed to take advantage of the natural beauty of towering palms, sky and ocean.

"The shape is important," he said of the roundness. "No corners for the energy to get caught up in...Our goal is to make the horse feel safe. Once the animal feels safe, we apply pressure without hurting him. He wants the human being to be the leader of the herd. He wants to bond with us.

"The bond is so strong, that the horse will do anything— carry you into battle, on a spiritual quest. Horses do amazing things. It's the nature of the horse to be fiercely loyal."

Tom Booker, the man who had a way with horses as the main character in the book, "The Horse Whisperer," exhibited the qualities of great leadership— quiet strength, courage, patience, the ability to earn and give respect and inspire confidence, Franklin noted. Or like the old cowboys, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and their horses Trigger and Champion, the horses had the same qualities as the cowboys— intelligence, bravery and courage.

Mr. D was brought into the ring and his bridle removed. Arms akimbo to maximize his energy field, Franklin demonstrated the method of applying pressure to the horse to keep him moving around the edge of the circle, focusing energy on the horse's rear quarters then moving the pressure to the front of the animal to make him change direction. Mr. D, a mellow fellow, responded to kissing sounds to make him speed up.

But once the pressure is removed and the "trainer" turns his or her back on the horse, the most amazing thing happens. The horse walks right over to the individual, nuzzles them and follows them around like a puppy.

And lest you think Mr. D is a trained shill for Franklin, the same thing happened with The Champ, a horse who stepped into a hole and suffered tissue damage so extensive he was in a cast in his stall for a month and a year in recuperation. It also happened with Puni, a horse who had been abused by a former owner and flattens his ears and bares his teeth when strangers approach him.

Under the expert guidance of Franklin and his assistant Cathy Knowlton, we worked with the horses and experienced a kind of interspecies communication. The whole being—sight, sound, smell, touch— comes into play in an acute awareness of and sensitivity to another living creature. Intuition and instinct overcome the jangle of intellect; without a calm, focused attitude, it doesn't work.

But when it does, the feedback is immediate and strong. "It's like being hit in the face with a pie," Franklin said. "It stays with you and doesn't diminish over time."

His goal for every person and every horse in the program is a feeling of safety and trust. "It should be as good as it can be for them in a domesticated role," he said of the horses, adding that, at his ranch, people participating in recreational trail rides are given and hour of orientation so they are aware of what the horse will be experiencing.

The fledgling program, on its way to nonprofit status, also employs the expertise of psychologists to further aid in personal growth. Jerry Jampolsky, author of such books as "Love Is Letting Go of Fear" and a part-time Maui resident with his wife Diane Cirincine, has provided the initial psychological input for the program. Jerry's son, Lee Jampolsky, author of "The Art of Trust" is Franklin's partner and co-creator in this endeavor. He travels from his home in California to co-present many of these programs with Franklin.