By Elizabeth Cain
The term horse whisperer conjures up visions of a person with magic hands and voice that can teach the horse to do “tricks” or “submit” with little effort, and it’s true that some horsemen and women have better instincts and are more sensitive than others, but not only can the average, even uneducated, horse owner see what works with troubled horses, but anyone can see it and understand it.
About 35 years ago, I was attending my fourth or fifth Buck Brannaman clinic, and my 70-year-old mother came to observe this “cowboy” that I had been raving about. She watched for three days, didn’t say much, but at the end of the clinic, she approached Mr. Brannaman and said with tears in her eyes, “You make me wish I could raise my children all over again.” A seed was planted at that time about the ways Buck’s method might apply to troubled humans.
A little bit before my mother met him, I first met the young Buck Brannaman at a local trainer’s barn; I was as skeptical as they come! I, along with my husband, had been riding, training, showing, and breeding horses for a while and doubted anything “new” would impress me. I stood at the rail of a round pen and saw the first horse, who carried on with what might be called a temper tantrum. Slowly, it seemed that he begin to turn his eye in toward the man in the center who did not threaten or beg or rush or restrain the animal, but merely asked the horse to move away and continue his tantrum, until at one point, the horse stopped and faced Mr. Brannaman. The tall cowboy stepped back from the horse, and the horse followed. There was a profoundly different look in the horse’s eyes. Only ten minutes had passed! I was hooked.
Right then and there, I went home and loaded up my 3-year-old 16hh Hanoverian that hadn’t had much but haltering and trailering done with him and joined the other skeptical, but now beginning-to-believe, riders and observers of this round pen way. At the end of five days, I was riding my big, “green” gelding with just a halter in a group of about 20 horses. He never bucked, bolted, balked, or refused to do what I asked. Simply, I learned how to make the horse believe that whatever we did together was his idea.
There’s an old saying―Life is choice, and choice is loss. If the horse chooses poor behavior, ignores the human, or refuses to work with the human, he loses a release of pressure, praise, petting, a certain kind of safety, a certain kind of partnership with the human that rewards his good choices. The good choices give him all the above things and more. It ultimately gives him and the human balance in the mind and in the body. It is definitely beyond a punishment-for-mistakes way of dealing with horses, especially when much of the time, the horse thinks he’s doing what you want!
Try this. Stand with your horse, or anyone’s horse (if he or she will let you), preferably in a round pen. Halter the horse with a light, rope-type halter, and with slight pressure on the lead rope after taking up the slack, move your hand toward the horse’s chest. Keep the pressure until one foot moves back. Release the tension immediately! Sometimes the horse learns so fast that the pressure will be released that he does what you want to release the pressure himself. You have to be very careful then not to build in resistance or hardness by keeping the pressure too long. You have to be aware of the feel the horse gives you. He teaches you the timing of this move and all the other moves you add into his “training.” It’s a beautiful thing.
You can build on these “asks,” add more difficult moves of the horse’s legs, until soon he thinks it’s his idea to put his legs, head, body, wherever you want. If the horse balks, go back to something the horse can do. Never, never, never punish him for not doing what you ask. You perhaps haven’t prepared him or given him time to think the problem through. Maybe you were distracted and missed the small changes the horse offered.
I want to give you an example of the above “missed feel.” I watched a gentle, caring horsewoman working in the round pen with her horse after some trouble loading the mare in the trailer (actually a refusal to load.) My friend appeared to be asking the horse to move her haunches away from her position on the left side of the horse. She guided the mare’s head to the left as she pushed at the haunches with her hand. The horse resisted with unmoving feet only a few times and then suddenly “got it.” When the woman took the head around again, the mare moved her haunches away instantly, before my friend’s hand could touch her! But my friend still continued to poke the haunches with her fingers! She didn’t see that the horse was responding to the slight change in her posture and hand position. My friend had no opportunity to reward the mare and kept on “pushing” her, perhaps even building in some resistance.
It was a great lesson for me―to see that mare figure the whole move out with no help from the human! How much more could the mare do with a quicker “feel” from the owner? Maybe go more willingly into the horse trailer? How much more “power” could the human have to be safe and content around a horse that is “behaving badly?” Not “physical strength” power but “feel” power, “timing” power, “partnership” power, and “healing” power.
I have always wondered if this healing power could work in a similar way when it came to human beings. Depending on the “trouble” the human is in, these round pen techniques may take weeks or months. Humans are generally a lot more troubled than horses and a lot more resistant. In this way, one of my hobbies transferred influence to the other passion I have—writing. The human I wrote about in “Almost Paradise” is the character Miranda Rose who has an unusually violent form of schizophrenia. She has killed two horses and tried to kill her husband. She has escaped from a prison hospital and is wandering in the desert with a gun on the ranch of her estranged husband and his new love, the horse wrangler, Serena Skye. Nothing has worked with Miranda (think of the mare who won’t load or lashes out when things don’t go her way). Medications, punishment, lock-up, talk-therapy, the silent treatment, and all attempts at healing have left the ill woman defensive and angry.
Enter Serena into her troubled life. Serena throws a lariat around Miranda and gets her to drop the gun after several moments of vague/slight cooperation by the woman, even just turning her head in Serena’s direction! Serena can release the cinched down rope a little at time. The idea of healing, or at least controlling the bad behavior of some humans, is explored in this novel and in its sequel, “Dancing in the Red Snow.”
In the sequel to the original story in which most of the “round pen way” is used thematically, Serena’s son, Hank Rose, must deal with another “troubled” woman and draw on all he witnessed and learned from his mother to find a balance in his life after his four-year-old daughter is kidnapped and remains missing for eight years. Both books have sketches that parallel the experiences of the humans and the horses at the novels’ Rancho del Cielo Azul in northeastern Nevada.
I owe Buck Brannaman all my insight into these round pen methods. And though the horse scenes in the books are fiction, the outcomes are real―equines searching for “balance” with humans and both discovering life-affirming qualities in themselves that they wouldn’t have found without each other or the profound effect of a “pressure and release” relationship.
Buck Brannaman―The Faraway Horses
Ray Hunt―Think Harmony with Horses
Tom Dorrance―True Unity
About the Author
Elizabeth Cain is the author of “Almost Paradise” and “Dancing in the Red Snow.” She is also cutting her teeth in politics, having just ran in a local election for the Montana State House Legislature. Cain was a secondary school teacher for 31 years in California. She has won numerous awards for her poetry, photography, and painting. Cain now lives in Montana with her husband, Jerry, and their menagerie of sled dogs, cats, and horses. “Dancing in the Red Snow” is her fourth novel.