Cantering around the barn, Zena, a beautiful, black Percheron-Fresian cross horse responds to a dip of the head, a gesture towards the ground, a subtle movement.
The dips, gestures and movements belong to Zena’s owner Corinne Matheson and the movements at times look choreographed. In fact, the horse and owner respond so quickly and subtly to each other, they almost look like they’re dancing together.
It’s a reflection of the horse and owner’s relationship and it’s a reflection of the training techniques Matheson uses.
Matheson is a horse whisperer.
That term conjures up a number of images. You think of the literal image of the human talking breathily into the horse’s ear. You might imagine some kind of ESP, a non-verbal communication. Or you might just think it’s all a bunch of horse dropping.
None of that is true though. There’s no mind-melding, there’s no silent, shared language. That’s because horse whispering is actually a real technique that when you see it at work and hear it explained, makes a lot of sense.
“For the most part, it is going to be me just using body language,” Matheson says.
It also involves a different relationship between the human and horse. The traditional image of training horses is that of “breaking” it. You get on its back and it bucks all over the place until it’s exhausted. Then it’s so tired it won’t resist. Its spirit is broken.
Then the halter is put into play and that involves yanking and pulling the animal around by the most sensitive part of its body.
Horse whispering, or as it is also less-dramatically known, natural horsemanship, uses leadership and will rather than fear and mechanics.
When the halter is removed, the relationship between horse and trainer is all that connects the two.
“Then it becomes the strength of the bond,” Matheson says.
The horse ends up with a lot of say in the relationship and it becomes an exercise in encouraging the horse to participate out of free will rather than being forced to bend to the trainer’s will.
“When the halter’s off, she has to want to do it,” Matheson says.
Whips are not used in natural horsemanship either. Although Matheson has a pole in her hand with a rope attached to the end, the horse is not whipped with it. It’s more for gesturing and indicating as well as guiding with gentle contact.
In fact, the “whip” she uses is actually used more like a horse’s tail. Horses will often flick their tails at each other when in close contact, much like a gesture.
And it is gesture and body language that is the main method of communication.
“You’re not going to hear me say much,” Matheson says as she continues putting Zena through her paces.
The whole basis of the relationship is built on trust as the horse does not learn to fear the trainer. There will be no pain, no negative reinforcement; no hitting, no spurs, no pouncing on the back of an animal that instinctively interprets something on its back as a predator’s attack.
It also implies that the horse has an independent mind and the trainer has to capture her interest.
“I always have her mind engaged,” Matheson says. “I’m teaching the horse to think.”
There’s also a great deal of effort put into understanding your horse’s particular personality and using that knowledge in the training. Like humans, horses are left-brained or right-brained or introverts and extroverts and mixtures of all four.
“One thing this method teaches is you have to change your leadership style depending on the nature of the horse,” Matheson says.
You can’t argue with the effectiveness of the techniques. Matheson can get her horse to back up by raising a finger. Pressure and touch play a large part in the training as well.
It’s a methodology that is not without controversy, Matheson says, but she became convinced of its effectiveness a few years ago and set about training herself in the techniques through readings and instructional DVDs.
Matheson has ridden horses since she was 10 and she learned the traditional techniques.
Now she wants to pass on the techniques to the community. She held an open house at her new arena on Gordon Road earlier this month. She built the steel-framed, PVC-covered arena with a mind to training horses and riders using natural horsemanship. She teaches dressage and knows natural horsemanship can develop champion competitors.
She’s convinced of the effectiveness of the techniques.
“It’s amazing,” Matheson says. “You can take a horse that is just crazy (and train it).”