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Feature story: Friendly persuasion

Woodside's Rebekah Witter helps equestrians learn the language of their horses

If films and TV shows about the Old West are any guide, cowboys and ranchers back then persuaded a horse to perform on command by subduing it. Part of the process, the photogenic part, was getting on the horse's back when it was an untamed bucking bronco and staying there until the horse calmed down and learned who was boss.

Bending a horse's will and even the term "horse breaking" did not arise with the Old West. The Iliad, Homer's epic poem from 800 BC that recounts the battle of Troy, refers to three of the battle's dauntless protagonists -- Hector, Agamemnon and Diomedes -- with the admiring epithet "breaker of horses."

Whether employed to carry a warrior or pull a plow, the horse was a living tool and as such, needed to learn deference, Woodside resident, equestrian and author Rebekah Witter says. "That's why it's called 'breaking a horse,'" she says. "They break their spirits."

Ms. Witter doesn't break the spirits of her horses, and by not doing so, participates in a parallel history of horse-human relationships. Along with a few words, she communicates using body language, something that horses understand since they use it among themselves, she says. The practice is known among equestrians by two names: natural horsemanship and, less commonly, horse whispering.

While horses have yet to whisper their thoughts and feelings, the focus of natural horsemanship seems to be the horse's evident enjoyment of a relationship with a human, and the human's appreciation for the complex character of the horse. Ms. Witter has written four books on horses and offers free coaching for equestrians interested in developing fuller relationships with their horses.

Xenophon, an Athenian, student of Socrates and fifth-century author of "On Horsemanship," spoke well of gentleness. "The one best precept -- the golden rule -- in dealing with a horse is never to approach him angrily," he wrote. "Anger is so devoid of forethought that it will often drive a man to do things which in a calmer mood he will regret. By training (the horse) to adopt the very airs and graces which he naturally assumes when showing off to best advantage, you have got what you are aiming at -- a horse that delights in being ridden, a splendid and showy animal, the joy of all beholders."

If Slick, Ms. Witter's brown 8-year-old American quarter horse, is not the joy of all beholders, it would be incumbent upon the beholder to explain why. He is spirited and cooperative, independent and friendly, curious and reserved. There can be little doubt that he has a mind of his own.

Ms. Witter trained Slick using seven "games" designed by trainers Pat and Linda Parelli to establish a trusting relationship and lines of communication. The techniques of natural horsemanship acculturate the horse to being in cooperative relationships with people, Ms. Witter says.

"It's heart to heart as well as mind to mind and body to body," she says. "It makes a horse want to be with you, and that's a huge thing. It's not the same old, same old. They're excited. They're inspired."

The training starts with gentle touches and graduates to hand and wand signals and the sound of the trainer exhaling. Her horses respond to cues to approach her or back away; walk, trot or run in a specific direction; stop; move sideways; and pass through close quarters, such as between where she is standing and a fence.

These soft techniques are several steps removed from "traditional" methods in which the horse is indoctrinated through fear and intimidation, as outlined on the website "Hart's Horsemanship" by trainer Ben Hart. A traditional relationship includes a boss and it isn't the horse, Mr. Hart writes. There may be whips and spurs. The horse's individual characteristics and emotions may be ignored and the horse expected to fit in and learn lessons as dictated. Mistakes are seen not as opportunities but as cause for frustration, with fault being laid at the feet of a "stubborn" or "difficult" horse.

Mr. Hart acknowledges the long history of so-called "modern" horsemanship and Xenophon's take on it. He also notes that many traditional trainers "have soft hands and can help the horse to learn what is required of it with the minimum of pressure or force." And, he adds, there are modern trainers who have "poor timing, use excessive amounts of punishment and negative reinforcement and force the horse to comply."

Watching Slick

As Ms. Witter put Slick through the routines in her circular corral near Woodside Road, her horse would walk, trot or run as requested, particularly on the first of the two demonstrations witnessed by this reporter. Slick responded smartly and immediately to every request.

On the second occasion several weeks later, this time with a photographer kneeling in the center of the corral, Slick did not seem as into it and Ms. Witter resorted to some cajoling. At one point, Slick walked intently over to the photographer, nuzzled her camera and seemed to want to get to know her, but Ms. Witter gently interrupted and got him back to his routines.

The only prop in the coral were two barrels lying end to end. Slick,without halter or any other accoutrement, jumped them repeatedly as the Almanac photographer, seeking a low-angle image, placed the camera at her feet and shot from there. A relaxed friendliness prevailed as Slick trotted up to the barrels with Ms. Witter, 60, setting the pace by running a little ahead and to the side.

On some runs, Slick stopped short, whereupon Ms. Witter would turn him around and try again. He made a couple of the jumps from a standstill and made it look easy. On the last couple, his hind legs did bump the barrels, but the incidents went unremarked upon by Ms. Witter.

At one point, Slick lay on his back and rolled in the dust. Most of the time, Ms. Witter waited for him to come to her -- a sign of respect for his personal space, she says. His relaxed state around humans is remarkable, she says, given that horses are prey animals that see humans as predators.

Skittish by nature, horses are suspicious. The 4-foot-long foam sticks that brush the backs of horses who pass into Ms. Witter's corral can't be welcome, but they work to desensitize the horses and discourage spooking, she says. In a related game, she plays "jump rope" with Slick. While riding him bareback and without halter, she passes a loop of rope over his head and down to the ground and he steps over it.

The high point was Slick walking himself into a horse trailer, and backing out. At direction from Ms. Witter, he would walk over to the trailer, step inside and take himself all the way in. With a gentle tug on his tail, he would back himself out.

"One of the toughest things to train a horse to do is (go) into a metal box with wheels," she says. "In the horse world, that's really cool."

The demonstration complete, Ms. Witter walked over to the corral fence to talk with the reporter. On his own, Slick came up behind his trainer and rested his chin on her shoulder.

More information

Write to rfwitter@pacbell.net or call 650-851-9008 to contact Rebekah Witter about her coaching services.

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