Almanac

Cover Story - December 11, 2013

Friendly persuasion

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

by Dave Boyce

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.

Comments

Posted by Andrew, a resident of another community
on Dec 12, 2013 at 10:45 am

Congratulations to Becky and Slick on demonstrating the power of
Natural Horsemanship in the horse human relationship. Becky
and Slick are also outstanding Trail Trial competitors and have
won many belt buckles in competition. Well written story.

-Andrew
Sunol, CA


Posted by Michael Raynor, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Dec 12, 2013 at 11:15 am

So nice to see a feature story about horses (and people) in the Almanac. The strong horse community here was part of the founding of this area. There is still a strong community of horse people around. Becky Witter is a leader in that community and nice to see her featured for her role in natural horsemanship and keeping horses as part of our neighborhoods.


Posted by Holly Reagon, a resident of another community
on Dec 12, 2013 at 11:34 am

Its amazing what can be accomplished when the horse becomes your partner and not just a vessel to get the job done. Nicely done Becky!


Posted by Sharon, a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 12, 2013 at 12:00 pm

I am also an advocate for Natural Horsemanship and was delighted to see Becky Witter at BOK Ranch Therapeutic Riding Center (where I work) playing the 7 Games with our 2 mini horses. She volunteered her time and natural horsemanship skills to help the minis become comfortable around people. BOK rescued the minis after they had been abandoned. They were basically feral when they arrived at BOK. With Becky's "patience and persistentance in the proper position" the 2 minis now enjoy being taken for walks around the Horse Park at Woodside (where BOK Ranch is located). They are enjoying all the attention they are receiving. We have Becky to thank for their new social skills and their ability to participate in our program. Thanks for publishing this story.


Posted by Sandie Pugh, a resident of Woodside: Woodside Glens
on Dec 12, 2013 at 12:18 pm


Very nice to see such a great feature story about horses (and people) in the Almanac. Our strong horse community here was part of the founding of this area and continues to be an integral part of our communities rural character. There is a strong community of horse people around. Becky Witter is a leader in that community and nice to see her featured for her role in natural horsemanship and keeping horses as part of our neighborhoods. Great job almanac & Becky!


Posted by RanchoRuiz, a resident of another community
on Dec 12, 2013 at 2:44 pm

As a practitioner of Natural Horsemanship, I know how the positive manner which you use to communicate and nurture a relationship with your horse, leaks into every aspect of life. It is nice to see Becky featured here and the writer explaining these seemingly simple things to the non horse world.
There are certainly a lot of life lessons to be learned through this type of horsemanship. I hope the Woodside community grasps at these glimpses they are offered.


Posted by Kathy M., San Martin, CA, a resident of another community
on Dec 12, 2013 at 4:48 pm

What the reporter failed to mention is that Becky is the author of two books: "Winning with Horsepower-" and "Living with Horsepower-" I treasure my autographed copies of her books as well as the memory of a wonderful Halloween Parelli playday at her barn in Woodside!


Posted by Paula K., a resident of another community
on Dec 12, 2013 at 6:07 pm

What a newsworthy article. The method of Natural Horsemanship as stated is as old as the hills and needs to be revived. It's an amazing feeling to have a 1200 pound animal want to be with you and respond willingly because you understand them and respect them. It's a lot of fun too.


Posted by Darryl W., a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 12, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Raising the visibility of the local horse community benefits us all. Thank you Dave Boyce for showcasing Becky Witter and Slick.


Posted by Laura, a resident of another community
on Dec 13, 2013 at 8:18 am

Wonderful article and so nice to see Natural Horsemanship being showcased. There are so many ways communicating with horses in this manner can enhance a human's life and other relationships in it. Great job Becky!


Posted by Barbara, a resident of another community
on Dec 13, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Great article! Becky is a wonderful teacher and animal communicator!


Posted by Shelly, a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Dec 14, 2013 at 9:53 am

The Witter horse farm looks like a moon scape. The horses are in small pens all around the property with barely a blade of grass in sight. WAY TOO MANY HORSES PER ACRE! The Town of Woodside should not allow this to go on. There is a rule as to how many horses per acre for good reason and it should be enforced. How can a person who says they love horses justify this treatment. I am guessing most of the horses are there for a fee which explains it.


Posted by LaVergne Poe, a resident of Woodside: Woodside Glens
on Dec 14, 2013 at 10:04 am

A big smile came to my face when I picked up my Almanac and saw a horse on the cover! When I first moved to the bay area with my horse and discovered Woodside, I made it my goal to get my horse over there so I could enjoy the horse community and all the wonderful trails.

Becky Witter is an excellent representative of the horse community. She is kind & considerate to all horse owners and always willing to step up and help someone who needs help with their horse. She's what I would call a "horsewoman" and I'm happy to see her continue to influence the community in a positive way.

Good job to the Almanac!

LaV


Posted by Terri, a resident of another community
on Dec 14, 2013 at 10:19 am

Woodside has such a wonderful horse community. Becky Witter is one of the special people who is extremely generous with her knowledge and time, truly a natural horsemanship advocate. Nice to see an article which helps provide visibility for this local horse community.


Posted by Alex, a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 14, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Kudos to Becky and Dave Boyce for this wonderful article. Becky is an accomplished horsewoman who is extremely generous with her time and resources. Her horse facility is exemplary, with very happy (and lucky!) horses living there. And the horse community is both lucky and proud to have Becky at the forefront.


Posted by Noelle, a resident of Woodside High School
on Dec 14, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I've grown up watching horses get beaten unfairly for various behaviors, some not bad just instinctive. It is so enjoyable to see this training habit of negative reinforcement transition to the more productive "positive reinforcement" within our horse world. Thank you Becky for showing us the way!


Posted by Gretchen, a resident of another community
on Dec 14, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Great article about Becky and natural horsemanship. There are many "natural" methodologies, but the Parellis have the easiest and most understandable teaching program. Becky is a wonderful ambassador. Glad to see interest in this type of program is catching on in Woodside, a community known for its horses and horsepeople!


Posted by Cindy, a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 14, 2013 at 7:34 pm

Thank you for the wonderful article about Becky and the gentle methods she uses with horses.


Posted by Karen, a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Dec 15, 2013 at 7:08 am

Thank you, Alamanac, for this wonderful article helping readers appreciate yet another taste of the variety of our horse community and the many interests and activities within it. We are so fortunate to have such a thriving equestrian presence, and I appreciate the opportunity to celebrate this!


Posted by Mark Musante, a resident of another community
on Dec 15, 2013 at 3:40 pm

I am so glad to see the almanac covering real stories within the Woodside horse community. A well written article about a very capable and kind horse-woman in Becky... The information was usefull, interesting, and close to home. I,too, have used Parelli methods with my horses for 30 years... It seems Becky has taken their lead and enhanced their suggestions to achive greater heights... I'll be calling, Becky...


Posted by Lisa Renae N., a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Dec 15, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Becky generously helped train my Fjord (and me!) in Natural Horsemanship/Parelli a few years ago. She is one of Woodside's treasures. It is so refreshing to read an in-depth equestrian article and the story is so uplifting. I would love to see an equestrian column or something like it in the Almanac. Since Becky is an author and writer, maybe she could have an on-going column in our wonderful local newspaper. I'd love to see that!


Posted by Cici, a resident of another community
on Dec 15, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Hay!
Really nice reminder of how it should be.
I have known Becky for many years and I am always presented with her understanding of natural horsemanship principles.
A true soul sister!


Posted by rick rosensweig, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Dec 16, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Great story on a great person ( and former neighbor!). When my daughter was at M-A High School, one of Becky's horses had a foal. My daughter got to work with the horse from day one, using the Parelli techniques. within a year, the horse was doing all the behaviors noted in the article - all with just body language, hand signals and verbal cues. Becky not only teaches horses, she teaches people, too.


Posted by Jodie Foreman, a resident of another community
on Dec 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm

I have been riding horses all my life. I discovered natural horsemanship when I was 41, and have never looked back. I now follow the Parelli method, but I've also looked at a few different practitioners of the 'natural' method, and they all look pretty wonderful. The new connections I'm finding with horses are astonishing. He now learns really fast and has developed so much confidence. He has overcome many "problems" he had with his previous owner, like being head shy and afraid of the saddle. He's a new guy. I am frequently moved to tears when he overcomes one of his barriers, and by the affection he shows me.


Posted by Stefanie, a resident of Woodside: Family Farm/Hidden Valley
on Dec 16, 2013 at 7:18 pm

I was so pleased to see Becky & Slick on the cover of the Almanac this week! She is a genuine horsewoman and treasure to the horse community in Woodside. She works tirelessly on behalf of the equestrian community to keep Woodside truly "Horse Country!" I, personally, would love to see an equine section in the Almanac to help maintain our horse heritage in Woodside.


Posted by Lisa, a resident of another community
on Dec 17, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Such an inspiration to have heart to heart meetings with these beautiful beings instead of force and control. I hope many more people adopt this method of natural horsemanship for the benefit of horses and people alike!


Posted by Holly W, a resident of another community
on Dec 28, 2013 at 6:14 pm

I really enjoyed this article featuring natural horsemanship and Becky Witter. Becky demonstrates great passion for horses and empowering people to fully enjoy them. Since learning these methods from her, I enjoy the relationship I have with my horse now more than ever! I also have more fun and stay safer because we are both more confident. I would love to see more articles featuring horses and natural horsemanship in the future.


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