CANADA

Horse whispering

LUCIANNA CICCOCIOPPO September 21 1998
CANADA

Horse whispering

LUCIANNA CICCOCIOPPO September 21 1998

Horse whispering

LETTER FROM MILLARVILLE, ALTA.

CANADA

LUCIANNA CICCOCIOPPO

A dusty gravel road cuts through a forested valley covered with inkblack fields of earth and bright yellow wildflowers. It winds along the foothills of the Rockies and passes by Three Point Stables, near the town of Millarville in southwestern Alberta. Today, nine people have brought their horses to Three Point Stables to attend a two-day training clinic. Inside the cool, dirt-floored training room, all eyes—human and equine—are on Kent Williamson as he teaches the fundamentals of handling a horse.

Williamson is a horse whisperer—someone who can communicate silently with horses. He trains them through hand gestures and body movements, and eschews the harsher traditional methods such as roughly yanking on the reins. The 30-yearold trainer is one of about a dozen wellknown horse whisperers in North America, not including the quiet old-timers who don’t market their skills.

Horse whispering dates back to the Moors, but it was popularized by the international best-seller The Horse Whisperer, by British author Nicholas Evans, and the Robert Redford movie of the same name. Old World horse whisperers were thought to be sorcerers who relied on potions and magic to train their steeds, although many used the methods of touch and gesture

Williamson now employs. “These people would go into a barn and two hours later come out with a horse that was handleable,” says Williamson, who grew up on a ranch in Bragg Creek, Alta., 40 km west of Calgary. With the advent of industrialization, horse whispering almost became a lost art. Now that it has become trendy, Williamson worries any trainer may claim to be a horse whisperer. “All the media attention may be jeopardizing the label,” he says.

On the back wall of the Three Point Stables training facility there is a large poster of Redford’s film, showing a black horse galloping into the sunset. Beneath the poster, Williamson teaches his nine students and their animals what he calls “nurturing the nature of horses.” That means making horses respond willingly to commands without harsh discipline. “I can put the fear of God into the horse and get him into a horse show and he may win,” Williamson says. “But I’m not getting true communication and respect.”

It is a respect that has to be earned— something his stepfather, Bob Echlin, explained to him years ago. Echlin, founder of the popular Elkana dude ranch in Bragg Creek, taught Williamson about horse whispering from the time he was eight years old. For the past 12 years, Williamson has made his living from it, peppering his lectures with the wisdom of his teacher—the need to avoid bribing a horse or cheating it of food

or water to get it to behave. Williamson doesn’t think all trainers are abusive just because they use spurs and whips. He just believes there are better ways to train. “If a person leads a horse by pulling or forcing, the horse learns from Day 1 to resist pressure and go against it,” he says. “From then on, you always have to make the horse do things, as opposed to asking and maybe receiving through willingness.”

Getting a horse to respond means applying the “pressure principle.” Horses feel pressure in a variety of ways, Williamson says: through changes in the weather, changes in the topography of a trail, and hierarchical changes among the herd. For example, when the matriarchal mare moves through a group of horses, the other animals yield. Humans, Williamson adds, can have the same impact. When he moves his body towards the hip of a horse—one of the pressure points—the animal steps away. Williamson then knows that when he turns to walk, the horse will follow. For a rider, this control on the ground moves up to control in the saddle. It means squeezing with the left leg to turn left, with a gentle tug on the left rein. Conventional methods can employ smacks, or spurs, on the opposite side, to get the horse to move. It’s a backward system, Williamson says, for nature’s “pure and perfect” animal.

One Williamson patron is 12-year-old Raven Hehr of Crossfield, Alta., who brought her speckled-grey jumping horse, Frosty Friday, to the clinic. “He had a problem with rearing and evading certain things, and he had a problem with refusing at fences,” Hehr says. She laughs: “He was really a chicken.” But after about six weeks of Williamson’s touch, Frosty Friday returned to competition and was able to perform well.

Williamson works on about 12 horses at a time. He says he will never get rich, but the mortgage gets paid. He charges $500 for one month of training and boarding and $225 for a two-day clinic. The clothing store he runs with his wife, Luree, plus a partnership in a floor-tile business add to his income. But Williamson’s main passion remains horse whispering. With his monthly clinics filling up quickly, and a growing waiting list, Williamson may soon be able to pursue his calling full time. And, one day, with the increase in traffic to Three Point Stables, the gravel road leading there may just have to be paved. □