By Karen Boush, Photographs by Jane Reed
Western Horseman, December 1999


Using his seven-step safety system, horseman and clinician Frank Bell of Larkspur, Colorado, teaches riders that a gentle touch and reassuring voice can work wonders with all horses. The first three steps of his system--bonding, take and give, and intimacy -- were reviewed in the September 1998 issue. They guide riders through the initial stages of building a friendship with a horse. Steps 4 and 5, discussed this month, focus on ground exercises that ease horse and rider into a deeper level ofcommunication.

Once you have gained your horse's trust, Bell suggest you treat your horse as you would any other good friend by finding out what motivates him. Does he seem to feel the world is an okay place or is he impulsive, certain that danger lurks around every corner? Whether it's a raised hand, a loud truck, or a plastic bag blowing in the breeze. Bell suggests that you discover what specifically frightens your horse before you get on his back. I like to think of every horse as a puzzle with at least one problem -- perhaps many more -- and I help him through it, Bell says. But I try to find these problems before they find me out on the lone prairie, and I'vegot a long walk home, or worse.

Everything the horse is asked to do in these next steps builds on the bond you've already created. With Bell's method, if you remain sensitive to your horse's emotions and continually offer reassurance, you can create a confident, trusting partner.

Step 4: The Dance Begins

The first goal of this step is to get your horse thinking rationally while he walks or trots around you in a circle. Standing on the horse¹s near (left) side, start by running a 12-foot lead rope under the horse's neck, then reach over the horse¹s back and take the rope in your right hand. Run the rope around the horse's off side, then behind the upper hind legs wellbelow the dock of the tail.

Moving away from the horse, ask him to unwind when you apply light pressure with the rope. This seemingly simple movement teaches the horse to move away from pressure, switch his eye contact with you from his left to righteye, and step over himself properly.

As he comes out the other side, and begins moving to the right, lift your left hand to ask for impulsion. If necessary, you can also slap your leg, cluck, or lightly tap the rump with the end of the rope in an overhand, swinging motion. Do whatever it takes to get movment, but quit the instant he complies. Drive the horse from behind, maintaining a safe distance from the back legs and keeping slack in the rope. Use the hand closest to the horse's mouth (in this case, your right hand) to hold the rope, grabbing the lead in an overhand fashion so your little finger is nearest the head. Ideally, you want the horse to move steadily in well-formed circles with his body bending in an arc similar to the circle. If the horse slows, use your left hand as the accelerator; your horse eventually will learn that a raised hand means he needs to move forward. Block the horse from straying too close to you by pushing your right palm toward the horse's eye, bumping hischeek if necessary.

"Remember, this is not mindless longeing; it is purposeful communication," Bell says. "You are teaching the horse to drive and move forward, and you're using your body language to tell the horse you want forward movment-, and you want it at a particular speed. Maybe push him up to a trot, then let him come down--you want the horse to ease up and ease down. If you have a slow horse, get him to move; if you have a horse who wants to trot all thetime, then you¹ll want to ask him to do things at a walk.

It's important that when you ask him to go, he can understand your communication, he can think about it and he can go. And (that) he walk off rationally. If the horse's movements are really fast and sudden and impulsive, that's when a horse can get you into trouble in the saddle. And that can be fixed on the ground --that's the point."

The Wind Down

The dance culminates in the wind-down, essentially a one-rein stop on the ground that takes the horse back to the safety zone. Introduced in Step 3, the safety zone is established by using the horse's "nose handle" to gently guide his head around to the girth area, where he is praised and stroked.After the horse has completed two or three circles, start the wind-down by slowly gathering the lead and walking in toward your horse's hip bone. As the distance between you and him grows smaller, reach your hand out and stroke the horse's flank and rib area. As you continue winding around, the horse's inside hind leg will step in front of the outside hind leg, and the outside front leg will step in front of the inside front leg. This action indicates that the horse's hindquarters have disengaged and the horse is relaxed.

"Keep a light but constant feel on the horse's mouth, giving when the horsegives," Bell explains. Use little mini-releases and keep the horse in the bend. Say whoa if you have to, but eventually he'll stop and give you his head. Once he gets in there, release immediately and let him know that's exactly what you want.

"This takes him back to that safe, loving place I call the safety zone,"Bell continues. This is the whole idea of the seven-step system. A horse learns when he brings his head around it means stop. It becomes a conditioned response, so you always have the safety zone to fall back on. This will all transfer over as the one-rein stop in the saddle, but it's critical to get it done on the ground first and show him there's this wonderful place. When you're in the saddle, it will make sense to him. When there's a problem, you can pull his head around, lean over, rub his forehead and say, Remember this? The one-rein stop in the saddle is whatcan save your life.

Do the dance and wind-down in both directions. With practice, your body language and timing will improve. Your horse will learn how to move calmly and with grace, preparing you both for more precise dressage movements in Step 6 and the one-rein stop in the saddle in Step 7.

Step 5 Desensitizing

Bell tells riders that when it comes to desensitizing horses, the only limit is imagination. His primary concern is that riders spend plenty of time discovering what frightens their horses and helping them get over it. "I can't stress desensitizing enough. I go out of my way to find problems, because if you don't desensitize your horse you're waiting for an accident to happen," Bell says. "Most people live in the zone where they avoid problems. They live a whole life where the horse dictates what they do and, before too long, what it amounts to is the horse has the person really well-trained. The idea is for you to be training the horse and building hisconfidence."

Bell suggests gradually drifting into the process of desensitization during the dance. Twirl a couple of feet of the lead rope in front of you as the horse circles. If he throws his head up or tries to dart, Bell says he is clearly communicating that he is afraid. Stop and offer reassurance bystroking his neck.

"You don't want to push him over the edge. When I find a problem, I settle him down, rub his forehead, get his head down, work his mouth, and love on him and bond. Go back to bonding and the safety zone. Anytime that the horse shows you that he's really afraid love on him just like a child andnurture him back to being okay with you,"he says.

In time, your horse will get to the point where he can tolerate the swinging rope without shying and even think nothing of it. Once he's okay with this stimulus, test him in other ways. With the horse standing still, hold on to the end of the lead and loop the rope over the horse's ears and head, or drape the rope over the horse's back and jiggle it over the offside legs, shoulder, and hip area. Or try slapping the saddle with the rope, at first lightly then more aggressively. The real test comes when you ask your horse to tolerate the rope being near or on him while he's moving. One of Bell's favorite tests entails tossing the end of the rope over the horse's back during the winddown. He also will swing the lead rope so it wraps aroundthe inside hind leg as the horse is walking.

Eventually, the process of desensitizing will extend to your time in thesaddle.

"I don't care what horse I'm riding --I'm always shaking branches and jiggling gates and banging on buildings and slapping my own leg becaue, when it starts to rain, you want to be able to put your slicker on without getting off your horse. That¹s the idea. You don't have to be riding on pins and needle s. That¹s no way to ride, and it's no way to live," he says. Be sure not to run your lessons into the ground, and offer your horse a lot of praise and strokes. Bell advises tha t you make the work fun and intersting and give the lessons time to sink in. When you see that the horse is working his mouth, a sure sign of understanding, he says it might be a good time to stop for the day. "Having empathy is what it's really all about," Bell explains. "It's our responsibility to help these animals through their issues. Don't beat up on them. When the animal is having trouble and getting afraid, you help him with it. Before too long, you'll end up with a really confident, well-rounded animal who can pretty much handle everything.

When you find problems while desensitizing the horse, it's an opportunity tobuild your horse's confidence and to raise the level of mutual trust between the two of you. The process should never, never end."

Frank Bell's company Dances with Horses offers a variety of products to help horse owners of every discipline in their quest to become better communicators.

"Dances With Horses has assembled an extensive Video and Audio library to help horse owners on all levels become better communicators: 'Discover the Horse You Never Knew' - Frank's Foundation Video detailing his 7-Step-Safety-System, Communication in the Saddle, Spooking/Shying, Trailer Loading, Solving 7 Common Horse Problems, Mounting the Difficult Horse AND Problem Foot Handling, Water and Bridge Crossing, Working with Young Horses, Starting the Young Horse, Retraining the Racehorse, A Day in the Life of a Horsewhisperer, AND audio book- The Gentle Solution- 7 Steps to the Horse You Always Wanted.
Please visit our website at www.horsewhisperer.com

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Updated: October 2005.