The Ties That Bind
Article by Karen Boush, Photographs by Jane Reed
By Permission of Karen Boush

Western Horseman, September 1998

"The ONLY way to have a friend is to be one," Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely pointed out, and his advice can aptly be applied to our relationships with horses. The horses in the greatest need of a friend, however, are often the most difficult to befriend. How do you get physically let alone emotionally close to a horse who's busy biting, rearing, and bucking? Or to the horse who's a bundle of nerves and shies for the seemingly smallest of reasons? In other words, how do you help anxious, distrustful, and downright nastyhorses?

Horseman and clinician Frank Bell, Larkspur, Colo., does it with kindness. Having built his own particular brand of horse handling on the cornerstones of touch and intimacy, he's created a seven-step safety program he teaches in 3-day clinics around the world and demonstrates at fund-raisers for therapeutic riding groups. Last year he raised $25,000 for North American Riding for the Handicapped Association centers across the country. The philosophy underlying Bell's work is straightforward: Lasting, positive behavior changes come about as a result of the give and take of any close friendship. "It's like with people," he says. "You want to develop a rapport with someone before you ask them to do something for you. If you give, give,give to horses, then they'll want to give back."

Bell first establishes a relationship with the horse on the ground, long before he gets in the saddle or asks a horse to do something that might frighten him, like walk into a trailer. Whatever theproblem, whether it's loading, saddling, cross tying, bucking and rearing, or being ridden, Bell bonds with the horse before addressing the problem. The first three steps of his program are the most important part of the process and can deepen relationships with any horse. Each step builds on the previous one by creating a stronger level of trust and laying the groundwork for the following four steps, which include desensitizing the horse to loud noises and strange objects, simple dressage movements on the ground, and-the final step-riding. Bell stresses the need to gain the horse's trust before

you're actually in the saddle. That way, both you and the horse have familiar techniques to fall back on in case there's a crisis or a differingof opinions. In other words, you have a plan.

"I've got to have a friend, a relationship, before I get on," Bell says. "With some of the dangerous horses, you have to be more careful and go slower, but when you build a relationship on the ground, they'll let you know when they're ready for a ride. I get an invite. That head will go downand they'll say, 'Hey, let's ride.'"

The following steps hold the secrets to building a friendship. They can break seemingly cemented barriers in minutes. Remember to go slow, however, and never use intimidation. A horse's respect needs to be earned.

Step 1: Bonding

Before Bell asks anything of a horse he's just met, he bonds with him through touch, the first and most important part in gaining trust. Drawing on the hands-on healing methods of Linda Tellington Jones and the gentling techniques of the Plains Indians, he "search touches" for the places thehorse likes to be stroked, caressed, and rubbed.

"I want to make the most incredible first impression with a horse," Bell explains. "I touch them in the vulnerable places they can't reach. I rub their eyes, get inside their nostrils, and stroke under their tails. It setsme in a whole other league with a horse."

Bell suggests getting to know the horse and finding his favorite spots, the ones where he just melts when you indulge him in a good rub. Begin on either the forehead or upper neck with a firm, reassuring stroke, then massage the ears and eyes, inside the mouth and nose, around the girth and flank areas,and under the tail.

Most horses appreciate having their eyes rubbed and the bug-bitten hollow of the jaw scratched. Avoid "patting" the horse; horses prefer soothing rubs, either hard or soft, rather than the more common slaps of encouragement. When you can get to the point where you have one hand on the horse's face and the other stroking lightly under the tail, know that the horse is expressing ultimate trust in you by allowing two of the most vulnerable parts of his body to be touched.

Step 2: Take and Give

After getting to know the horse, Bell asks him to demonstrate his growing trust by "giving" to gentle downward pressure on the lead rope. This exercise indicates a willingness to yield to pressure and relaxes thehorse's spine muscles.

Standing to the side of the horse with your own head lower than his, pull down on the lead with light pressure. If the horse doesn't respond after 15 or 20 seconds, gradually increase the pressure and don't let up until the horse lowers his head. Do not use force; instead, maintain steady pressure and wait until the horse has agreed to give on his own. When he yields, even slightly, immediately reward him by releasing the pressure and praising him. Continue with the take and give until the horse's head is near the ground. Lavishly reward him each step of the way. Make sure he's working his mouth during the process-use your index finger over his tongue if necessary. A chewing action means he's relaxed, understanding the mechanics of take and give, and enjoying the learning process.

By asking the horse to lower his head early on in the relationship, Bellteaches the horse the basic vocabulary of all training pressure and release. When you ask a horse to do something, whether you apply a subtle shift in weight or a firm push, you're using pressure. Always start small and, if the horse fails to respond, increase the pressure gradually.

Bell calls this "V thinking." Your initial request-symbolized by the bottom of the V-is barely observable, optimally only a thought. Your last resort isthe top of the V - extreme pressure, perhaps many pounds. Always start at the bottom of the V and move up as necessary, all the while anticipating compliance. At the moment of compliance, it's your turn to give, and do so immediately. If you consistently reward the horse by releasing, in time compliance will fall nearer the bottom of the V.

Step 3: Intimacy

Bell is now ready to ask the horse to bond with him on yet a deeper level, one akin to intimacy. Using pressure and release, he asks the horse to bend his neck to the side and rest his face next to Bell's for as long as he's comfortable. Eventually, Bell says, the horse will turn his head at just"the inkling of a suggestion."

Standing on the near side, put your left hand on the nose "handle" just above the horse's nostrils. Be sure to keep your hand here throughout the exercise, whether the horse complies with your request to turn his head or altogether refuses and pulls away. It's important the hand remains, even ifthere's no pressure, so the horse can learn that the best way for him to escape pressure is by following your direction. It's his choice. Lightly tickle the girth area with your right hand while softly applying pressure to the handle. Most horses will turn their heads in response, and when your horse does so, even just a fraction of an inch, immediately release 99 percent of the pressure and praise him. As in the previous step, continue with the take and give until the horse's head is close to, and even touching, his own side. Then bend down, speak to him reassuringly, and blow in his nose. If the horse seems relaxed, Bell suggests moving your left hand up the nose to cover the horse's outside eye. This technique focuses the horse's attention on the cocoon of warmth the two of you have created. "You can block the world out for them," Bell explains. "With the really nervous horses, it's a big deal. You can feel their whole demeanor change-it's wonderful."

Bell calls this intimate position between human and horse the "safety zone,"and riders can use it to reaffirm mutual respect and trust whenever the situation warrants. Bell says every time the horse's head is circled around to this spot, he'll remember that humans are capable of caring for him and feelings of calmness will be triggered. If a rider feels out of control in the saddle, the rein can be used to turn the horse's head around to the safety zone, and both horse and rider will relax, thereby remedying a potentially dangerous situation in seconds.

Never Ending Love

The importance of bonding with a troubled horse can't be underestimated, Bell stresses. With these three simple steps, Bell makes friends quickly and the horse's trust level skyrockets. "I love loving horses, and that's basically what I'm doing," Bell says. "I take these horses to places they've never been before, and I get where I get in seconds. Usually, if I can get a hand on them, they're in my pocket because I can find their favorite spot." As with any good friendship, the giving never ends. Bell tells his clients to praise their horses often and to practice these steps daily, whenever they're with their horses. "Bonding is something that has to be continuous," Bell stresses. "You would never stop bonding with your child. The horse needs to know that what you and he are doing has meaning, so continue to let the horse know he's doing a good job. Give them feedback and make it fun for them. I treat horses the way I like to be treated. If you ask the horse to do something for you, say thank you. And how do you say thank you? You do it by stroking the horse's neck, through love."

Karen Boush is a free-lance writer living in Parker, Colorado. She enjoys both dressage and western riding.

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.
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Updated: October 2005.