THE POWER OF TOUCH
By Frank Bell, Horsewhisperer/Gentling Specialist
Dances With Horses, Inc.
P.O. Box 27897, Lakewood, CO 80227
In the mid 80's a revolution in horse handling methods began to take hold in the United States. A handful of men could be credited with this movement including Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and Monty Foreman. What evolved from this humble beginning is a philosophy that promotes a gentle approach and shuns the use of force, violence, and pain. As this knowledge passed from one trainer to the next, each added their own experience and individual perspective, then attempted to communicate it to the eager public. No trainer has simplified nor made this approach more clear and accessible than Frank Bell. His genius was not in the creation, but in the interpretation and in his ability to communicate it.
By the mid 90's Frank was teaching others his exceedingly gentle yet effective approach to communicating with horses. He succeeded time after time in turning around the most difficult cases and had a rapidly growing reputation. At the end of a clinic in Jackson, Wyoming he asked for suggestions, stating, "I only want to become a better teacher and invite your ideas." One of the organizers was both candid and perceptive. "People need an ABC approach to learning. Break this into a step by step process. It will then be easier for you to teach and for them to learn." She suggested.
Frank went to work laying out exactly what he did and gave each exercise a name. What resulted is the culmination of many trainers and many years of knowledge broken down into a simple and very straightforward set of maneuvers that promote horse and rider safety. These are designed to be used prior to riding and are effective in all equine interactions. Horsemen and women, veterinarians and farriers worldwide are discovering the value of this remarkable system. As Tom Dorrance so eloquently coined years ago, "The long way is the short way."
Frank Bell's 7 Step Safety System
"You only get one chance to make a first impression on all living creatures", Bell states at the beginning of his demonstrations. "I want to make the most incredible first impression this horse has ever experienced. If I succeed, I have an alley, a friend who will trust me. And trust is everything when it comes to working with horses. I call the first step bonding."
And so Bell begins making that first impression by giving to the animal, not taking. "Most people say to the horse, 'What can you do for me? Do this. Do that. And do it now.' My thinking is quite different. By giving to this horse. By *loving this horse, he'll want to give back to me later. It's classic Dale Carnegie. He wrote a book called 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' many years ago. It's timeless. It's about meeting a person the first time and bringing them out. It's quite simple. Remember their name and use it a few times as you ask questions about them. Everyone likes to talk about him or herself. Pretty quick they think you're really neat. Why would it be any different with horses?" he asks.
Bell begins 'search touching', trying to find what feels good to the horse. He rubs the horse's eyes, scratches under their jaw, and actually works his fingers inside the horse's nose! Before long the horse's eyes are glazing over as he melts into Bell's attentions. All the while he is talking soothingly to the horse and the crowd. His tone of voice is soothing for all parties. The bonding may take seconds or minutes. The point is: It is absolutely critical that the horse feels kinship not intimidation.
With the bonding firmly established it's time to move onto the next step take and give. The most basic premise in all training and in all communication, is the understanding of pressure and release. By simply asking the horse to drop his head using slight downward pressure on the lead, two things are accomplished. The horse is getting relaxed and learning to yield to pressure. The instant the horse complies, a complete release is necessaary and immediate. Reward for the smallest change, the slightest try. Remember, when a horse's head is high, it signifies an uptight, alert, often nervous animal. When the head is low the horse is relaxed and trusting. Additionally, the lower the handler's stature the less threatening. Frequently Bell will actually kneel off to the side when asking the head to drop, thereby inviting the horse to join him.
When communicating with a horse sometimes it's necessary to become quite obvious and actually use significant pressure to accomplish a task. Bell has developed the concept of V-thinking to go along with this second step and move in the direction of using very little pressure or even the mind to communicate. Envisioning a V, the first try should begin at the bottom of the V, which is no pressure, and gradually build to compliance. In an ideal situation, after several attempts the horse should have learned to comply with very little pressure, thereby moving to the bottom of the V and communicating through the mind.
With pressure and release well understood, it is time to move to intimacy, which is the third step. It is a very logical continuation of the earlier two steps as they meld together.
All creatures that originated in the womb, long to return. A dog, a cat, a human all curl up in the fetal position when cold, insecure, or depressed. It is a comforting position, a cocoon of warmth and safety to which all mammals identify and understand. Teaching the horse to do the same with the human's help and encouragement raises the trust level dramatically. By simply using pressure and release the head is guided around to the girth area using either the lead or nose-handle (the bony part of the nose just above the nostril). Breathing into the horse's nose while in this position is reassuring and intensifies the bonding process. The other hand slowly drifts back along the rib cage to the dock of the tail, then finally the silky underside of the tail. The horse is then completely wrapped around the handler and experiencing the highest level of trust and pleasure attainable. To take it just one notch higher, cover the outside eye while inviting the head to the side. The outside world does not exist. Just the two of us.
These first three steps work together to establish the trust and confidence that will be needed as they go forward as a team of two equal partners. The foundation of these first steps sets this stage as the team reaches unimaginable highs conquering each new task and challenging situation. Much like nurturing a child in times of need, when insecure or unsure, the team will regroup by coming back to this foundation. With this well established, it's time for the movement to start as the dance begins.
This fourth step is a driving exercise and has very useful applications like sending a horse into a stall, a paddock, or a trailer. It also helps establish authority and direction. Horses just like children require guidance and many will blossom faster if guided properly. In this procedure the horse is asked to move in a twenty-five foot circle on the lead around the handler. He drives the horse forward using hand motion or tapping with the end of the lead rope on the rump. With V-thinking in mind, this should become a very subtle encouragement perhaps even the wiggle of a finger. Once the horse is moving out with life and energy, it's time to begin the wind-down. Envisioning a snail, the handler begins taking in the lead while moving in toward the horses mid-section. Ultimately the horse will be stopped with his head around in the intimacy position wrapped around the handler. Back to the womb. This is essentially a one-rein stop on the ground. The final goal of these exercises is the one rein stop in the saddle. This winding down to a stop is the preparation. Later, this will become a graceful dance-form that promotes horse/rider safety.
Desensitizing is the fifth step and of extreme importance. It is also another opportunity to raise the horse's level of confidence as he learns to face his fears and deal with unknowns. Desensitizing is a searching process of deliberately trying to find what does bother the horse. Avoiding problems only enables the horse's innate fears while doing the same with the handler. Far too often riders tiptoe around the vary things that bother the horse. Before long the horse has the rider very well trained. "My horse doesn't like it over behind the barn or mailboxes or dogs" is too often the excuse. Frank Bell's approach is at the opposite end of the scale. It is about riding in confidence. By taking the time to rattle the horse's cage, uncover the fears and deal with them, a new horse can emerge. The desensitizing process begins with close observation and attention to detail. When the horse shows signs of fear and nervousness, it's a matter of lovingly helping him overcome the specific issue. All kinds of different stimuli can bring out fear. >From slapping the saddle with the lead rope to shaking a gate or waving a plastic bag or going to an area of obvious discomfort, it is all about discovery. When the discomfort is observed, it's back to the reassurance of the first three steps, again just like a child. Nurture the horse back using touch and a soothing voice. Touch is the most effective tool we have, our hands our most valuable tool. Stroking a horse's neck while dealing with a scary issue will help him through it dramatically faster than not touching.
Several years ago one of my clients had an extremely nervous horse. When I arrived for our session one day he mentioned how he'd shaken the loud gate for a half-hour before the horse finally accepted it and settled. I took the horse over to the gate and rattled it hard. Raphael, the three-year Paso jumped back alarmed. I then brought him back and stroked his neck while starting the shaking process lightly then progressed. In a couple of minutes he was relaxed and accepting as the gate rattled violently only several feet away. The power of touch!
Desensitizing never ends, even with seasoned horses. Many horses will have their bad days. The same horse that was unshakable the day before might be a basket case today. By religiously taking the time to be certain the horse is even-keeled before the ride, the level of safety is raised substantially. In conclusion, I never ride any horse without searching first to be absolutely certain I'm mounting a relaxed confident stead.
Ballet on the ground follows the confidence building of desensitizing. In this maneuver the horse and handler perform a graceful dance that is essentially dressage on the ground. This is about using the horse's energy constructively as the brain connects to the feet. Both parties must concentrate intensely as the horse performs first a turn on the forehand followed by the turn on the haunches. The only way this can be accomplished is for the horse to shift his weight consciously as he moves from the forehand to the haunches.
This exercise begins with step 4, the dance begins. The horse is moving with energy around the handler in a circular fashion of about twenty-five foot circles. The handler then asks the horse to stop the forward movement and face up to the center. In doing so the horse does a turn on the forehand pivoting on his front legs. Now facing the handler, the horse is asked to go off in the opposite direction. When performed properly, the horse rocks back onto his haunches then pivots ninety degrees and walks off. When perfected, this exercise is a beautiful symmetry of two, ballroom dancing. Sometimes it is compared to Tai Chi. The whole idea is to focus energy into this precise exercise that requires extreme concentration for both parties. With high energy horses this exercise will bring them right down to well-mannered focused mounts who, when the time is right, will actually invite the ride. And that is the whole point of step 6. Prepare the horse for the ride. When he is ready, everything about his body language and demeanor will say, "Now it's time to get on. Let's go."
I cannot count the times I have observed riders of all levels mount a horse that is blatantly saying, "I am uptight, nervous, unsure about myself and you." The outcome quite often is not a pretty sight and far too often has an unfortunate ending.
Now that the horse has invited the ride, it's time to mount up. The final and seventh step is ballet in the saddle. This is the culmination of the previous six steps and again, when performed properly is a graceful even artful dance that promotes horse/rider safety. Similar to the previous dressage maneuver, this is also a turn on the forehand followed by the turn on the haunches. Only this time the direction does not change.
Once in the saddle the rider asks the horse to move off with life at the walk. When the horse has walked a dozen steps or so, he is asked to wind-down to a stop. Again, envision a snail. The head is gently guided around to the side just as it was done on the ground. By now this should be very familiar for both parties and the horse fully understands this means stop. It is critical that the horse disengages his hindquarters during this maneuver and it is almost impossible not to. But to be absolutely certain the engine is out of gear, it is a good idea to bump the hindquarters over with the inside leg. With a little experience the rider will feel the horse's hind end stepping underneath in his own seat. When the horse has stopped completely and given his head, he is released completely and praised. He has found exactly what we are looking for and needs to know it. Now from the saddle we are back to that safe, loving place. (Lavish praise will speed up the learning process dramatically.) Use it!
Now it is time to perform the second part of this exercise, the turn on the haunches. Leaning back slightly while releasing the horse's head and looking in the direction of the next movement, the rider lays the indirect rein on the horse's neck and encourages the horse to shift his own weight back. Ideally the horse then pivots on the hindquarters, brings the front across, and walks calmly off in the direction his head is facing and the opening the rider has provided. As with the previous step, ballet on the ground, this becomes a graceful dance that uses the horse's energy constructively while preparing for a safe and confident ride.
Bear in mind that these exercises do require some practice to become proficient, but once mastered a whole new understanding of confidence and safety emerges. Any time the horse or rider become uncertain or nervous, they now have a place to go. They have an emergency brake. Knowing that, the team can now ride in confidence. Most horsemen who have taken the time to understand this approach, look back and cannot believe their level of naivete prior to this understanding. The real question is "What is your safety worth?" Looking at this process as a 'warm-up' is another good analogy. We would not jump out of bed and onto the tennis court for a match without stretching and preparing mentally. Why do we expect horses to be perfectly prepared because we show up?
Clear concise communication
The biggest stumblingblock in training horses is the lack of a clear communication by the handler. Far too often the horse just does not understand what is being asked. Frank Bell has coined the phrase 'the black and white zones' to help sort this out. When the horse is getting it and is doing what is expected, he is in the white zone and needs to know it. Lavish praise and stroking will communicate this along with good timing. Conversely, when the horse is not listening or obstinate, there has to be a consequence as the horse enters the black zone. Using a variety of attention-getting stimuli to communicate this, along with good timing, it becomes abundantly clear just what is right and what is not. Frank Bell uses squirt guns, plastic bags, guttural sounds, and the noise shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh to let the horse know when they have entered the black zone. Good timing along with V thinking can make an immediate change. Issues that have been plaguing owners for years often disappear in seconds as the horse hits the brick wall. As Bell so willingly points out and gives credit where it is deserved, "Tom Dorrance espoused so many years ago, 'make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.' Or think 'comfortable and uncomfortable', but be very certain to make it abundantly obvious"
Dances With Horses Inc. offers a variety of products to help horse owners on every level. The audio and video library, the three-part article from Western Horseman, and the tools to perform Frank's Seven-Step Safety System as well as Frank's appearance schedule are all available on the web at www.gentlesolutions.com. Ordering: please call 800-871-7635.
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Updated: October 2005.