by Danielle Pieratti
Donna McDonald likes to make a comparison between horses and war veterans. Some guys came back from Vietnam after being in prison camps and were able to go on with life, she says. Some came back and were never right again, were never able to deal with it. It's the same with a horse. Some can deal with [trauma], some can't.
McDonald, currently the only trainer of this type living and working in the Pittsburgh area, has been a practicing horse whisperer for several years. She is proof that the method of horse whispering has been around much longer than last year's blockbuster movie, The Horse Whisperer, which, according to McDonald, was hardly an accurate portrayal of her trade. I just looked at it as though it was a movie, says McDonald. And apparently, she wasn't the only one. Although Robert Redford certainly won hearts at the box office, he won skeptics too, and for a good reason: the movie never explains what, exactly, horse whispering is. As a method of training, horse whispering has been around for a long time. How long, exactly, is hard to tell, but it's founded on one of the oldest forms of scientific interpretation: observation. The earliest whisperers spent so much time watching horses in the wild that they were able to discern a kind of horse language in the particularities of horse communication. Yet for a long time their methods were kept secret. The trainer would take the horse, and it would be wild, and he'd take it in the barn and when he'd come out it would be a nice horse. They never knew what he did, so they called it Horse Whispering. They kept it secret for years, explains McDonald. It was this secrecy which was romanticized in Redford's movie.
In reality, horse whispering is based on a simple premise, body language. Like dogs, horses are social animals that aim to please. However, because of the often strenuous and inhumane methods that some trainers use to get results, the animal's innate desire for companionship is often masked, causing the horse to turn into a problem horse. Whispering uses the horse's natural tendencies toward socialization to restore the animal's trust. Mimicking methods of discipline that horses use in the wild, the trainer uses his physical stance to either drive the horse away from him or allow it to come and connect with him. In physical terms this usually takes place in a round pen, where the trainer uses his arm movements and sometimes a rope to get the horse moving around him in a circle. The method is called gentle, because little to no physical contact is used. Instead, eye contact is heavily relied upon, which was one reason why McDonald appreciated Redford's movie; it frequently emphasized this aspect. We use eye contact a lot, says McDonald. The horse can read your eye... [it] can see a soft eye or a hard eye.
When the trainer takes an aggressive stance towards the horse, the animal will instinctively flee, feeling that it is being sent away from the herd for something it has done wrong. The horse continues to avoid the trainer until it decides to repent, and asks forgiveness by lowering its head, slowing its pace, and performing a number of other body movements that indicate its submission to the trainer. The trainer has now taken on the position as Alpha Mare in the horse's herd. Once the trainer notices that the horse has accepted its role, he changes his stance, becomes less aggressive, often by changing eye position, or even turning his shoulder to the horse. At this point, the horse's reaction can be dramatic. Ideally, the horse stops moving, turns towards the trainer, even walks to him. This moment is often referred to as joining up, hooking on, or coming in. Whichever term the trainer chooses to use, the effect is the same , a strong bond of trust and devotion that provides a foundation for further training.
While horse whispering is based on a set of founding guidelines, McDonald is quick to stress the fact that training must be flexible to meet the needs of the individual horse. This program that we use is all about the psychology of horses, McDonald says, and you have to keep in mind that each horse is different and you don't use the same methods on each horse. The horse determines what we do next.
She also points out that the connection between horses and humans is a natural one. McDonald learned the trade from a fourth generation whisperer, Dr. Stan Allen, who has a degree in psychology, among other things. He combined the two to come up with this program called Horse Mastership, which is known by most as horse whispering ...[Horses] are a lot like people. Their central nervous system is very similar to ours, which is why we bond with them so easily, says McDonald. And for her, this bond is a life-changing one. Once a traditional trainer, McDonald now uses whispering methods exclusively and conducts clinics all over the country as well as from her home in Coal Center, Pennsylvania. It really changed my life, says McDonald. It's for horses and people because not only does it change the horses after you work with them but it also changes the person.
In the horse industry, changing people may be something that's sorely needed. The impetus of money, even in an industry that seems to demand a measure of sensitivity for success, can not be underrated. There's so much cruelty in the training of horses these days, says McDonald, because, for the most part, to a lot of people, they are money objects. In recent years, holistic horse training has taken off the runway with names like Sally Swift, Monty Roberts, Linda Tellington-Jones, and John Lyons. The efforts of all have been revolutionary to a sport which has until recently been dominated by violent methods. Yet Roberts and Lyons have since soured these efforts. Roberts, who travels around the world demonstrating how he trains a green horse to be ridden in half an hour, has been labeled a liar, a money launderer, and a fraud, and Lyons is steadily gaining disdain for his virtual monopoly within the world of riding literature and multi-media resources.
Some of it's legitimate and some of it isn't, says McDonald. There are a couple of people out there calling themselves horse whisperers who are really capitalizing on it. That kind of gives it a bad name. I feel that Monty Roberts is doing that. This crap about training a horse in 30 minutes or less , it is crap.
Take it or leave it, the recent publicity has undoubtedly brought an obscure method of horse training into the limelight, and to many, no matter what the message of the movie, it can only mean great strides for those who love and work with horses. It's rewarding... I think people are looking for answers. You know, they haven't had any for a long time.
McDonald may be on to something. After all, Redford's film itself preached horses as therapy. And many riders love the sport for the relative simplicity of the relationships that humans and horses share.
Says McDonald, We're not in it to become millionaires or to dazzle people. We're just in it to help people and to teach people a new way to go about it and to be safe. There is no horse that this does not work on. One thing about this program is there's always an answer for why it works. And in a world where money corrupts cowboys, (and little girls get hit by tractor-trailers) that's saying a lot.
Danielle Pieratti is a junior Writing and Fine Arts major at Carnegie Mellon University who never gave up her childhood obsession with horses.