Monday, May 11, 2009

My Friend the Horse Whisperer

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Mireille is passionate about horses. She always has been. And unlike many little girls, this passion did not go away when she grew up. Not originally of the region (she comes from the Jura, near the Swiss border), she early adopted a Camarguais pony and trained it with the horse-whispering technique. They learned together. She has since translated a book from English (this technique is particularly popular and developed in the US and Australia, but rare on the continent) for the publishing house, Actes Sud on the subject and pursued a few workshops to deepen her skills.

The past five years have been at times horribly difficult for her (divorce, terrible financial straits, struggling to cope with her two kids very much on her own, finding a new job, struggling to manage on a very small salary...). But, manage she has, and with joy and love she has kept her passion for horses and this gentle technique a part of her life. I'm not sure she realized when she signed up her little Alexandra for riding classes ages ago, that the centre equestre where these classes take place would become a second home to her. But now, she counts the director amongst her closest friends, and Alexandra roams freely here, where they've become known to everyone.

She has been able to persuade the director to permit her to work with the "difficult" horses that no one else feels comfortable dealing with. The first had been badly broken, and bit. She worked gently and calmly with him, gaining his trust and then, when it was time, handed him back to his owner to train for riding in the club. In need of another horse to practice on, she noticed a large draw horse in a back prairie, and questioned the director of the centre. Oh him? Well, when we put the plow on him he went insane and destroyed numerous posts in the paddock. So we sent him to Uzes, to the experts, to be properly trained, and payed over 3000Euros to do so. But when he came back six months later, he was as skittish as ever, and we've been rather hesitant to try again, and truth to tell, we've not really had the time.

Hmmm she thought. Would you permit me to work with him? Well, sure, go right ahead.

It has been not quite a year now that she has worked to gain the trust of this horse, to exercise him, to work him on the lead, with the halter, to de-sensitize him to touch and the sound of crumpling plastic bags (this comes in handy when she uses one to remove the stinging flat horse flies that so bother him). Yesterday, for the first time, she ran with him in the paddock. But also, he did a very tight circle around her, completely "en liberté" with no lead holding him in. It was the horse's choice to come in closer to her, and you could see he truly wanted to go to her, but awaited her signal to come in for a pat and a caress. He keeps an eye on her at all times, focused on her no matter the sounds and activities (of three small children and myself) on the periphery.

She is working towards being able to re-introduce the horse, Nestor, to the plough and its harness. The little old man who owns the horse has been afraid to even come near him, but now, as he watches Mireille work, he is ever so tempted. However, he is also quite of the "old school" and as such is loath to admit that a woman can be so skilled (he'll never say it aloud, but in his eyes you can see a softening) with a horse. But he has also learned patience, and that the earlier efforts by himself and so-called experts had simply hurt an otherwise very capable animal. Mireille put him at ease suggesting that they begin the work with the plough when no one else is present at the centre. Thus, allowing them to go slowly, at their and Nestor's pace, and without the curious eyes of others looking on.

She tells me that she begins by requesting gently that the horse do as she'd like, she invites him forward, then she lets him know she'd like him to move forward, and then, that he is going to move forward. She never goes further, but will repeat these three levels again and again, like a mosquito, never letting up, till at last, he moves forward (or trots, or backs up, or moves sideways, or brings his head around... you name it). It is a lesson in constance and patience and keeping your calm. In a test of wills by force, Mireille couldn't win, but with patience and constance yes, the horse eventually wants to please her.

I've written before that this is a favorite technique for her kids too... And, I can tell you from experience, it works. And what a relief to yell less (no one's perfect), and have my boys do as I ask, and want to please me. Win/win.

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