In the past decade or so the art of horsemanship has taken on many new directions for trainers and riders. Along with it are a raft of new words of the moment — savvy, join-up, horse whispering, natural horsemanship, and so on.
But Franklin Levinson — known as the Maui Horse Whisperer — has a plain, old-fashioned word that sums up his approach.
He says trust is one of the keys to success in almost any situation for the horse or the human.
“A horse that does not trust does not feel safe. Just as with a paranoid human, a fearful horse will never be fully present or able to respond appropriately in the moment,” Levinson says.
“Most of the so-called ‘bad behaviour’ of horses is them responding fearfully to something happening in the moment. It is not out of some premeditated or stubborn desire to go against our wishes. I look at the flight response of horses as moving to peace, rather than running from fear. They want that safe, peaceful feeling again, desperately.
“Without the feeling of trust,” he says, “we are always looking over our shoulder, as the horse is always looking over its shoulder for the predator. It’s trust that allows humans, as well as horses, to have full, rich lives.”
As the son of an alcoholic, Levinson’s own early life was no picnic. But his father was a keen polo player and young Frank quickly discovered he had a rapport with horses. “When children are not given the support of a consistently emotionally calm parent, it is hard for them to have feelings of trust and safety. But being around the polo ponies opened up a world for me where trust and safety did exist. From a very young age, horses would calm down when they were close to me,” he says. “Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I had no agenda when I was with them other than to have an enjoyable experience no matter what we were going to do.
“If my horse ran over the ball or made some sort of mistake on the field, there was no punishment dished out, as I saw other players do.”
Since then, Levinson has dedicated his life to horses. At 13, he was the youngest registered polo player in the United States. Only a few years later he was training polo ponies, starting young horses under saddle, and problem-solving with older horses. When he was 20, he was running equestrian programmes at summer camps. After several years training horses and riding competitively, Levinson moved to Maui, in Hawaii, and soon started a guided wilderness riding experience, Adventures On Horseback.
Always the teacher, he could not help but share his gentle techniques with the riders who came to Maui. “They quickly became better riders, and also became more relaxed, focused and centred throughout the day,” Levinson says.
From this, the Maui Horse Whisperer Experience was born in 1998. Since then, Levinson has been featured on many television programmes, including the Discovery Channel and ESPN. His venture took another turn in 2001, when a US horse breeder visited Levinson, and invited him to take a clinic at her Colorado ranch. As word of Levinson’s work with horses spread, the Colorado clinics took on the name ‘The Way of the Horse’. The concept proved such a hit that Levinson now divides his time between Colorado and Maui.
In The Way of the Horse, Levinson emphasises the importance of trust for the horse. “Safety equals trust which means peace for the horse. It’s the same for humans too. Who doesn’t want to be able to have a sense of safety in their life? We all need to trust in something, and that trust begins with ourselves, with our connection to each other and nature. As a horse who finds himself alone, way in the back of the herd, is more vulnerable to being eaten by a predator, so are we more vulnerable to doubt and fear by keeping ourselves separate from each other,” Levinson says.
Horses — and children — develop trust from appropriate guidance and support. “In the case of children, it usually comes from the parents. With horses, it comes from the mature horses and the herd leaders. For the domesticated horse, it is supposed to come from the humans who have the responsibility of caring for the horse.”
He says that in order to give a horse a sense of safety and peace, we have to find it within ourselves first. “I have found this to be especially true when working with troubled teens that come to my ranch. I ask them to help the horse feel safe with them, so the horses trust that the human will not abuse them and will protect them. When the kids help the horse to feel safe and calm, they feel safer and calmer themselves. I think earning the trust of the horse helps us to trust ourselves. By being trustworthy for our horses, we learn more about the nature of trust and how to trust. Trusting ourselves, to me, is related to having faith in yourself, which translates to self-esteem and confidence.
“I didn’t start to trust myself until later in my life. However, I did learn to trust horses early on. Now that I am older and have spent most of my life with horses, I have come to trust them even more. I have learned how to receive their communications better (they are fluent communicators) and respond appropriately. Horses trust me and do it quickly, because I have dropped any agenda other than being truly helpful for them. By becoming a peace bringer for the horse, they are attracted to me. They show me immediate trust and the utmost respect.”
But, he says, it’s not an automatic submission — he has to earn that trust. He does this being the respectful herd leader for them, by being the trustworthy parent.
Levinson tells of a friend, an author, who wrote about St. Francis of Assisi — the patron saint of animals — in a recent book. “When he visited recently we talked about what made St. Francis so attractive to animals. It was trust. The animals trusted him so very much and looked to him as the ‘great parent’ or the ‘great father’. Their trust was immediate and unwavering because he spoke only of peace and kindness to the animals and only had that as his intention for them.
“Perhaps we can take these lessons of peace for the animals into our lives as well. Then we can help each other to ‘trust’ more too. Maybe we can find ways to become peace bringers to each other, to have the intention to be kind and truly helpful. Perhaps then, we’ll be able to trust each other more also. Earning a horse’s trust may be just the practice we need.”