By Amy Fendley
He stresses that horse problems are man-made and says that most trainers and horsepeople run into problems when they try to change the nature of their horse.
Kent Williamson operates his Horseoneship clinics out of Three Point Stables, near Millarville, Alberta. He is highly sought after and his clinics fill up fast. Next month he will be working his magic in Pemberton. He is not coming with a special rope, bit or method, he will only bring a way of thinking, in hope of changing others.
Williamson has been featured in Maclean’s, on CBC and in horsemanship publications Canadian and American. But he likes to be known primarily as a teacher, and secondly as a horse whisperer, a vaquero.
The idea is to start with nothing, and end up with more than you started with — to turn bad horses into nice horses.
Once the horse is in its natural state, stripped of all gimmicks and contraptions, Williamson begins to set down the rules by putting pressure on the horse and then taking if off, repetitively and without restraint until the horse begins to pay attention.
The 30-year-old trainer is one of about a dozen well-known horse whisperers in North America, not including the quiet old-timers who don’t market their skills.
Horse whispering dates back to the Moors, but it was popularized by the international best-seller The Horse Whisperer, by British author Nicholas Evans, and the Robert Redford movie of the same name. Also by other veteran horsemen such as Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Monty Roberts (The Man Who Listens to Horses).
Old World horse whisperers were thought to be sorcerers who relied on potions and magic to train their steeds, although many used the methods of touch and gesture Williamson now employs.
The technique is done with movements, respect and positivity, with the intention of getting a horse to move on its own will, in its own time.
"I always get the ‘how do you do it’ line, and then I’d ask ‘do you have a month?’ Simply put, horses shut you off if you can’t be a leader and they become numb, and that can be very dangerous," says Williamson, who grew up on a ranch in Bragg Creek, Alberta, 40 km west of Calgary.
"I try to keep it simple when I teach. There is a tendency to get bunged up with these horses... to live up to horse expectations takes a lot of work. The slower you go, the faster you get there."
As civilization has "progressed" and as people moved off the land and into cities, a gulf opened up between man and nature. Horse whispering nearly became a lost art. But over the past 10 years it has become almost trendy, and Williamson worries any trainer may claim to be a horse whisperer.
"All the media attention may be jeopardizing the label," he says.
Williamson’s Pemberton Horseoneship clinic will be offered for two days, but there are only eight spaces left.
"I was in the area once before, at a stable in Squamish. It was wet... it rained unbelievably," says Williamson. "There were about 10 horses that were really hard to deal with. One of them was really dangerous and I had spent three days with it. One week later on a trail ride, that horse saved its owners’ life. They were riding through a bog and she fell off and landed underneath him. She got out, the horse didn’t panic, and step by step she got him out too. A week before he would have trampled her, but this time he didn’t move."
What Williamson is trying to do is build horse confidence by changing negative habits — habits which are learned from horse handlers. So in the process of trying to build respect in the horse, he also teaches handlers to change their attitudes and thinking, so as to release the horse.
"Horses have similar characteristics to a four or five year old child," Williamson claims. "They get into this little routine, like having Cheerios every morning. What you want to do is try to change the plan, and maybe not have Cheerios one day. Humans put too many obstacles, barriers and emotions in the way, without realizing that emotions are not a motivator. You may love your child, but it needs discipline and direction, and to be taught respect. Most people mistake discipline for punishment."
It is respect that has to be earned, something Williamson’s stepfather, Bob Echlin, explained to him years ago. Echlin, founder of the popular Elkana dude ranch in Bragg Creek, taught Williamson about horse whispering from the time he was eight years old. For the past 12 years, Williamson has made his living from it, peppering his lectures with the wisdom of his teacher — the need to avoid bribing a horse or cheating it of food to get it to behave. He continues to try to live up to horses, developing a heightened sense of consciousness, saying "horses are above us."
Williamson says that he doesn’t get scared when he’s in the ring with a wild mustang, but fear arises when he has to retrain an English horse that has never been taught proper respect or control.
"With psychological or neurotic horses, either ship them to the packers or do something. When horses get screwed up, they run scared and have imaginary ghosts, sometimes penned horses will try to run through a fence and hurt themselves, you’d never see this behaviour in a natural horse," he says. "It’s important to remember they are not pets, not humans, they’re horses and they have to be dealt with the way they are in nature. They don’t need man, they need mother nature."
Getting a horse to respond means applying the "pressure principle." Horses feel pressure in a variety of ways, Williamson says: through changes in weather, changes in the topography of the trail, and hierarchical changes among the herd. For example, when the matriarchal mare moves through a group of horses, the other animals yield. Humans, Williamson adds, can have the same impact.
"A horse’s brain works independently on both sides," says Williamson. "Its senses work independently. If you’re turning to the left, but smacking the horse on the right, there’s going to be resistance."
One of Williamson’s patrons-to-be next month is Grace Gordon-Collins, an architect who divides her time between her Pemberton and Vancouver homes. She has a problem-horse, and admits she needs help to understand what makes her horse tick.
Her horse — Joy — bites, kicks, rolls and demonstrates many other bad habits she accumulated over seven years from her original owner. She has severe emotional problems.
"She started off as a sweet horse, and something happened to her, but we hope she will regain that sweetness," said Gordon-Collins. "When she was younger, kids would tease her with food from the fence. In order to catch the food before it disappeared, Joy would lunge at it. She is still like that with food and is aggressive around children. If there’s a glimmer of hope, I won’t have to write her off."
With his clinics filling up quickly, and a growing waiting list, it won’t be likely that Williamson will be back this way anytime soon.
Williamson can work on about 12 horses at a time and charges $220 for his two-day clinics.
Eight committed people and horses are currently being sought to participate in the May 15-16 clinic at 8687 Pemberton Meadows. To register, call 894-5887. Registration is on a first come, first served basis. The cost is $50 for spectators.