Horsemanship and Equine Assisted Programs & Therapies

I have been a professional horseman, trainer and instructor since the age of 17. At 13 years of age I was the youngest registered polo player in the United States. Currently, at 71 years of age, I have been a paid as a professional trainer and instructor for over 50 years. I was fortunate to have established my own small ranch on the island of Maui in the early 80s and began a horse trekking business into the beautiful tropical outback of Maui’s pristine north shore. This business operated for over 30 years. Prior to moving to Maui, while working as a riding instructor at large summer camps in N. Michigan, I discovered that if I taught the children something about the nature, language and psychology of horses, how to handle them on the ground, along with how to ride them, the entire experience was elevated into discovery about themselves as well as about life itself. A simple riding lesson became an exercise in developing self-awareness, kindness, compassion, integrity and mindfulness. Additionally, the skills of good leadership and how to have a successful team experience were also part of this unique learning program.

Early on, I learned about the significance of developing trust with horses. I love to ride but learning about how and why trust is so important to a horse, brought whatever I did with a horse to a higher and safer level. As trusting it is safe (survival) is paramount to a horse and the most important aspect to its life, developing trust with the horse became the first and foremost thing I did with all horses I interacted with. I began teaching ‘horse’ to all who came to work or ride with me.

In the late 80’s I heard about Equine Experiential Learning EEL) which was started by a woman named Barbara Rector in Arizona. I was very interested in ways of developing the horse/human experience beyond humans riding horses, so I signed up for one of her programs. This experience changed my life significantly. It was not long after that I began my own Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) program called The Maui Horse Whisperer Experience. This was not a program that merely ‘used’ horses within its process. I wanted a partnership with the horses involved. This decision to consciously and intentionally, ‘partner’ and not just use horses, really set my program apart from many others that began to pop up around the country. My focus was not to only to develop a program that was beneficial to the human but was unquestionably beneficial to the horse at the same time. To accomplish this, I needed to be able to impart some basic knowledge of horses to the humans who came to me.

I had visited many other equine assisted programs in those early days and was often disappointed, and even angered, at what I saw. I frequently saw horses emotionally abused by humans who knew little of the nature of horses and seemed to care even less. I would question the humans providing these programs and was frequently told their focus was entirely on processing the human through the program and not about horses or teaching anything about horses. It became obvious to me that these people knew little of the real nature of horses. This was not their job was a refrain that was so often repeated to me. For a time, I became a publicly outspoken critic of these other equine facilitated programs. One had quickly become a nationally recognized organization. They did not care for me as I had gained some credibility and notoriety in the field by that time and was openly and publicly critical of them. Here is an example of a common exercise that made my stomach upset; they would give a halter to a human and tell them to go and put it on a horse. They never said anything about the horse or the piece of equipment. So here is a human with a piece of horse equipment and told to fasten it on to a horse and no information about the horse or equipment given. The facilitator would then proceed to psychologist that human based on the struggle the human had with the horse and task. Imagine if this was a 7-year-old child and the equipment was the shoulder pads of a football uniform and the adult had never seen a helmet, knee or shoulder pads used before. So now you have an adult struggling to put this equipment on the child and the child being made afraid by the struggling of the human. This is what I saw happening to the horse during these and similar exercises. A human who is unsure around them will often create fear within the horse.

In the beginning the normal model for an equine assisted program was for there to always be an equine professional present. Eventually, this requirement was dropped because so many folks doing this work felt they had all the horse knowledge necessary and the added expense of paying another person was unnecessary. It seemed that if someone had owned a horse in their life or ridden a fair amount that was all the horse experience they needed to do this work. This was and still is the norm in many places doing this work. It can be easily seen that the horse becomes a fearful victim because of the ignorance of the humans no matter how well-intentioned they are.

My intention with this short treatise is an attempt to motivate as many of the people doing this work that I can, to gain the experience and knowledge with horses to understand what it really means to develop a trust-based partnership with a horse doing any activity with a human and especially within the process of an equine assisted program. If a program is not as beneficial for the horse as it is for the humans involved, don’t do it. Be part of the solution in resolving this unfair and unsatisfactory situation regarding horses participating in any equine facilitated program.

About the author

Franklin Levinson

Franklin Levinson has been a professional horseman for nearly 50 years. At 13 years of age he was the youngest registered polo player in the US. He was an outfitter and wilderness guide at his ranch on the island of Maui for 30 years and created The Maui Horse Whisperer experience, which was the first Equine Facilitated Learning program in the Pacific basin and one of the first in the US. He travels worldwide giving clinics as well as offering private horse training and phone consultations. www.wayofthehorse.org

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