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Vol. 9, No. 13
March 29-April 4, 2001
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Straight from the Horse Whisperer’s Mouth,
How to Win the Trust of Animals and People

By Hanne Denney

The Horse Whisperer's horses have a lot in common with the kids who ride them at Maryland Therapeutic Riding

photo by Hanne Denney
As a college freshman, Naomi Perry needed a PE class despite recovering from a broken back. She took horseback riding and discovered her career.

Naomi Perry was only 17 when her life nearly ended. She survived the car wreck, but the accident that broke her back and pelvis took away her legs. Doctors thought she would not walk again.

A junior in high school, Naomi had hoped to become a doctor herself. She proved her doctors wrong. Through hard months of physical therapy, she regained her legs, however shaky, by her graduation. As a freshman at Westchester College in Pennsylvania, she was further shaken to learn the school required a credit in physical education. She could walk, slowly, but her body was not up to any sporting activity.

She would have to enroll in a course, then tell the instructor why she couldn't do it and withdraw. So she picked a physical education course far from anything she'd ever thought of doing as a physically fit person: cross-country horseback riding. Perry went to her first class expecting to talk her way out of it.

"Watch this movie about the children riding the horses," Stacy Beall said to her six-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. "Would you like to try to ride?" Her daughter, her special child, refused. "No." And again, "No."

"That first day," recalled Naomi Perry, "I walked into the barn, and something about the smell and the atmosphere - I was totally hooked." By the second week of class, she was on the back of a horse. She continued to ride each semester in college, getting stronger and stronger. Today her injuries are but a memory, and she credits both a great chiropractor and the horses she's known since her first college riding days.

At nine, Elizabeth had come a long way in dealing with a dual disability of autism and Downs Syndrome. She was doing okay in school, but her mom still wanted for something more for her daughter to experience. "Let's go watch the horseback riders," she suggested.

While she was healing, Perry followed her interest in medicine to a degree in biology. She hoped to become a veterinarian, for by now she knew that horses would center her life. Instead she became certified as a riding instructor and horse trainer. For the next 20 years, she both taught and competed, traveling the horse-show circuit and enjoying herself. "It was a fun life, but self-serving. It struck me there had to be more."

So Perry quit the business, gave up her riding and returned to Annapolis. She spent two months in reflection, waiting for an answer to guide her future. Flipping through equestrian magazines, she found what she'd been hoping for. On the last page of the last magazine, she spotted an ad seeking a therapeutic riding instructor to teach in Howard County. In the six months she taught there, "lightning struck."

"I knew I had to start my own program," Perry said. Her Maryland Therapeutic Riding Organization opened for riders in 1997.

Surrogate Cerebellums

Therapeutic riding, explains Perry, "applies the majesty, sensitivity and physical traits of a horse to the task of treating an individual with disabilities." Both mind and body respond to the rhythm of the ride.

Physical benefits for the rider include improved circulation, respiration, balance, coordination and muscle tone. Riding is good exercise for anyone, but the therapeutic rider gains an added benefit. The horse does the standing and moving, so the rider, freed from the need to concentrate on balance, can attend to refining coordination and body rhythm. The animal works as a surrogate cerebellum, moving the disabled person in a way they cannot do themselves.

On the mental side, controlling the movement of a large animal can empower the disabled person's sense of self. When a child is disabled, or injured, she spends a lot of time looking up at people looking down at her. She may not be in control of her body or her circumstances and may be unable to communicate her feelings. While astride the horse, the rider is not looked down on, but rather looked up to. The interaction between horse and therapeutic rider leads to self-discipline, self-esteem and self-confidence.

Riding is a social activity, as well. For people with disabilities, there may be few sports-like activities to do with family and friends. Maryland Therapeutic Riding involves family and peers. Parents and siblings can watch the riding session and at times even ride next to each other. The family can share in the pride of a child learning a new skill - and can share the fun.

Elizabeth looked up at a horse, standing tall and quiet. His size was massive next to her small frame. But she was strong, and she was ready. Using a mounting ramp, Elizabeth became as tall as the horse and getting up became less intimidating. The girl and the horse sat together for a moment, and then in one perfect instant, the horse took a step. Elizabeth's smile was as broad as the back on which she sat. She had become a therapeutic rider.

Through therapeutic riding, special needs people get help and rehabilitation in a non-institutional, non-clinical environment. Therapy becomes more indirect, yet no less focused or purposeful.

Therapeutic riding is now medically accepted as a treatment of many disabilities of mind and body. Among the disabilities it improves are neuromuscular disorders, cognitive limitations, autism, attention deficit disorder, spina bifida and cerebral palsy.

Elizabeth is now 10 years old. She still has difficulty communicating with people. But the animal understands her. With the pressure of her legs or a shift in her weight, she can tell the horse what to do. This is a big deal for a little girl.

Great Leaps

photo by Hanne Denney
Stacy Beall has watched her daughter Elizabeth, who suffers from Downs Syndrome and autism, grow thanks to therapeutic riding.

"I can't say enough good things about the program," says Elizabeth's mother, Stacy Beall. "They individualize a program for each rider, according to their abilities, and tune it to help the rider gain the greatest benefit. It has really made a difference for my child." Beall stands outside the ring, watching her daughter with obvious pride.

By 2000, Maryland Therapeutic Riding had connected over 100 riders with healing horses. By 2001, Naomi Perry's success was such that she drew the attention of a hero most of us have only met in books and movies: the Horse Whisperer.

Yes, the magician we met in fictional form as Robert Redford, a man so wise and gentle that only he could heal a horse who'd survived falling into a tractor-trailer. Redford's role was adapted from Nicholas Evan's novel The Horse Whisperer.

In real life, Monty Roberts is not Robert Redford. But his achievements are as legendary. He calls himself not a horse whisperer but a "listener."

"We hear that 'actions speak louder than words,' but generally we do not live by it too successfully," writes Roberts on his web page. He has also written two books, The Man Who Listens to Horses and Shy Boy. "The horse has a very effective, involved and discernible nonverbal language," says Roberts, who listens to that language.

One morning late last year, Naomi Perry found herself listening to amazing news. "I picked up the phone and out of the blue got invited to be Roberts' partner in a local demonstration - and share in the proceeds.

"Monty Roberts is the most fabulous horse person. To have a collaboration with him is such an honor," Perry said.

The Horses

The horse that works with a therapeutic rider has to be very gentle. It has to be willing to stand still, to move forward slowly and to accept unusual noise and motion. But it can't be as passive as most stable horses, waiting for the rider to tell it what to do. Some riders may not sit easily on the animal, and some make loud sudden noises. Some riders are over-eager, and some are afraid. The animal has to learn to be very trusting of humans. It has to know it will not be hurt. And if it is accidentally hurt or startled by its rider, it has to remain calm.

That's not all. The horse has to process much information at once. Not just the rider approaches, but a team of two or three from the side and front. So, says Perry, "our horses must be flexible and accommodating, able to process multiple sources of information."

For this special kind of horse, only a special kind of training will do. The horses used in the therapeutic riding program are trained using the "Join-Up" method developed by horse-listener Monty Roberts.

When a horse is undergoing traditional saddle training, he is often not unlike the disabled child, restrained without control of his body or his circumstances. He is expected to be without feeling, and no attempt is made to understand his communication. This does not have to be so.

Horse listener Monty Roberts uses an equine training program that works quite a bit like therapeutic riding, through communication between horse and human. Through trust and cooperation, the animal becomes a partner with the man, woman or child on its back. Horses listened to are trained without restraints, violence, or domination.

Traditional training methods may require as much as three weeks' work to "break" the animal. Monty Roberts "starts" the horse in as little as 30 minutes by using the "advance and retreat method." This psychological approach has the animal or person advancing while the other withdraws, back and forth. Eventually the animal is brought together with the human to work as one team. Roberts' method is trademarked as "Join-Up."

Perry "Joined-Up" when a friend who'd witnessed one of Roberts' demonstrations brought home a video. When she saw it, again "lightening struck" and she knew the program would work for the horses she trained for therapeutic riding. She built a round pen and began using Roberts' methods.

Even so, some horses don't make the cut. It's a matter of temperament, not age. Maryland Therapeutic Riding's five current therapeutic horses - Danny, Gresca, Ellie, Belle and Tommy - all are steady and reliable, trusting and friendly.

Listening Works Miracles

When a properly trained horse meets a special needs child or adult, the interaction can be wonderful.

The program does not work for all riders in the expected way. Perry recalls a young woman of 17 who had severe disabilities. Her mother brought her to the program, hoping it would help her learn to control her behavior. The child was excited about being there, but she wanted nothing more than to be near the horses. She would not mount a horse. For some time, she would come to her sessions and sit next to the animal.

Her favorite horse was thought by everyone else to be grouchy, yet something in her brought out his best. He would come to her and rest his head near her. The leaders and assistants would stand patiently while the girl sat with the horse. Remarkably, all rocking and loud vocalization stopped; the mother said this was the quietest her daughter had ever been. Sometimes the girl would lead the horse all over the farm, and the "grouchy" horse would gently follow her lead. She never did ride, but that didn't really seem to matter. She still gained tremendous therapeutic benefit.

"Miracles happen every day, it's wonderful. Crying is normal for us here," Perry says.

People Help, Too

The round pen is almost completely enclosed, with a narrow opening at the ceiling to let in light. Three riders are sitting on horses. Chris Tyszkiewicz, 12; and Leann Lambden, 13, join Elizabeth. Each horse is led by rope by an adult volunteer, though Leann and Chris sometimes guide their horses alone. Elizabeth, sitting on Danny, has Stacy walking next to the horse, encouraging her and giving a steadying touch if needed. Barbara is Danny's leader. The three riders are totally focused on their horse and the movement around the pen. "I can control the horses," says Chris. "Most of the time."

Maryland Therapeutic Riding has a staff of five, and regular volunteer troops number 50 or 60. Volunteers are old and young, male and female. Stacey Thompson, a freshman at Anne Arundel Community College, came to the program to fulfill a sociology community service requirement. Thompson chose Maryland Therapeutic Riding because working with horses and children sounded like fun. She continued her volunteer hours when her coursework was completed. She walks alongside her rider, Elizabeth, offering encouragement and physical support as needed. Barbara Shepherd, Danny's leader, has been a volunteer for the past year. Her children have left home, and leading the horses for the riders fulfills her desire to help others.

Riders may work with the same horse and leader each time they come, especially if their therapeutic needs call for stability and routine. In other cases, a child may need to learn flexibility and the skill of coping with different circumstances. For that child, a different horse and leader are used for each session. Maryland Therapeutic Riding works closely with each rider's medical staff, family and therapists to decide what might work best.

Not Just for Kids

About 75 percent of Maryland Therapeutic riders are children. But adults can also gain great benefit from therapeutic riding. Most often, adult riders are dealing with late-onset illness such as stroke, multiple sclerosis or fibromyalgia.

"When someone is affected by something that limits them in their daily life, they find they can go beyond what they think they can do when given the opportunity," says Perry. "Sometimes our adult riders try things they would never have done before their illness or injury began, because the experience as a rider has given them confidence. Horses can inspire adults as well as children."

Physicians, physical and occupational therapists and the educational community refer riders to Maryland Therapeutic Riding, which is a public charitable organization supported by grants, fundraising and donations. At $360 for eight sessions, it can be an expensive therapy, but some scholarships help make it affordable.

Listen Here

Money is always scarce, especially now that Maryland Therapeutic Riding has outgrown its longtime home at Waters End Farm in Annapolis. On April 1, the program will be moving to larger quarters at Arden Farms in Crownsville, where three horses will be added.

Maryland Therapeutic Riding hopes to raise over $5,000 on Wednesday, April 18, at 7pm, when Monty Roberts "starts" one or more horses at the Show Place Arena at Prince George's Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro.

In a 50-foot round pen smack in the middle of the arena floor, Roberts and an untrained horse will approach and withdraw while he listens and whispers to the horse in sounds he calls "Equus." At the same time, he explains every step to the audience. It takes about 30 minutes for a horse to bond with the human to the point where it will allow itself to be bridled, saddled and ridden. Roberts may also work with a horse with behavioral problems to try to rehabilitate it as a riding horse.

Roberts also promises to tell how listening also works with other species, including kids and adults, and in other situations. As he says, "I teach how much more can be accomplished with kindness and non-confrontational behavior-shaping techniques."

Roberts is seeking local horses to work with in the upcoming demonstration. He can help horses that have never been bridled or ridden, "loaders" who are afraid to get into a trailer, horses that are head-shy or buck or horses that are uncooperative with vets or ferriers or have other behavioral problems.

To have your horse screened for possible work with Monty Roberts, e-mail Shelly Horten at [email protected].

For more information on Monty Roberts, visit or call 888/826-6689.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly