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By Frank Bell
I was working with some clients in south Florida when I heard Fred Brook’s desperate plea for help. His voice on my voice mail sounded both desperate and regretful. “Frank. I need some help with a young filly. We got into a little tussle a while back and I just can’t get anywhere with her. Give me a call as soon as you can,” he pleaded.
I’d met Fred Brooks about three years earlier. He was managing a very attractive ranch for some high-end hunter/jumper people outside Monument, Colorado. He was in his late fifties and by no means an opposing figure. He seemed to have a good rapport with animals. His dogs always greeted me with such enthusiasm that their tails seemed to be wagging their bodies. Fred had watched me deal with some very difficult horses. One huge chestnut thoroughbred gelding had left a woman in a wheelchair and needed to be laid down to work through his explosive fits. The horse had come through beautifully and by the end of the session I was riding while swinging a loud plastic bag over the horse’s head. Fred had been impressed enough to buy a couple of my videos for his son in Pennsylvania who was also getting into horses. But I sensed an edge in Fred a short fuse that could turn violent in an instant. That turned out to be exactly the case.
The Cold Hard Truth...
I left a message telling Fred I would be back in Colorado in a couple of weeks and would give a call. I reached him after I’d settled in for a couple of days. “So Fred, tell me what happened,” He began with a tone of guilt in his voice. “I’ve got this yearling filly who I can’t get near. She’s out of quarter horse racing stock, so pretty high strung. Well I did something really dumb. I was working with her six months ago and she kicked me in the leg, bad. I just reacted. I had a rake in my hand and whacked her with it hard. Broke the rake in half! I’ve tried everything since then, but I can’t get anywhere with her and she’s gotten violent and aggressive. I just can’t afford to get hurt.” “Hey I can’t either Fred,” I acknowledged. My heart thumped fast and hard as I listened to his story. So I was going to try to help this horse that probably wanted to attack me. Real fun stuff.
I felt a sense of resignation as I reflected on how this whole thing had evolved. I had attained this reputation that put me time after time in dangerous situations. And I succeed time after time in bringing these horses back. How interesting this journey had become.
I drove down to the boarding stable early Saturday morning. The place was located east of Colorado Springs just where the plains started. Those same plains ran endlessly and became progressively flatter right into Kansas. The facility was a low-budget run-down rag-tag operation with dark cramped stalls and runs with dangerous sagging fencing on all sides. A winter’s worth of manure was on top of every surface. The place was destined for development and the bulldozer hence no one made much effort to maintain aesthetics.
Fred greeted me, though I didn’t recognize him. He’d aged ten years in three. “Say, I’m looking for Fred,” I inquired. “I’m Fred,” he reached out with a firm handshake and sincere smile. “Thanks for coming down Frank. I hope you can help me. I’m just at wit’s end with this horse,” he admitted. He told me the story in full detail as we walked through the barn to Maggie’s stall that connected to a decent sized run. We stopped at the stall door and looked to the outside where a teen-aged girl was with the horse. “She trusts Heather more than anyone. She can touch her just a little. But try to put a halter on and she goes ballistic. She’s really dangerous. I hope you can get somewhere with her Frank. Please be careful.” I observed an attractive bay yearling that I would have taken for a thoroughbred. Everything was long on the horse. Long legs, long body, and long head. But she seemed to have an intelligent eye, not mean, but hesitant and very watchful. “She doesn’t trust men one bit,” Fred added. “Wonder why?” I thought to myself suppressing my smile. “Well where can I work with her Fred? Do you have a round pen or a small area,” I inquired? We looked around the place for a reasonable place to work with her, but there just wasn’t anything even close to what I’d hoped for. Finally we settled on a stall across the center alley that ran down the length of the barn. I went to get my gear as Fred and Heather pushed Maggie across the alley into the 12x12 stall.
The stall was not ideal. It was dark and dusty with a low ceiling and way too much loose dried manure. The dark wood walls ran up to the sloping ceiling that was quite low at the back of the stall. The wall on the alley side was about five feet high and the stall-door was rickety and had a bad latch. I didn’t like the arrangement at all, but really had no choice if I was going to help this lovely troubled lady. I ached for the distrust and anguish I could read on her face.
I entered the stall slowly keeping my eyes down and off her. She shot into the corner and sulked with her rump to me. She took a quick look with her left eye only, then violently bolted into the next corner moving to my right. The wood structure groaned loudly as she collided into the wall. I moved into the opposite corner and squatted down quietly and waited for her to take a look or face me. Nothing. So I started making a soft kissing noise, and then began to tap lightly on the wall behind me. The kissing and tapping became gradually louder until she finally took a look. I stopped immediately and moved my eyes to the floor. She took a five-second look at me, then turned her head away, and then abruptly looked back at me, then away again. “What in the world is this guy doing,” she seemed to say? I started tapping and kissing, again progressively louder and more obvious until she turned her head to me. I stopped immediately. She looked at me, then lowered her head and worked her mouth. “That’s a good sign,” I whispered.
Fred and Heather were spellbound, frozen on the side watching intently. “Wow. She is a case Fred,” I observed. “Hand me the bamboo pole very slowly,” I instructed. As Fred began extending the pole to me in the corner, Maggie noticed. She whirled completely around and charged into the far corner with a loud thump as the whole structure trembled. I moved to the stall door as she turned and charged me. “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” I hissed loudly and raised my arms aggressively facing her, making my 5’10’ stature as large and imposing as possible. She froze and so did I. Mexican standoff. I waited about five seconds staring at her intensely, then began to wave my arms in the air aggressively toward her and firmly commanded, " back, back, back." She took steps back away from me as I bore down on her. “Open the gate please,” I ordered. Fred unfastened the latch and I slowly backed out, breathing very hard. This was one very freaked out horse that would have attacked me if I hadn’t turned the tables on her and become the aggressor.
Time for a Breather. Dusty in Here.
“I’ll have to say Fred, this is unlike any horse I’ve ever encountered. She’s terrified, but also aggressive and intimidating. Interesting,” I commented as I walked outside for a breath of fresh air. The stall was thick with a winter’s accumulation of that very fine nasty dust. I gulped the cool air heartily as I gazed at the Rockies to the west and the mountain that made Colorado famous a century and a half ago, Pike’s Peak. It was indeed a magnificent spring day on the Front Range with all forms of life in the midst of coming out to greet the warmth and intense high altitude sunlight. I guess Maggie was feeling the springtime energy as well. A few minutes to allow the dust and the horse to settle is never a bad idea.
I walked back to the stall door and found Maggie standing in the corner looking at the three of us. Her expression was alert, but a bit more relaxed then when we’d last parted.
“Guess it’s show time,” I addressed to Fred and Heather. “She gonna make it Frank,” Fred searched my face? “Oh sure. We’ll get there. I just don’t know the perfect route right now. So we’ll feel our way into it. This bamboo pole treatment is pretty effective with real touchy horses. Use it a lot on mustangs every year at a workshop I’m part of. Watch closely Fred. You may need this someday,” I directed. I wanted Fred to make it with this horse. But she was a tough one. Real tough and had learned to take nothing from anybody if she didn’t want to. This one was a truly dangerous horse.
I walked in with purpose, but in an inviting manner as if to say, “Let’s talk things over.”
I lowered my stature as she did the same. Very deliberately I inched the 10’ bamboo pole hand over hand from Fred into the stall.
I wanted her in the corner I’d just come from. It was brighter, more inviting, and just felt right sixth sense stuff. Keeping the pole low I eased to my right crowding her. She lurched into the opposite corner just where I wanted her and again we both settled in. She’d sneak a look here and there, but was very nervous. She was also just a little bit curious. This was all so knew to her and she still didn’t understand this new game one little bit. New material. Very, very slowly I eased the pole into the air and waved it well in front of her so she could see it. I offered it to her for her to sniff. Very suspiciously she inched her nose out and touched it, then abruptly pulled her head back in. She snorted and tried to strike the pole with her right foot. I waved the pole slowly up and down, and then eased it over and above her whole body to her rear. She watched intently as her whole body shook in fear. Beads of sweat were showing on her chest and neck. I brought the pole back to her front and offered it to her again. She sniffed it again, but was more certain this time and didn’t bolt her head away when it touched her nose. I figured she was ready and prepared my own footing to be able to move fast if she exploded. Very deliberately I moved the pole over her head and neck and down onto her withers, making firm steady contact. The moment she felt it she charged forward violently into the stall door corner. Fred and Heather fled as she crashed into the door. Fortunately the latch held. I moved into the diagonal corner from her and kept the pole firmly on her withers. I kept my statue low, bent over, and my eyes averted. She could only stay settled for a few seconds before needing to move around the stall, but I was able to maintain contact from the middle of the stall and eventually she stopped in the corner where she felt safe. I was relieved when she stopped as the air was again thick with dust, and I really wanted some clean air. But I waited for a few minutes with a hanky over my face to allow the horse and the air to settle down. Then I began sawing back and forth while pushing down with a bit of pressure, “fiddling” as my friend John Sharp called it. Right then and there I knew we were going to make it. “We’re over the hard part. She’s going to be alright Fred.” She licked her lips and lowered her head and acquiesced to the touch that was my doing, but not my hand. “This is great Frank,” Fred sighed with a sense of relief.
Gentling Horses With a Bamboo Pole
John Sharp had taught me this bamboo pole technique 3 years earlier when we gentled wild mustangs together at the Wild Horse Workshop in Antioch, California. He had been using this process for almost sixty years and was finally getting credit for this fascinating and effective approach to gentling the wild ones. Sharp, now in his mid-eighties was passing his valuable knowledge on. I felt honored not only to be working with this master, but more importantly to be learning his secrets from a lifetime of working with horses of every shape and color.
Today John Sharp and I are the dynamic duo at the annual Wild Horse Workshop of which we are both charter members. We gentle horses side by side and help each other when it’s needed. We play cribbage after lunch and take toddy at the end of the day. John is one of my best friends.
Back in the dark stall, Maggie was accepting the ‘fiddling’ on her back and inviting me to explore the rest of her body, which is exactly how the technique works. From her withers I fiddled slowly back to her rump then over her dock and quickly down the back of her legs, whisking the pole away as fast as possible. She kicked out violently, but didn’t connect with the pole. Back to her withers, I pressed down firmly until she settled then started again. I was very gradually inching closer and closer while keeping my stature low and non-threatening. Before long she was accepting the pole well and seemed comfortable with me just off her shoulder. I eased the pole to the ground and extended my hand. She sniffed my hand thoroughly, then let out a long deep sigh as if to say, “Okay, I’m ready to trust you . . . just a little bit.” I then made first contact with the back of my hand on her neck just below her withers. My left hand then very slowly but deliberately worked up onto her withers. I started kneading her lower neck and withers just as John Sharp had taught me.
The Magic of the Withers
The withers is a truly magical area on almost all horses. We’ve all observed two horses nuzzling each others’ withers in the pasture. It seems to generate a sense of security, pleasure, and well-being. It is also conveniently located right in our front yard when riding a horse. How convenient. Ever since my fortuitous meeting with Mr. Sharp, I’ve used the withers to help calm and reassure horses both in the saddle and on the ground.
With Maggie accepting my touch I repositioned myself to face forward. I eased my right hand under her jaw and found the V underneath. My fingernails scratched deeply into the matted hair as she delighted in my attentions. Again she sighed deeply and dropped her head seeking my touch. I tipped her head toward me with my right hand and found her face with my left. Very gently I searched her face to find her pleasure spots as she really began to trust and melt. I call this ‘search touching.’ Within a few minutes I was rubbing her eyes vigorously with the palm of my hand. My fingers found the corner of her mouth then the inside as I feathered her tongue with my index finger, then my whole hand. Up her face and onto her forehead I scratched vigorously with my fingernails in her swirl area, noting a pronounced double swirl that sent a clear signal to me.
The Science of Swirls
There have been extensive studies done on the placement of swirls on horses’ foreheads. All horses have a swirl on their forehead. It may be located right between their eyes or high up in the middle of their head above the eyes, and anywhere in between. It may be off to the right or left. And it may be very subtle or quite pronounced. And then there may be two swirls. They are usually right together, even touching. This usually signals a complex horse, sometimes dangerous, sometimes gifted almost always high-strung.
I specialize in working with difficult horses and get my fair share of double swirls percentage-wise a lot more than nature ever created. I believe these horses are like our human geniuses. Some of these gifted humans fit into society quite well and have made huge contributions some not at all, ending up in institutions. I believe it’s the same with horses. The double swirls I’ve encountered were almost all a bit complex and usually full of energy. I take special note and care when I encounter these animals. I’ve coached them back to the racetrack to become winners. I’ve also informed some of their owners that they were in way over their heads.
Noting the obvious double swirl on Maggie’s forehead helped me understand her nature a bit better. I decidedly progressed at a slower pace than normal, knowing full well that once she came through, she would be fine. I also understood that Fred could be as much of a challenge as his horse.
7 Steps to a Safe Ride
I’ve developed a pattern in my work with horses, all horses. I use a proven set of exercises to establish a relationship, build trust, and establish myself as the respected director. Horses like having a leader. It makes decision-making easy, and I gently and lovingly show them the way. After we’ve developed that trust we move to problem solving. I would rather discover, address, and fix the horse’s issues on the ground than encounter surprises in the saddle. That accomplished, we then progress to a dressage maneuver on the ground, and then do the same in the saddle. This set of exercises takes 80-90% of the risk out of the ride. I like those odds a lot!
The first step in my 7 Step System is bonding, which is exactly what Maggie and I were doing. And now it was time to progress to the most basic premise of all training, take and give, the second step. All communication requires the use of pressure which is sometimes exceedingly subtle sometimes at the opposite end of the scale and very intense. I first teach a horse to drop his head, which accomplishes two distinct goals.
Yield to pressure
Get relaxed. A horse cannot have his head down and not be relaxed.
I apply downward pressure from the halter or my hand. The moment the horse drops his head one iota, the pressure ends. To my way of thinking this communication needs to be firmly entrenched to teach most anything.
I eased my right hand up Maggie’s neck to just behind her ears and massaged her pole area. I then pushed down with the flat of my hand asking her to drop her head. She resisted and pushed up against the pressure. The flat hand slowly became a slight pinch on the skin of her upper neck just behind her ears. She searched for that discomfort to end raising her head and shaking her head from one side to the other then she dropped her head an inch and was completely released. She licked her lips as I allowed this bit of information to sink in. Again I began with a pushing down motion on her upper neck. Again she resisted. The slight pinch urged her to drop her head. This time the drop was 6”. Within a few minutes hand pressure on her pole meant ‘drop your head.’ I helped her find a wonderful place with her head down close to the ground with me kneeling next to her. Relaxed, confidant, and understanding the most basic premise of all training- pressure and release, take and give.
Using her nose-handle, the piece of bone just above her nostril that conveniently accepts three or four fingers, I guided her head to each side into her girth area and breathed into her nose. As I did so I eased my other hand over her belly and up to the dock of her tail that I scratched deeply. I felt her tail rise in delight as I feathered the silky underside with the back of my fingernails. This is the third step of my program that I call intimacy. This signifies big league trust and a high level of confidence.
Bring on the Halter
At this point Maggie was begging for more. She was really enjoying the process of trusting a human again and genuinely loving the work. School was fun. But the haltering could trip a panic switch, and we could lose everything. Fred handed my soft rope halter/lead combo to me from the door. “This is fabulous Frank. You are making incredible headway. I guess this will really be the test won’t it,” Fred asked, reading my mind? “Watch this process Fred. You’ll be doing the same when I leave, so pay very close attention. The idea is to halter her without fanfare. I really want her to hardly know it’s happened.”
I eased over to her with the halter and 12’ lead all balled up, not hanging down. I held it out for her to sniff thoroughly. She took her sweet time. Time we had in abundance. Then I turned and faced toward her rear and eased my left hand under her neck to contain her. With my right I gently rubbed the rope all over her neck/wither area. She handled this well, so I turned around and arranged the halter to fit with the nose opening in my left hand. Again I gently rubbed the halter on the side of her face as I contained her head with my right hand. I gave her the same attention I’d given her earlier as we bonded, only this time I just happened to have a rope doing some of the work. Rubbing her eyes first, she immediately started to melt as I eased the opening down over her face and found her nose. She hardly noticed that her nose was now deeply in the halter. I deftly reached over her neck, retrieved the end, and tied the knot that secured the halter. Presto. Success.
Knowing full well that Fred would not be quite as handy as I with the halter, I led Maggie around the stall in each direction, asked her to drop her head, and then took the halter off. She licked her lips heartily and followed me right over to the stall door as if to say, “That’s not it, is it?” “Well no. It isn’t,” I mentally answered. “Okay Fred I’m going to halter her a couple more times, then I want you to do the same. Okay?” “Man I’m nervous Frank. She’s so afraid of me. Let’s let Heather give it a try first. What da ya think, “ Fred asked? “I think that’s a great idea Fred.”
I turned around to find Maggie patiently waiting for more schooling. This time I uncoiled the halter/lead right in front of her as she watched curiously. I eased into her left side and offered the nose opening and waited . . . She wasn’t getting it, so I made the slightest suggestion with my right hand on her pole. She remembered that lesson well and dropped her head right into the opening. I snugged it up onto her nose, loved on her, and took it off. Again I offered the opening only this time after a short pause I gave a soft cluck. She immediately found the opening with gusto. Again I loved her up heartily. One more try and she couldn’t get her nose in there fast enough.
" Okay Heather. Let’s give it a whirl,” I suggested. Heather entered the stall and gave Maggie a big hug, then offered the halter. Maggie found that nose opening even faster than she had with me smart horse. After three tries Fred came in with a bit of trepidation. I made sure he loved on her and worked her withers and rubbed her eyes. A little bonding goes a long way in a short time. I instructed him to kept his eyes soft and averted. Then and only then did he offer the halter. She dropped her head right into it even before he was ready. After Fred had haltered Maggie three times successfully he slipped it off and wrapped his arms around her neck and buried his face in her mane. His whole body shook as he enveloped her. When he turned back to us his lips were trembling and his face was wet with tears. She was back and so was he.
Frank has written an informative article entitled ‘Fishing for Mustangs’ that fully explains the use of the bamboo pole to gentle wary horses. It is accessible on his website at: horsewhisperer.com. Our new mustang video that fully demonstrates this process is in the works.
Discover the Horse You Never Knew!
A 60-minute video that will change you and your horse's life and relationship! Frank's Foundation Video...the place to start!
Frank Bell and his accredited instructors have been helping horses with their people problems for several decades. He writes interesting and educational stories about these horses and their challenges. He also helps people better understand how to communicate with these magnificent creatures by answering their vexing questions on his website.
Frank has designed a logical set of exercises that immediately places both parties on higher ground . . . without the need for a round pen. Suddenly both parties are riding in confidence instead of fear.
Frank Bell's 7-Step Safety System (7-SSS) has been featured in horse magazines and e-zines throughout the world including a three-part series in Western Horseman magazine. Frank's video " Discover the Horse You Never Knew" fully outlines " the system" and is available in the audio/video library that includes thirteen works.
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