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Tuesday 11 December 2018

The secrets of the horse whisperers

An Irish horseman was the original protagonist of this form of equine therapy in the early 19th Century, but now the mysterious horse rehab method is riding on a higher plane near Paris

Horses for courses: 'Every horse and situation is different,' says Anne de Sainte Marie, La Cense's strategic director
Horses for courses: 'Every horse and situation is different,' says Anne de Sainte Marie, La Cense's strategic director
Word in your ear: 'Owners can use our method to strengthen their relationship with their horse,' says Anne de Sainte Marie
Man and beast: There are courses for horses with difficulties at La Cense in France, but also for owners to become 'horse whisperers' themselves
Outstanding in his field: Horse whisperer Jim Fogarty, pictured with George the horse and Louis the dog, at his farm in Ballyteague Co Kildare. Photo: Frank McGrath

Arlene Harris

The words 'horse whisperer' conjure up images of a gnarly Robert Redford talking, Hollywood-style, to a horse. In the 1998 film The Horse Whisperer, Redford played a strong but gentle character standing up to a dangerous stallion and creating a unique bond within days. However, the reality of horse whispering is somewhat different.

In La Cense in France, a trip to Europe's leading horse training centre sheds light on this almost mystical element of animal management.

Set amid countryside an hour outside Paris, La Cense was set up in 1985 by William Kriegel as a stud farm and professional stables. Over the year the venue gained praise for its outstanding competition results. But during this time, Kriegel began working on a new approach to the relationship between riders and horses combining scientific knowledge (ethology) with horse training techniques - and so Ecole La Cense was opened as the first professional centre specialising in ethological riding.

Throughout La Cense there is an overriding - excuse the pun - feeling of calm as horses up to 90 in number graze in individual paddocks or engage in training, or 'therapy' with staff and owners.

Word in your ear: 'Owners can use our method to strengthen their relationship with their horse,' says Anne de Sainte Marie
Word in your ear: 'Owners can use our method to strengthen their relationship with their horse,' says Anne de Sainte Marie

According to Anne de Sainte Marie, the centre's strategic director, many people choose to stable their horses at La Cense while learning how to develop a closer bond and how to interact with their animal.

"Every horse and situation is different, so there is no set time for 'therapy' to work," says the equine expert of the La Cense Method. "What we do here is specialised and unique, using science combined with knowledge to educate and train horses and most importantly to respect their nature and develop our link with them.

"We look at their environment, how they communicate with people and other horses and how their day is broken up with exercise, rest and feeding and use this knowledge to understand what each horse needs."

Indeed, as food is often seen as a means of rewarding animals for good behaviour, this is also used at La Cense, but de Sainte Marie says timing is everything.

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"When you give them something to eat just after teaching something, the horse understands better," she explains. "You have to feed less than 30 seconds after he follows an instruction so he can make the link. So when they are fed a long time after, it's purely as a means of reducing hunger as the horse doesn't understand it is a reward.

"Learning habits like this is part of how we educate horses and their riders - but how much they learn depends on their attitude and the relationship they have with their horse."

Outstanding in his field: Horse whisperer Jim Fogarty, pictured with George the horse and Louis the dog, at his farm in Ballyteague Co Kildare. Photo: Frank McGrath
Outstanding in his field: Horse whisperer Jim Fogarty, pictured with George the horse and Louis the dog, at his farm in Ballyteague Co Kildare. Photo: Frank McGrath

And while owners can come to La Cense to learn new methods of interacting with their horses, the venue is also a school where students from all over the world can enrol in a course which will put them on the road to becoming a 'horse whisperer' themselves.

Taught by experts such as Anne, programmes last anything from one session up to two years.

"We have a professional school where students come for a two-year course and also spend three months in Montana, US, before they graduate," she says. "We ask a lot of them but they also learn a lot. There are also people who come just for a short time and we are open to what they want so we adapt to them and explain how they can use our method to strengthen their relationship with their horse.

"We also offer programmes for horses, generally stallions or sport horses, with problems but try to only have young horses as the older they get, the harder it is and we cannot get the same result," she says.

"Seeing a horse change or improve his behaviour can be rewarding but the problem hasn't originated from the horse, so if we give him back to a rider who hasn't changed their ways, then it does make you hurt inside. So we always try to advise owners to help them to change their behaviour and when this works, it is very nice for everyone."

Communicating

But while La Cense is a world-renowned centre for communicating with horses, James Fogarty of Horse Whispering Ireland says the practice actually originated here.

"A horse whisperer is a trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs and desires of the horse, based on modern equine psychology," he says. "The term I believe goes back to the early nineteenth century when an Irish horseman, Daniel Sullivan, made a name for himself in England by rehabilitating horses that had become vicious and intractable due to abuse or accidental trauma.

"He kept his methods secret, but people who managed to observe him noticed that he would stand face-to-face with the troubled horse. They seemed to think that he must have been saying something to the horse in a way the horse could understand and accept because the horses were quickly gentled by his mysterious techniques."

Kildare-based Fogarty, who has been working with horses for decades, says we have a natural talent with horses in Ireland and people need to discover that deep-rooted skill and rely on this rather than any sort of punishment for perceived 'bad behaviour' in an animal.

"Our talent with horses is recognised throughout the horse world but in recent times we are underachieving," he says. "We need to re-discover our natural ability and this involves encouraging the horse to think and contribute - so we should listen and observe because without the horse's enthusiasm we will not achieve our potential.

"All riding horses, particularly competition horses, should be relaxed, agile and confident. It is illogical to expect a horse that is uncomfortable with gadgets or bullied and in fear of pain being inflicted to be soft and athletic - it's easy to identify talented riders as they are quiet, and their tack is usually at a minimum.

"So we need to encourage proper training or education towards a true feel and realise there is no quick fix. Gadgets do not work."

Like the experts in France, Fogarty says understanding the language of horses is crucial. People need to realise that flight is their first response and they will only fight if cornered and fearful.

I saw dozens of horses while I was in La Cense - some in training, some grazing, some out for a canter - and without exception each one appeared calm, content and well cared for. I was lucky enough to witness a session where an expert was coaching a student with a horse and there was no aggression, tension or stress involved - just gentle movements and some strange, but apparently understandable, clicking instructions from the human to the animal - both fully in tune and keenly aware of each other's presence.

La Cense is truly a special place - somewhere for people in the equestrian business to bring their horses for a unique type of R&R or therapy, a place where horse lovers can come for a few days of blissful riding or for those like myself, who simply appreciate the ambience, the ethos, the scenery and - of course - the food and wine at the luxuriously rustic adjoining accommodation for humans, Le Barn.

For more information visit www.lacense.com and for accommodation www.lebarnhotel.com

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