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Making horse sense

The man swings the stall door wide.

The horse lifts its head, eyes the man, flares its nostrils and cocks an ear.

The man waits for the animal to take a deep, relaxing breath, then enters the stall making a soft clicking sound with his mouth.

The familiar noise thaws any remaining tension in the horse's features.

The man lifts his right hand and gently places it between the animal's eyes.

The horse nods.

The man's other hand vigorously rubs the animal's neck. His hands drop to his side and again the man waits for the horse to show him it's OK to continue.

The man, horse trainer Vaughn Knudsen, has the patience of Job.

Working at the Rockin' E Farms in West Bountiful, Knudsen knows that the best way to train a panic-driven, often obstinate animal into a well-disciplined horse is through gentle persuasion, but only after discovering and satisfying the animal's needs.

"It's simply learning horse behavior," Knudsen says.

Knudsen began his "horse learning" while growing up on his father's cattle ranch in Elko, Nev. As a ranch hand, he met and worked with Tom Dorrance (the man who inspired the book and film "The Horse Whisperer") and his brother Jim.

"To my knowledge it was Tom Dorrance who started Resistant Free Training," says Knudsen. "Tom learned from the horse itself. He watched horses in their natural habitat, observing their behavior and duplicating that as a person." Today, Knudsen applies what he learned from Dorrance, along with techniques picked up or developed over the years as a trainer of professional show horses.

Along with his talent as a horse trainer, Knudsen has an associate's degree in marketing and an associate's degree in science. He also teaches part time at Utah State University, where he's two quarters away from completing a bachelor's degree in animal science.

The Rockin' E has been up and running since June 1997. It started as a riding rink for the children of Loren and Debi East, but when Knudsen and trainers Kim Wagner and Larry Larson suggested adding some extra stables for horse training, the Easts decided it was a great idea.

In E's round pen (a circular riding area with neutral colored walls where horses are trained) Knudsen waits for a young, skittish quarter horse to take a deep breath and settle itself. "We use a round pen because there's no square corners to get locked up in," he says. "When we first walk into a pen, we're going to establish some kind of influence with the animal. If the horse leaves us - a horse's natural instinct is flight - we just go with him, you know, follow it around the pen."

When the animal finally concludes that Knudsen isn't a threat to its safety, Knudsen lifts a pole with a piece of white plastic tied to the end (a flag) and waves it. This terrifies the horse and it runs around the ring. The horse sees the flag as an extension of Knudsen, so the trainer runs alongside the animal keeping the flag visible. Eventually the horse figures out that the plastic/man isn't going to hurt it and comes to a stop. Knudsen also stops.

"Pretty soon the horse will turn and look at us out of curiosity. So what we've done is change fear into curiosity. Then we help his curiosity become trust." This begins with touching, but only after the animal allows it. "We'll start to touch him by rubbing him on the neck. This is what his mother did when he was being raised in nature. His mother would caress him and cuddle him with her nose. It was a deep rub, not just a light touch. So we take the palm of our hand and our fingers and massage him. It resembles what his mother did and he picks up the association. And so we've changed us from being a predator into something he can trust."

When Knudsen finishes rubbing the horse, he switches over to the other side of the animal and starts all over again.

"You see, a horse doesn't have a sense of reason," he says. "Their nerve endings don't cross from side to side like a human's." The horse learns by repetition, association and by influencing their natural instinct for survival.

"Let's say a person puts their finger in a fire. One time and you know it's hot. A horse would have to put its left side in to find out it was hot, then he'd have to put the right side in and find out all over again."

In the large riding rink, Knudsen works Doc's Cocky Cat, a quarter horse owned by Shelly Moore. The animal canters with grace and assurance, its sleek, sinewy legs pounding the dirt. Knudsen reigns in the animal and pats its neck while making his clicking sound. The horse breathes deeply, completely at ease, waiting for the next command.

"Horses are always communicating," he says. "It's our job to figure out what they're saying."

If all of Knudsen's effort sounds a little like horse psychoanalysis, it very nearly is.

"You know, a horse can come to me with a real big problem. Say the horse is scared of being saddled. Within one day we can influence him to where he'll trust us and be saddled without worry."

As much as Knudsen loves working with horses, he has difficulty understanding people who believe the animal should think like them, as if the human way of doing things was the only way to get things done.

"People have to let go of their ego when they're training horses," he says. A big ego is a threat to a horse's self-preservation instinct. They sense it. "You know, you can stare at a horse and cause fear in it? If you go in there with a stern, disciplined, demanding, brute force look on your face, the horse can read it."

Knudsen dismounts and puts the palm of his hand between the eyes of Doc's Cocky Cat.

"If people were more like horses," Knudsen says, "we'd live better lives."

You have to wonder if people weren't more like Knudsen, the world wouldn't be a better place.