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Equestrian Adventures in Belize

Relentless as the roar of surf, the rumbling of hooves resonates through the jungle clearing. The "hiyah!" and "chhah!" of the rancheros drive the thundering animals before us, some weaving and ducking, none escaping the inevitable path through the open fence and down the road. My horse Stormy knows better than I what to do and I merely cling to his back and try not to fall off as he ducks and weaves, pivots and spins, hot on the heals of my Belizean guide Ceaser and his bay mount Turbo. Ceaser expertly uses body and voice to guide the herd from behind, and I can only wish wistfully that I had his ease in the saddle. All of the rancheros ride like grace on the wind, like men who have grown up in the saddle, as indeed they have!

At the ranch we round them all into a pen and separate out Mars, a two week old foal named for her bright bay coat and for her birth during a time when the red planet was closer to earth than it has been for over 5,000 years. Her mother leans on the fence, frantically nickering her distress to her little one. The little strawberry foal with the white blaze stands trembling all over while Ceaser gently runs his hands over her body, beginning the first steps in a lifetime of trust and service to her trainers. The rest of the horses bounce off each other like overcharged electrons contained restlessly within the walls of the corral, some laying back their ears to bite and kick one another in their annoyance over their sudden forced social. They are to be checked one by one for ticks and sprayed down, a ritual that occurs every few weeks and also gives the rancheros the chance to give each horse personal attention; checking for injuries and overall well being. This is a wonderful example of the quality of care that the herd of Banana Bank receives. The horses are loved and it shows in their clear eyes and their faith in and responsiveness to their handlers.

At Banana Bank Lodge and Jungle Equestrian Adventure, horses are considered to be individuals. They are trained as individuals, using foundations of trust and communication inspired by the wisdom of respected horse professionals such as Monty Roberts, John Lyons and Pat Parelli. In the United States, this technique has come to be known as "horse whispering." But horse whispering, as owner and Montana-born cowboy John Car explains, is "not about whispering. It's about communication." The key is that the man must learn to communicate with the horse in its own language by establishing a rhythm; a flow of words, actions, and tone of voice that combine to create a presentation that is calming and instructional to the animal.

As John explains, humans and horses belong to two very different categories; that of predator, and that of prey. To facilitate communication with your horse, you must first establish trust, which John defines as "predictable, positive behavior proven over time." To establish trust, you must break the predator/prey relationship, in which the horse has a "flight" reaction to fear that manifests in such behaviors as backing away, rearing, and head tossing. The trainer's job is to change his own presentation of "fight," or predator, in order to communicate with the horse on its own level and establish a relationship. John is careful to specify "relationship, never a partnership. Because you see, in a partnership you share the authority, you share the decision making. With a horse you have a relationship, see? You are the one in charge."

So how does John do this? He carefully builds a relationship with the animal that is based on trust. He uses his body language to make himself less intimidating to the horse, using techniques such as turning his body sideways to the animal and approaching it diagonally instead of head on, which the horse reads as an act of aggression. He begins by asking the horse to do something that he knows it will do; this may be as simple as changing its direction of travel in the round pen by moving towards the horses' path in a way that would cut it off if both continued on their line of travel. A horse, the "flight" animal, will turn away from this game of chicken and travel the other direction. The horse makes the connection that the man caused it to turn, and John begins to build his position as master, without ever causing the animal undue stress or pain. Indeed, John makes it a point to make everything in a training session controlled and deliberate. "I never get angry at a horse. If he's trying to intimidate, kick, bite, I'll raise up my level to his, but not in anger. It's a training process. I'm not going to pick up a stick and hit him in anger. I might bring him to the ground and leave him tied for an hour, but I won't hurt him and it won't be in anger."

Lessons must be carefully planned to work towards final goals in small, attainable steps. As John works he watches the animal for signs. He explains, "I give him cues to what I want him to do, and he's going to answer back, 'yes','no','I don't understand', he'll answer you back with his ears, his eyes, the flare of his nostrils." John listens to what the animal has to say, and if he's given the horse too much, he steps it back. He makes the lesson slower, adds more steps to increase comfort and understanding. Over time working with a horse, as the relationship grows, eventually that animal will walk right up and put its nose on John's shoulder. Horses are inherently social creatures, and if they trust you, they want to be with you. Furthermore, if they recognize you as the dominant animal, they want to do what you ask of them. John has recognized those simple truths and used them to train the best western riding horses I have ever had the pleasure to ride!

John's innate understanding of animals is not just for horses, but extends to all around him, from children to dogs to employees. John explains that when children come to Banana Bank, sometimes they are intimidated by him with his big black hat and quick, confident stride. So what does he do? He meets them on their own level. When a two year hides behind its mother, John takes off the hat, kneels down, and crawls to meet the babe, which invariably comes out from behind Mom to meet this strange adult and begin to establish a relationship. John also understands the importance of confidence for performance. His goal is not to break the spirit of the animal, but to guide it. This wisdom is demonstrated even in the simplest of activities. When John's wife Carolyn was teaching their cow dog, Tom, to jump through a hoop, using buttered biscuit as a reward, Tom successfully made it through the hoop several times. Carolyn continued to raise it, higher, higher... and each time Tom strained a little more and made the leap. Finally there came the time when Tom ran for the hoop but failed the jump. Carolyn started to put the hoop away, but John intervened. "Do it again. Lower it. Let him quit on a victory". It is this thinking, always empathetic for the health and mental well-being of the animal, that has made John wildly successful as a horse trainer. John has combined the best of many training techniques and become an expert in communicating with horses. He has passed this knowledge on to his rancheros, who now do the bulk of the training at Banana Bank, always under John's watchful eye.

Horse whispering is not about magic. It is about science; a carefully designed series of steps that a trainer must master in order to better understand horses. "It's not complicated," John winks, "anyone can do it!" In fact, John explains that all of the concepts of communication can be condensed down into fifteen simple points that can help you become the dominant "horse" in your herd. Incidentally, the same techniques of trust, consistency, and communication can be used to help you build the relationship-or partnership-that you want with your children, your spouse, or your boss!

All of this can add up to results that look like wizardry to the uninitiated. If you would like to study some of the "magic" of horse whispering, visit Banana Bank Lodge and Jungle Equestrian Adventure. You will personally meet John Carr and perhaps even observe some enchantments in progress! Banana Bank offers a variety of trail rides and lessons, and they can also help you locate additional resources in your area. At Banana Bank, you are sure to improve your skills as a rider, a trainer, and a communicator with the equine species!


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