An interview with Gina McKnight
From Gina's March/April 2015 iVIEW column, trueCOWBOYmagazine.com
From Gina's March/April 2015 iVIEW column, trueCOWBOYmagazine.com
A seasoned horseman, Franklin Levinson has traveled the world teaching people how to listen to horses. He is the proprietor and founder of Horse Whisperer Seminars, Ltd. An advocate for first perfecting the fundamentals of successful horsemanship, Franklin was teaching his own gentle, effective horsemanship before ‘natural horsemanship’ became a worldwide bandwagon. He is the author of Trust ‘n’ Horses; a two volume eBook that is available to download and guaranteed to increase your horsemanship skills. Franklin also offers Horsemanship Videos, podcasts and more of his seminars and clinics around the world.
Franklin began his equestrian career at an early age, learning some trick riding and earning honors as the youngest registered polo player in the United States at the age of 13. His father was also a polo player, traveling the circuit on the east coast of the United States. During his 20’s, Franklin created and ran equestrian programs at large summer camps in Northern Michigan, teaching riding skills and enabling children to learn the joys of horsemanship. He then journeyed to Hawaii and developed a small ranch on the island of Maui where he created Adventures on Horseback (riding adventure) as well as The Maui Horse Whisperer, the first Equine Facilitated Learning program in the Pacific basin and one of the first in the US.
In his clinics, published essays and books, Franklin emphasizes the importance of developing trust and respect with horses and being compassionate towards them. The foundation for Franklin’s mantra is that there are no naughty or bad horses. He states, “All unwanted behavior from a horse is a symptom of the animal’s fear and never deserves punishment.” He has learned through experience. He has learned from the horses themselves. Each encounter with a horse has increased his aptitude and regard for the horse as a companion, a friend, and a teacher. He favors the American Quarter Horse for their agility and disposition, and the Arabian for their beauty and intelligence; however, he loves all horses and welcomes all breeds and varieties to his clinics and seminars. I spoke with Franklin on the phone after a day of training at his home in Greece. He and his wife, Ilona Staikou, teach private and semi-private equestrian lessons at The Riding Academy of Crete.
GM: What is natural horsemanship?
FL: For me, natural horsemanship is basically a marketing term. There is little that is natural about how we humans interact with horses. People who get on a horse and scream at a horse and kick the horse are not going anywhere. Folks who push a horse endlessly around a round pen, call what they do natural horsemanship. It is not. I think people have to learn the psychology of the horse first. To put someone on a horse who doesn’t know anything about horses, how crazy is that? How unkind is that to the horse and the rider? I am a real critic of some modern day riding instruction – as nothing about the needs, language, psychology or emotional life of the horse is taught. You must gain knowledge and trust first. Trusting it is safe is the single most important thing to a horse. Here’s how I develop and gain trust. I handle the horse on the ground first by asking for relatively simply movement which I guide and direct and then reward all effort. After this, if all goes well I may attempt to ride him. You have to help horses understand he doesn’t need to be afraid. The development of trust my goal with all horses wherever I go. If you take the responsibility to train the horse to trust you, you’re going to have a safer ride and a more effective and fun experience. What I am trying to do is project a logical, common sense, down to earth approach to horses. Trying to force someone through fear is not logical to me and it makes no sense. Going slow, showing patience and compassion, to me, is a better way to do this.
GM: You have had a very successful career and your program is outstanding. When was the turning point in your career as a horse trainer?
FL: I did realize early on that if I taught the kids at the camps something about the nature of horses, their needs and language, then everything went better and became more successful for the kids and the horses. When I was at a ranch in Colorado and I heard about a horse named Pete that was considered an outlaw and dangerous. Pete had reared up and split his owner’s head open. Some guy had gotten a rope on Pete and he dragged the guy because the guy had gotten the rope caught around his wrist. You could not tie Pete. He pulled down a shed, and he wouldn’t load. When I first moved to this ranch in Aspen, I heard about Pete and I wanted to see him. I went out and looked at him and he was standing very sheepishly in the far end of the pasture. He was the cutest little horse I’d ever seen. He was just adorable. He was a little Appy Quarter Horse, flea-bitten grey. You couldn’t get near him though. We managed to herd him into a round pen. Then I realized we were not looking at a dangerous animal, we were looking at a terrified animal. Once you stop judging a horse’s undesirable behavior as bad and taking it personally and understand it is merely a symptom of fear, your approach might be a lot different than if you think he is just being bad. Because if you think he is just being bad you might go to anger, force and punishment. Like with a child who is afraid of something, you don’t want to swat the child and say, ‘Get in there you little jerk.’ No. You’re going to take the child by the hand and say, ‘Okay, Johnny, let’s do this together and see if it’s really that scary.’ So, with Pete, I basically sat down in the middle of the round pen and just stayed quietly there. The first day Pete would walk by me a little bit and come a little closer. The next day I did the same thing and he would actually stop and give me a little smell and check me out. The third day I was standing in the round pen and he came over and checked me out. Eventually, I extended a hand out. He sniffed the back of my hand. Then we did it again. At some point, he let me touch his shoulder. He let me scratch him on his wither a little. I am a strong believer in not applying a stimulus for very long; a few moments are all that is needed. Keep your movement nice and smooth and relaxed. Don’t be jerky about it or abrupt. It didn’t take long before I would walk over to where he was standing and he would calmly start to walk off but not run away. That is what I wanted. I wanted to take the spot that he was standing on for my own in a calm way. I would do that for some time. I would walk to where he was, he would walk off, then I would take the next spot where he was and he would walk off. It didn’t take very long before he was looking at me continuously. Within 10 to 15 minutes, he just couldn’t take his eyes off me. It was all very calm and very quiet. At one point I just started to walk away and he followed me. Once he started doing that, then things developed very fast. We started playing around in the round pen a lot, a lot of liberty play. After he got really good at liberty, then I put him on a line. I always start out a problem horse – a horse with issues – with liberty play first, rather than try to put a rope on him to control him. I am not really trying to control him. I wish to be his good and trust leader. Being in a round pen, he can’t go anywhere anyway. So, if you get good at liberty - the direction you want, the speed you want, the kind of turns you want, following you, hanging with you - then go ahead and put a rope on him.
That’s pretty much how it went. The biggest problem I had with Pete is that he wouldn’t load. I actually got him in a trailer to go on a trail ride. We took this beautiful ride into the Colorado Mountains and then I couldn’t get him back in the trailer. We were about 5 or 6 miles from the ranch. It was getting dark out. There was no way I could get him in the trailer. So, I had to ride him in the dark along the main road, which was no fun. After that I vowed I would take him to loading school. I set my trailer up and started to work with him. It didn’t take too long before I figured out what the issue was. The issue was that he didn’t want to pick his feet up to hop up into the trailer. That’s really what it was. The first time he got into the trailer was just luck. Then when he figured out he had to pick his feet up to get into the trailer, he didn’t like it. So, I started taking him over logs. I found some big logs and I began walking and lunging him, and then jumping him over logs. After four hours, later in the day, he hopped right up in the trailer. He loved to go places. We would go on a lot of adventures. It got to the point where I could point to the trailer and he would hop up in it. The horse turned out really great. He became a great personal horse for me. He was a real treat to ride. He had a beautiful gate that could cover a lot of ground. He became a terrific horse to help with my equine facilitated learning programs because he became light and sensitive. Children, if they were introduced to him properly, as young as four years of age could handle Pete at liberty and move him around the round pen and hook on to him really easy. He was a great program horse that I used for the Buddy Program, Make a Wish Program, etc. He was great. Pete’s retired now in Colorado. Pete taught me how not to judge horses and understand their resistance was merely symptomatic of fear. Pete put me on the map in Colorado.
GM: Bongo, your current sidekick, is a beautiful horse. He is very elegant and graceful. When did you meet Bongo?
FL: When I first met Bongo two years ago, he had been abused. They couldn’t catch him or get near him. He pulled back if he was tied. It didn’t take much to scare this poor horse. He and I met and I took him into a clinic that I did here in Crete a couple of years ago. We made quite a bit of progress in about an hour, just asking for simple movement and rewarding his effort; throwing ropes around him, and just kind of desensitizing him a little bit, getting him to come to me, and feel good being with me. After we moved to Crete, about a year ago, I started playing with him a lot. I started to teach him some tricks because I know that trick training is a great way to connect with your horse and build a horse’s confidence and trust. If you are going to use food you have to be very good about setting boundaries around food. Most trainers use treats. You need to show the horse enough respect that he earns his treat. You don’t just give him a treat, give him a treat, give him a treat. Let him earn it for effort at compliance and cooperation.
Anyway, Bongo and I became pals. I taught him a few simple things like to get up on a box with all four feet, to kick a ball around, and to pick up a foot on cue. Very simple stuff. He figured out pretty quickly that if I was near him and he picked up his foot he would get a treat. I would simply walk by the horse and he would pick up his foot when I didn’t want him to. So, I have to caution people to reward only what you want, and not to reward what you don’t want. In other words, when I walked by Bongo and he would pick up his foot, I wouldn’t reward him, but when he put his foot down and stood patiently, then I would give him a little treat. It was a small thing, but I became much more conscious about only rewarding what I wanted. What I wanted was for him to stand still, not to pick up his foot. I do recommend tricks to deepen the bond with the horse - to help build the horse’s confidence and self-esteem, and to develop a better relationship. Also, it offers the horse something else to do so that he is not just doing the same old same things all the time.
GM: One of your many clinics is on bridle-less riding. Going bridle-less is an intimidating thought for many riders. What are the steps and techniques to follow when learning to ride bridle-less?
FL: Yes, to ride bridle-less many folks go through a lot of fear. What can help is to first of all, start riding in a small area, could be a round pen, maybe 15 to 17 meters across, that would be 50 to 60 feet across in diameter, or a small paddock. You get rid of the bridle and put a rope halter on the horse with a lead rope tied up like a rein. You start riding around the pen. If the horse starts to go too fast you just ride it out, as he’s not going to go anywhere because you are in a small confined area and he will want to slow and stop fairly soon. It won’t be very long before you can sit down a little bit heavier, maybe sit back a little bit and lift up that rein and then the horse is really going to slow down or stop. At that point, that’s when you ask him to go a little farther and then you ask him to stop again. Once you get the horse really good with stopping and turning with just a lead rope and halter, put a neck rope on the horse. A rope that will go around the horse that you can hold on to. You start riding with the rein in your hand the neck rope in your hand like a double bridle, and then you start controlling the horse and riding that way and eventually when you get real good at it you can let go of the rein and just use the neck rope. Although it seems to not be taught often or well, your cues are supposed to come from the proper use of your seat. Your hands just reinforce the seat. It’s not kick to go and then pull to stop. But, unfortunately, my experience is there are not a lot of teachers who teach you how to ride from your seat in a really good way. Basically, people are riding from their hands and using too much rein and too much of their heel and not enough seat, because nobody knows how to teach it. Maybe they are not that good at it themselves, therefore, they don’t know how to teach it. It seems that riding from the seat is sadly becoming a lost art.
GM: Riding bridle-less on the trail would require a lot of stamina and courage.
FL: Well, more than stamina and courage, it requires skill and a properly trained horse. You see a few riders that can do it out on trails. It takes quite a bit of time to develop a horse that you have that much confidence in that it is not going to take off with you when it gets a spook and it doesn’t have a bridle on. You have to take it nice and slow. It may take a couple of years to develop that. That’s okay. There are a lot of these guys that do these big extravaganza shows that use a lot of liberty and a lot of bridle-less stuff. They raise their own horses. When you’re raising your own horses, you can be with those horses every day and when you are not worried about earning a living, it can go a lot faster.
GM: What are your opinions about the current state of the US Bureau of Land Management’s handling of the Mustangs? What’s the solution?
FL: I think it’s disgraceful and awful. The cattle industry - the beef industry is so prevalent that they can dictate what goes on with the Mustangs and move them off of their natural range. Rounding up Mustangs and putting them in already overcrowded stockyards is disgraceful. As far as a solution, it’s a tough question. The government must question the ranchers. The cattle industry is out of control and is running our Department of Agriculture. The raising of cattle is ruining the environment. It’s taking too much of our land to produce livestock where crops should be. It’s very political and it is an industry that pollutes the environment. The rancher could give up a little bit of his land to the Mustang. The cattlemen have a lobby and the money to convince the government that they need to be able to do whatever they wish; that their way of life is essential and should not be altered. It is difficult to sway the government to diminish the cattle industry. It has been known for years that a diet of less meat and more good fruits and vegetables is healthier for humans. But old habits are hard to change.
GM: What are your views on selective breeding and the abandoned foals from the horseracing industry?
FL: When you get into selective breeding – it gets tricky because you really want to select specific characteristics beforehand, or at least you want to try to. It’s very expensive horses that you’re breeding, so you don’t want a horse out there that you are trying to show or race who cannot cut it. I can understand why they want to cull horses that they consider less than perfect. It’s a shame to send these horses, these foals, to slaughter. Perhaps they could be re-homed. They could make a nice backyard horse or trail horse for somebody, but you need to consider there are a lot of unwanted horses. There’s a lot of Mustangs that are just great that are being warehoused that will never be adopted or re-homed. So what to do about it? Do you want to slaughter some, or not… It’s a tough question. It’s a political question. I would rather see a horse go to slaughter than starve to death. I would rather see a horse’s life be brought to a quick abrupt end than to have them starved slowly over time or abused. To be candid with you, I am not 100% sure about the method of horse slaughter these days, which is a big issue. However, as far as moving these horses off that are unwanted, I suppose you spend a lot of money under the banner of breeding horses and you have limited resources. It’s not an easy answer. I don’t want to see any animal go to slaughter, but it’s better than to be abused or starved.
Gina: Do you have a rescue that you recommend here in the States?
Franklin: There’s a woman in California, Neda DeMayo. She operates Return to Freedom, a horse rescue facility primarily for mustangs. I don’t know if she re-homes horses or sets some up for adoption. She can be found online and I suggest people contact her for advice. I really haven’t been in the States much for the last six years, and I am not current on that as I would like to be. I do know there are a lot of rescue centers. Use Google to find a rescue facility in your area. If people are diligent, they can find a place to go look and see what’s available.
BTW, my first US clinics in some time will be held in June at Horse Spirit Ranch. June 19-20-21 is the first one. June 26-27-28 is the second one. The first clinic is titled Beyond Natural Horsemanship - Training Through Trust and the second is Life Enrichment Through Success With Horses - Equine Facilitated Learning. Horse Spirit Ranch is online at www.horsespiritranch.net and is located not far from San Diego, CA.
Gina: What are your views on imprinting foals?
Franklin: I like it, but I think you can overdo it. I think it is a good idea. I do it generally with my foals beginning with they are first hit the ground. But you have to remember to let them be a horse. What happens, unfortunately, people think the foal is so cute and so adorable and you want to love on them all the time. That’s not a good idea. Don’t try to turn your foal into a puppy, it’s a bad idea. Certainly, you want to get that foal where you can halter him, touch him all over; his feet, his head, ears, inside his mouth – everywhere. You want to be able to handle that horse, but you want to keep the sessions very short as a foal’s attention span is extremely limited. You don’t want to do it all the time. You want to do it very moderately with the amount of time you take to do this because you can overdo it and it will backfire on you.
GM: What reference materials do you recommend for imprinting foals?
FL: I recommend Dr. Robert Miller. He is one of the initial proponents of imprinting. He has written books on it. I would recommend again using Google to find Dr. Miller.
GM: Your motivational quotes - #HORSEYWISDOM - are inspiring and fun. Everyone enjoys reading your daily horse wisdom on face book. It is exciting to know that you are compiling these posts into a collection for an upcoming book release! When is the anticipated release date your new book #HORSEYWISDOM?
FL: #HORSEYWISDOM will be out hopefully by this summer, fall at the latest. For fun I announced the book yesterday on face book. Did you see the response? I could have sold over 200 books yesterday if I actually had the book available, that’s how big the response was. It was amazing. The terrific and eye catching cover has been designed by artist Lucy Barry. She’s really a very talented artist. She can be found on Face Book.
Franklin’s credentials are extensive in the equine world of who’s who. He has been showcased in many magazines, radio and TV appearances, webinars, podcasts, and more for years. As an actor, he had the opportunity to be a principle character in the movie September Dawn starring Jon Voight. His intense desire to be of service to humans and horses prompted him to recently create A Course in Horse Mentorship as a convenient way to learn his effective and efficient methods of horsemanship over the phone with emailed support. Contact Franklin at WWW.ACOURSEINHORSE.COM to find out how you he can help you in becoming a better horseman or woman.