Friday, March 2, 2018

Beyond Natural Horsemanship: Franklin Levinson

Beyond Natural Horsemanship: Franklin Levinson
An interview with Gina McKnight
Archived article from the February 2018 Issue of Florida Equine Athlete
No duplication without permission.

Several years ago, I had the great opportunity to connect with international horseman, Franklin Levinson. The proprietor and founder of Horse Whisperer Seminars, Ltd., Franklin has traveled around the world helping people with horses. An advocate for first perfecting the fundamentals of successful horsemanship, Franklin was teaching his own gentle, effective horsemanship before natural horsemanship became a worldwide conversation. He is the ultimate personal coach and mentor for horsemen/women – connecting through online courses, emails, and phone calls.

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. 

GM: It’s great to catch up with you, Franklin. Last time we talked you were in Greece conducting horse seminars and lessons at the Riding Academy of Crete. Now you’ve settled in San Diego, California. I’m excited to hear what you are up to! What’s new?
FL: I am in the process of developing a liberty program called ‘Hands-Free Horsemanship’ Liberty Training. Stress-free training for horse and human.  As I always say, there are no naughty or bad horses. All unwanted behavior from a horse is a symptom of the animal’s fear and never deserves punishment.

GM: What exactly 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, 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 trusted 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. Pete and I would go on a lot of adventures. 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: That’s an amazing story, Franklin! To be sure, people who don’t know how to approach a wild horse really need your help in discerning the best steps to creating trust. A lot of people adopt horses from rescues. Do you have a rescue that you recommend here in the States?
FL: 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.

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.  

Gina McKnight is a freelance writer from Ohio USA.

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