Horse Whispering

By Cornelia de Bruin | The Daily Times (Farmington NM) | Nov 15, 2008

FARMINGTON — Bob Browning, an 82-year-old Farmington man with a soothing voice and gentle hands, quietly teaches wild mustangs about the human race, to the benefit of both.

“Bob’s been a huge asset for us, his being able to hold them there and work with them,” said Anthony Madrid, wild horse coordinator for the Jicarilla Ranger District. “He starts real slow, and doesn’t rope or choke them.”

Also an asset to the program is Dan Elkins, the man who catches the wild horses in the Jicarilla District and brings them to Browning.

“I don’t ever chase them, and they don’t ever see me until they’re caught,” Elkins said. “We’re still taking a wild animal from the forest, but we treat them differently than they did 200 years ago.”

Browning, who owns Browning Ranch, works with the newly captured horses to ready them for adoption. He’s helped the small, wild horses since 2004, when the district’s Wild Horse Coordinator and Browning struck up an acquaintance, Madrid said.

“When the mustangs come in, they’ve never been touched by hand or by rope,” Browning said. “But they figure you out by the time you get in the corral with them.”

The horses are, understandably, wary. Freshly caught, they’re used to being hunted by other animals.

But they’re curious, too.

Browning steps into a corral with up to five horses in it, and 10 luminous, brown eyes are riveted on him. Will he hurt them? Can they run away?

Most importantly, who’s the boss?

Not equipped with the teeth and claws of predators, horses rely on their swiftness for survival. To work with them, Browning has to understand what the animals are thinking and work with their instincts.

“I’ve been around horses since I was a kid in Texas,” he said. “To have success in a mustang pen, you have to have control of yourself and develop an attitude before you get in the pen.”

He walks through the gate, carrying a rope, and the horses move away from him. Using hand gestures, Browning indicates to the animals the direction he wants them to move. Telling them “easy” in a nearly inaudible voice, he reassures them they’re not going to be harmed. The horses, listening and watching at all times, learn Browning is right.

He starts the gentling process with a rope, making it crystal clear to the horses the two are a package.

“We come together, but neither of us are going to hurt you,” he said. “We can touch you, that’s reality. The horses get used to the inevitable. Horses cooperate with the inevitable.”

Browning lets the animals run, but gives them a chance to stop if they want to. The technique makes what he wants to do easier. What he’s doing is using the horses’ psychology against them and working with their social order.

Underlying the actions is Browning’s message to the animals that he’s the leader. Once he has the horses moving the direction he tells them to, he’s established that fact with them.

“It’s all about conditioning, positioning, timing, repetition and action,” Browning said. “All gain and loss comes from some kind of exchange.”

As the horses learn from their experiences with Browning, they are not threatened or hurt. They become more trusting, realizing through the process the two-legged “Boss Hoss” is in charge, but is not a threat.

Horse gentling, or whispering as Robert Redford’s movie called it, began developing in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s been refined since then, of course, and has made a lot of people piles of money. There’s no deep-down secret included in the process, other than communication with an animal and the development of mutual, two-way respect.

It’s a far cry from horse-breaking and bronc-busting, where brute force and pain cowed the animals into submission, instilling into them an unhealthy dose of fear in the process.

The horses could be brought back from rougher treatment, Elkins said.

“You see a lot of gentle horses that have come back, but we start from a different point of view,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of people who used to do this, but there’s more now.”

Browning, who is not a professional horse trainer, works with the mustangs simply because he wants to. He sees at least as much value in the two-way exchanges for people as for the horses.

Aficionados of the relatively new technique agree it’s a better way. Working with animals by using assertion, gentleness and respect centers the person as well as the animals.

He’s mulling over some long-term plans he thinks can benefit people Four Corners residents. Yes, they involve animals.

“The youth of today, most of them have not had the experiences we have,” he said. “Their experiences are not realistic. They come from the Internet, TV and movies.”

People interested in purchasing one of the animals can see them from noon to 5 p.m. on Nov. 21 at the Browning Ranch, 333 Browning Parkway in Farmington. An adoption day is scheduled Nov. 22 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. A dozen of the 27 animals Browning’s been working still need homes.

Contact Jicarilla Ranger District, (505) 632-2956, or e-mail amadrid@fs.fed.us for information about horse adoptions.

Article: Farmington Daily Times: Horse Whispering

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