In the early 1970s - when I encountered my first horse - people rode horses, they generally didn't understand horses. I was seven and had signed up for lessons with my Brownie troop at Wheaton Park stables outside of Washington, D.C. In a freezing cold indoor arena one winter, a big, gruff, cigar-chomping man named Mr. Butts (of all things) tossed me on the back of an equally large horse, whacked his rump and away we went. We learned to ride with aids, heavy-handed methods of urging a horse to move (crop) or stop (jerk on reins).
Not anymore. Two decades ago trainers began to use subtler methods of communication and developed techniques for horse owners to build real relationships with their equine friends. This opened the door to the horse whisperers of the world, who travel the countryside like itinerent preachers spreading their gospel of horse training, generically known as "natural horsemanship."
Among them all, Clinton Anderson, a handsome, charismatic Aussie, is a mega-star.
This past weekend several thousand people crammed the Farm Show arena in Harrisburg, to listen to Anderson and watch him work problem horses, hoping they could take home some of his magic and apply it to their own horses. I went because I am training my first young horse. Chloe, a 16-month-old Belgian, was the unexpected result of my purchase of two draft horses from an Amish farmer in Chester County in 2008. Belle, a Belgian mare, was riddled with what the vet called "record amounts" of parasites. Patti, a Percheron mare, was rib-thin. Both shared a single box stall and were standing in a foot of manure when I found them.
As I loaded the trailer, the farmer told me, by the way, the Belgian might be pregnant. We tested her in February and I learned I got a two-fer.
Now baby Chloe is almost 16 hands, or over five feet tall, and is tipping the scales at 1,000 pounds. Hence the need for a professional. I turned to Jeff Staub, of York County, who subscribes to the Anderson method. He has been helping me and Chloe for several months and offered me a ticket to the weekend event.
Call it "The Cult of Clinton." Legions of fans from throughout the mid-Atlantic, most of them proudly wearing his "No Worries Club" ($199 a year) T-shirts and club member ID cards (for discounts and prizes) poured into the Farm Show, to learn the Anderson "method." At the heart of the "downunder horsemanship" approach is learning to control your horse through repetitive exercises and movement on the ground before starting to ride.
Anderson has a truely remarkable ability to reach an animal who had, over the course of many years, developed bad - even dangerous - habits, and turn it around in minutes. I was mesmerized by his techniques, based on a simple principle: establish yourself as the herd leader, helping your horse work through its fear (or in many cases, respect issues).
During the course of the two-day show, Anderson hawks his products, DVDs, tack, shampoo, veterinary ointment, clothing, watering systems, about every half hour as if it were 16-hour-long T.V. show.
It says something about the popularity of your brand when half the arena is taken over by your personal shopping emporium. It was like sitting through the world's longest informercial and loving every minute of it.
I made the obligatory trip to the Anderson store today, picking up a training halter (XXL) and a long lead line and some shampoo, mainly because it came with a nifty plastic spray bottle you can attach to a hose and, voila, you have spray-on soap.
What I hope won't wash away is all that common-sense advice, dispensed with charm and wit and honest-to-God horse chops, by the rock star trainer from down under.