Learning how to make camp a life-enhancement experience from a Hawaiian horse whisperer.
Franklin Levinson's ranch on island of Maui is the anti-Bonanza. "Put 'em on, get 'em out, bring 'em back, move 'em in and out… That's never been my way," says Levinson.
At Levinson's Maui Horse Whisperer Experience, guests are instead coached to understand the distinctive communication cues and relationships that exist in a horse herd.
"The goal is to become a horse with a horse, so that they respond to us as a herd member and a herd leader," explains Levinson. "The horse is looking for us to do that. They're always asking, 'Hey, are you my leader?' I call it being the great parent. They want you to be the perfect parent -- a good communicator, a good listener, patient, thoughtful, able to speak the language appropriately, and they want you to respect them and, in turn, they will respect you."
Levinson takes the analogy of the great parent one step further by relating it to the function of a camp.
"Camps are taking these kids and putting them in an environment and experience that they normally don't do," says Levinson. "Horses really appreciate consistency, just like children do -- if you want a child to learn something be consistent."
Though The Horse Whisperer Experience takes in all age groups (excepting kids under 10), Levinson is particularly fond of teaching his style of gentle horse training to kids and special-needs kids.
"Sometimes it's easier to work with kids because they don't have big preconceptions about the horse. Kids teach me a lot," says Levinson. "If a child makes a mistake you don't nail the kid; you point it out and tell them it's better if you try it this way. You don't blame a child for making an honest mistake."
On the other hand, teaching kids the way of horse whispering has its own set of challenges that Levinson addresses and adapts to his teaching style.
For example, with kids 13-18 Levinson moves into the Hollywood movie trainer mode, giving the kids a glance into what it takes to get horses to do the spectacular and often dangerous-looking stunts they do for the camera. Though the context is more spectacular and brings kids to the edges of their seats, the basics of Levinson's philosophy are no different. It's merely an effort to get them tuned in and on-task for the true lesson of working and communicating with horses.
For kids with special needs the horses grab attention with their sheer size and presence, which is especially crucial for autistic and ADD kids. Levinson says that kids with special needs are actually more in tune with the program and often are easier to work with, because of their natural sensitivity.
"When you can get a little child who has self-esteem problems because they feel different than everyone else, and they bond with a big horse and they're able to be with this horse and lead him around and have a friendship going, they're 10 feet tall at that point. It's miracle stuff sometimes," says Levinson. "With learning disabled children it's not focused on riding at all. We'll put a child with a horse and have them generally nurture the horse -- groom and brush them and develop a relationship with them."
In fact, Levinson is a proponent of including some kind of animal component in the camp experience, be it dogs or horses. Though the therapeutic benefits of animals are well-documented, Levinson shies away from the term therapy, and instead prefers the phrase animal-relationship-oriented programs.
After about 20 years of running more of a trail-ride program called Adventures in Horseback, which Levinson still runs, he began searching the Internet for unique ways people were using horses.
"I came up with a number of places where they use horses in therapy -- drug treatment programs, in the penal systems, in equine-facilitated mental health to help stabilize abnormal mental conditions and youth at risk," says Levinson. "I started to ask people about this who came for the trail ride and found that people wanted to learn more about that. It wasn't necessarily people involved with horses, but the general public."
Levinson also found that a lot of people were interested in this new approach beyond a simple trail ride because they were afraid of horses. Understanding the horse and ultimately developing some kind of communication skill with it breaks down those barriers.
So about three years ago, Levinson started his new program and found that it was wildly popular and word soon spread like wildfire.
The program is relatively simple; a three-step process. Step one is a discussion of how the horse behaves and interacts with other horses in the wild.
"The language of the horse is not hard to learn. If you observe horses in the wild it's pretty easy to pick up on how they're communicating and what's going on between the herd members," explains Levinson. "It's a prey animal. It needs to feel safe. It's somebody's dinner. So it's got these two main things going on -- it's either going to be afraid or trust. Love or fear.
The same things that tear apart other relationships tear apart relationships with the horse -- inconsistency, untrustworthiness, a controlling attitude, and so on."
Step two is a demonstration in the round arena, where Levinson shows the guests how a human can interact and communicate with herd members, and even take on the role of the herd's leader.
Finally, guests get hands-on experience and implement the lessons they've learned about gentle horse training.
"Even if you're a little shaky on the language itself and not quite sure how to move around the horse and cue the horse, if your intention is right on it's a good bottom line and the horse will be very forgiving if you make a mistake," says Levinson.
"With our multi-day programs we do very little time with the horse the first day -- mostly lecture and discussion. We let them just watch the horses interact -- What do you see here? What is this horse saying to this horse? What is this horse's response to that. Observe, observe."
Lessons from the Trail
Levinson's three-step method is simple, but it's a valuable teaching lesson, and Levinson exhorts camps that run trail rides as part of their curriculum to take a page out of his book and ease kids into the ride, rather than saddling up and moving out.
"Camp directors who use horses need to get someone on their staff or on hand who teach this gentle horse training -- someone who understands the language of the horse and can impart their knowledge to other people," suggests Levinson, who is also available for consulting services. "You can find qualified people in the classifieds section of horse magazines or on the bulletin board at feed and tack stores."
Once the training expert is identified and brought in to lead the program they can be supported by typical staffers. If you work with horses, look for supporting staffers that love horses and have a desire to learn more.
"Look for people who want to be an advocate for the horse; people who are into better communication with the animal and are giving," says Levinson.
Also important is identifying which horses will work best with kids. The two important traits Levinson looks for in the horses he uses with kids are "extreme" patience and confidence. In order to identify these traits, Levinson experiments with the horses in different situations to see how they respond.
Once those traits are identified, acclimation is equally important for the horse, because you don't put novice riders on a young and inexperienced horse.
"I never put a horse on the property and put him right in the string," says Levinson. "We'll use him as a lead horse so that he gets accustomed to the area and the trails and then allow him to go into the string."
Ultimately, Levinson is after what he calls "life enhancement," a philosophy girded by a dedication to not only educate, but enrich the lives of those who attend The Horse Whisperer Experience.
"We start out with life-enhancement as the goal. That's something a lot of camps might want to stress -- if you come to this camp it will enhance your life," says Levinson. "It's not just about a fun activity; you'll actually enhance your life. It's really how you process people through the experience that makes it life enhancing."