Samantha David is a freelance journalist and writes for various publications including BBC Online, the Sunday Times, the FT, Living France, everything France, and France Magazine

Samantha David, writer

Miscellaneous Animals - articles by Samantha David


Horse Listening

Tethered alone at the horse fair, a six-year-old black mare stood and rolled her eyes. Patrick Ambec, reputed in this part of the south of France to be a horse whisperer, was talking to her owner.

"We've tried everything," he complained. "We even sent her off to a really expensive school to be broken but it's useless. No-one can ride her."

Within ten minutes, Ambec was stroking the black mare's tongue. Within half an hour he was lying across her back.

"She just needs a different method," he said. "This is a very sensitive and intelligent animal but all she's learned so far is how to buck people off. Traditional methods often fail with horses like this."

So Ambec must be a horse whisperer, then. He says not. He and his partner, Sabine Besso, began riding as children, learned all the usual traditional techniques and eight years ago, started their own riding stable.

"Everything was fine," says Besso, showing me round the loose boxes, "but there were still things we didn't understand. Why they flick their ears at us, why they didn't like being shod."

Then, just two years ago, they discovered a new "méthode douceur".

"It was incredible. Things suddenly started to make sense, we began to understand the psychology of horses. Now, we have total rapport with our animals and have completely abandoned our old techniques."

What they discovered was Pat Parelli's Natural Horsemanship (PNH), a method which is gaining popularity in Europe faster than instructors can be trained to teach it. Since Ambec and Besso started using PNH, nearly a dozen others in their area have followed suit. Further afield, in addition to the French agency there are now PNH centres in Switzerland, Germany, and Britain.

Pat Parelli himself may actually be a horse whisperer, but there's nothing mysterious or magic about his method, PNH, which is based on co-operation with horses through understanding of their psychology as opposed to obedience training through domination and fear.

What is new is the formulation of these ideas into a logical teaching method that anyone can learn, and the results are not only fast but spectacular. PNH ultimately teaches riding with no tack at all.

According to Parelli, horses are "panic-o-holics" and regard human beings as predators. Therefore step one is the "Friendly Game" - a series of exercises designed to make horses feel safe.

Fear is also often a problem for riders. "Our best student was terrified of horses when she started," says Ambec. "She really wanted to ride, but six months ago she was too nervous even to try mounting her horse. Now, look at this."

He shows me a photo of a young girl lying face down along her horse's spine; her feet hanging over his tail and her face pillowed on his mane. There is no trace of fear and as for the horse, he's looks quite happy. No-one is holding him and he's got no bridle on, no reins, no tack at all.

I notice a total absence of riding hats. Even students in the Parelli videos (riding bareback at a canter with no bridles or reins, only steering with their legs and hands) don't wear hard hats.

Besso smiles. "We don't need them. This isn't dangerous. PNH is about getting the horse's consent. As long as you work through every stage correctly, you have nothing to fear from a horse and you won't fall off. That's why interest in PNH is growing so fast."

"Watch this," says Ambec, picking up a video tape. It's film of Pat Parelli cutting steers, rodeo style, out of a herd. His horse is dancing from side to side, constantly changing direction, spinning from one foot to the next, its back quarters plunging as it turns on the spot. Parelli rides like an angel.

Ambec hits the pause button. "Notice anything?" Yes. The horse is wearing a bareback pad but nothing else. No other tack. "You see?" he says.

"The Western result without the cruelty of the classic Western method," explains Besso. "Now we too use our horses to move our small beef herd from pasture to pasture. It's quicker and easier for us, and the horses love the work."

"But the point is," interjects Ambec, "you don't teach the horse. With PNH you teach the rider to communicate better with the horse. The horse doesn't give a damn about the method. All he knows is that now he can understand you, and do what you ask without worrying about getting a crop over his backside if he makes a mistake."

Besso continues, "It's awful, watching people hauling on the mouth of a sensitive, co-operative, intelligent horse. It's the motorbike mentality, you know? Get on a horse, kick it to start, ride it as fast as you can and buy a new one if it breaks down."

Which is why they have stopped taking tourists out on mountain treks and are turning to breeding instead. "But only to sell to PNH riders," says Besso firmly.

They've recently bought a Quarter Horse stallion and amongst their fourteen other horses, have four brood mares. The rest will be used for teaching and demonstrations, and one is set-aside for their daughter, Anahita.

"She's doing really well," says Besso proudly. "She can already play the "Yo-yo Game". I've got a video of her doing it."

Using only a slack leading rein, 2½ year-old Anahita stands in front of her 17 year-old grey and makes it walk forwards and backwards just by wiggling her index finger. Proof, if any were needed, that anyone can learn PNH.

And the black mare? "Oh, it breaks your heart," says Ambec. "I told the owner about PNH and tried to persuade him to learn, but he decided against it. I don't know why. Such a beautiful horse, we could have done so much. But God knows what will happen to her now. Cat's meat, I suppose."




If you would like to read more articles, or would like to commission one for your publication, please email me using the form on the contacts page.