Doctors told horse trainer Dale Cunningham he came two inches from death when his suddenly-spooked horse reared and fell backwards on top of him. His recovery from broken ribs and a collapsed lung left Cunningham, as he told participants in a recent horsemanship clinic in
, with plenty of time to watch TV. But instead of surfing through reruns, he searched for ways to prevent accidents such as his. What he found was what he called “the method” – a training system developed and popularized by Australian trainer Clinton Anderson. Wylie, Texas
In advance of
’s scheduled clinics in Anderson , beginning April 8-10, Cunningham shared “safety-first” lessons with instructors and horses at Equest, a nonprofit stable dedicated to providing therapy through horsemanship to children and adults with disabilities. Stephenville, Texas
Cunningham, a certified clinician in the Downunder method, first gave the group gathered in the near-freezing cold of an early morning a lesson on the differences in how horses and humans view the world. Horses, he emphasized, are prey animals. Humans are predators. Horses have monocular vision, with each eye having a view of nearly 180 degrees, but little depth perception compared to the binocular vision of humans. Horses are large. Humans aren’t. Despite these differences and more, the two species have a relationship rivaled only by that between humans and dogs.
At its fundamental level, Downunder method begins by desensitizing horses to stimuli that could trigger the incredibly fast reactions that evolved to protect them from predators. Although Equest’s horses are chosen for their good temperament, I was surprised that several still shied at some of the stimuli Cunningham introduced. Well, truly, I wasn’t surprised. It just seemed like normal behavior for horses. And that’s where Cunningham told the participants and observers we were wrong. We had gotten to expect uncomfortable behavior instead of letting the horses teach us what they needed to overcome their difficulties.
The language of horses, the trainer emphasized, is body language. Soon we were focused on telltale signs of a relaxed horse – a lowered head, eye blinking, chewing of the lower lip, deep breathing, and a cocked hind hoof – some of them originally counterintuitive to members of a different species. And the humans in turn learned to signal their nonaggressive intentions to the horses through adapting their posture and gestures.
The sensitization portion of the training began, conversely, by teaching the human beings to adapt an active body language – the forward tilt of a predator – reverting to nonaggressive posture as part of the horse’s reward for behaving in the desired manner.
Information and schedules for the Downunder clinics are available at www.downundershorsemansip.com/ For more information about Equest and its programs, see www.equest.org/