Plenty of horse sense on this journey

The horsewhispere and friendsRancher teaches Tricks of the trade
Visitors must learn to respect animal

HUELO, MAUI, HAWAII – As our car winds along the Hana Highway in the midst of sugarcane fields and eventually along the coast to our meeting spot, Twin Falls Fruit Stand, I wonder what to expect.

My family and I are meeting Franklin Levinson, creator of Maui’s Horse Whisperer Experience, and I’m pondering what our afternoon of communing with horses will bring.

Growing up in Texas, it’s surprising to some that a horse wasn’t a basic component in my upbringing. But it’s true. My equine experience is limited to stroking the animal’s nose before riding in the carriage it pulls through Central Park.

Attired in jeans, leather boots and a “good guy” white cowboy hat, Levinson looks the part. His initial warm greeting and gentle nature clarify his calling as a horse whisperer, or horse listener, as he says – a special kind of trainer who communicates with horses through a language based on love and respect as opposed to fear and punishment.

“Please come in,” he says to my family (my husband, Kent, our daughters, Erin and Kathryn and me). We enter his home on the private ranch situated along the island’s north shore cliffs and for the next hour get acquainted and listen to the silver-haired equestrian explain his equine philosophy.

“In the horse-human relationship, we’re always the parent – with the horse looking for a great mom or dad,” says Levinson. “There’s a world of horses that has nothing to do with riding. That’s what you’ll see today. Now let’s go see some horses.”

Upon approach to their enclosures, Levinson continues, “We have four horses here. There’s Duke. Hi Dukie.” The chestnut-colored beauty turns his head to acknowledge his human friend.

“First you want to gain the horse’s respect. How do you do this? By showing respect,” Levinson says, answering his own question. “Most people pet a horse’s nose.” I nod in agreement. “Don’t do that. It’s disrespectful,” warns the horse expert. “Uh oh,” I think, remembering my Central Park greeting.

Additional suggestions include standing a respectful distance from the animal and speaking to the horse as you would a person. “No baby talk; no loud talk,” we’re cautioned. “Is there a tone of voice I should use?” inquires Kent. “Exactly like I’m talking to you,” answers Levinson.

While entering the enclosure with Koa, our teacher speaks in a calm, courteous voice and rubs the horse’s neck in the same manner that its mother did when he was a colt. Then Levinson moves away from the dark horse with the white marking between his eyes. Soon Koa is by Levinson’s side.

Now it’s our turn. Having put halters on the horses, we move to a nearby field where our one-on-one relationship begins.

“If you don’t assume the role as the leader, the horse will become the leader and may just ignore you,” he warns in his soft-spoken way.

We’re told to establish our position as parent immediately.

“When Duke bends down to eat, jerk upward on the rope attached to his halter and say, ‘No!’” he instructs Erin and Kathryn.

After Kathryn disciplines Duke for eating, he turns from her (as if pouting) and toward Erin, nudging her neck.

Eventually we graduate to the corral – a large enclosure encircled by metal fencing. Surrounded by a gallery of green plastic chairs for the audience, we individually enter the ring. Levinson, equipped with a microphone, stands near the railing overlooking the arena.

Erin enters the pen first. Carefully following Levinson’s instructions, she removes the halter and sets it outside the ring.

“Run around the perimeter, Erin,” directs Levinson.

“Faster,” he commands.

“Pretend you’re running from home to first,” instructs her dad and former softball coach. Duke begins to trot beside Erin.

“Stop! Now walk over to the fence and without looking at Duke, cross your arms and place them on the fence rail.”

Soon Duke is beside Erin with his head on her shoulder.

“How does this feel,” asks our teacher.

“Pretty cool,” exclaims my articulate daughter.

Kathryn’s next and Levinson enters the corral with her. From the sidelines, we watch Duke encircle her faster and faster. She has no comment, only giggles, when Duke later nuzzles against her cheek like a lovesick schoolboy.

Now it’s my turn. Prior to entering the ring with a one-half ton mammal that I didn’t know yesterday, I envision a Roman Coliseum/lion scenario. But I’m boosted by Levinson’s comment: “Of the handful of Horse Whisperer programs in the world, I’m one of very few who works with non-horse people.”

“That’s me,” I think. Then I say, “Hi, Koa.”

Soon I’m standing in the center of a dirt arena, slowly turning with a wand in one hand and my new-found friend galloping in the direction of my rotation. Each time I reverse my course, Koa’s changes simultaneously. As I pivot under the Hawaiian sun, I realize that in the course of this one afternoon I’ve transformed from a non-horse person to one of the “herd”.

* The cost: full-day, $300 (U.S.); half-day, $200 (U.S.), plus tax. For more information; call 808-572-6211 or go to Web site, www.mauihorses.com.