Learning to control a horse can improve self-esteem, according to a revolutionary equestrian centre in Montego Bay
“More gusto, bigger strides, stronger arms. If you want to articulate, try a short, sharp ‘yah’ just to make him look at you, but don’t shout at him.”
All five foot nothing and eight stone of me is standing in a pen in Jamaica. I’m on a personal empowerment course and my trainers are Trina DeLisser, founder of the Half Moon Equestrian Centre, Montego Bay, who’s outside the ring giving encouragement, and Razzmo, a panting, snorting thoroughbred who’s in there with me. Even when viewed from the 200m-distance between us, he looks big… very big
The theory behind DeLisser’s equine empowerment programme is that by persuading Razzmo to trust me, to acknowledge me as the boss, and ultimately to follow me as I walk around the paddock, I will gain self-confidence and become more assertive. DeLisser, who teaches the course at corporate team-building events as well as to individuals, uses a tried-and-tested horse-whispering technique that involves little or no vocalisation, no reins and certainly no violence. “Learning to use communication and body language to command the respect of another being is what this is about,” she says. “Once you have gained control of an animal in this way, you can practise the technique anywhere – even in tricky meetings.”
DeLisser believes that horses have the power to help many human conditions, from lack of self-confidence to mental illness and autism, and at her equestrian centre – in the grounds of one of Jamaica’s most idyllic resorts – she puts former racehorses that might otherwise be destroyed, to good use: “I take throwaways and give them a job as wellness instructors,” she says.
She first became aware of the healing abilities of horses – hippotherapy – when she opened a riding school 31 years ago, using her father’s retired polo ponies. Some of the children in the district had special needs and she’d have them at the school whenever she could. She saw an enormous change in their state of mind and behaviour when she put them on the horses. Children with muscular, mental or multiple problems would sometimes arrive juddering and shouting and would calm down once they started riding. “Their bodies would relax and they would connect with the animal in a way they couldn’t with a human being,” says DeLisser. “It was transformative – being on a horse gave them ease of movement and power. We even had children who had never spoken before find their voice and begin to utter a word or two.”
From this, it wasn’t too big a step to realise that horses could help with other human frailties, including lack of self-esteem, and so she developed her empowerment programme, basing it on horse-trainer Monty Roberts’ non-violent ‘round-pen, join-up’ method. The complete antithesis of breaking in a horse, the technique teaches horses to accept and respect their owners as the herd leaders and to follow their instruction willingly.
So back to the pen, where Razzmo is looking down his long and elegant nose at me. And who can blame him – I know I cut an extraordinary figure as I march towards him, flinging my arms out.
DeLisser tells me that my movements are too small and easy to ignore so advises me to pick up the whip – not to frighten him, but merely to elongate my reach. I stride forward, Razzmo gallops. I chase him, he gallops faster and for longer, literally running rings around me.
Undeterred, and with DeLisser’s voice spurring me on, I alter my posture. I stand taller, I open up my chest, my arm movements become stronger and more assured, and I vocalise: “yah”. Razzmo stops racing and starts looking at me with interest. I put down the whip, stop the arm flinging and walk towards him, approaching him sideways on as instructed, and avoiding eye contact. I’m within three feet of him, almost close enough to touch him, when he bolts. I repeat the process – the arm thrusting, the striding, the vocalisation – perhaps twice more before Razzmo decides to ‘join-up’ with me.
The moment, when it comes, is remarkable – and it happens just as DeLisser said it would, only after I fully believe in myself and my authority. Once I trust myself, winning his trust is a natural progression. This time when I approach him, Razzmo drops his head to take in my smell, allowing me to lean into him and to reach up to touch him. He relaxes against me and then, what joy, starts to follow me around the pen and back to his stable.
It took perhaps 20 minutes to command his respect, but the memory of the elation I felt at that moment will, I hope, stay with me forever. And will I be taken my horse-whispering skills into meeting? You bet…