The Horse Whisperer Connection

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.”

Three-Step Teaching

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.”

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