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The horse whisperer

A 12-year-old girl used the Parelli principles of natural horsemanship to turn an unmanageable pony into a friendly companion

October 12, 2007
Ashley Gurbal,
When the Wertz family bought their daughter Julia a pony four years ago, they knew they were taking on a challenge. The pony’s name was Banana Split — “banana” referring to his golden chestnut color and “split” for his tendency to do just that.

“On trail rides, he’d take off into the woods,” Julia said. “We’d have to chase him for awhile.”

Today, however, Julia, now 12, can ride her pony bareback, with no bridle, over jumps and canters him through a field on her parents’ property in Sinking Valley.

The difference came when the family began applying the principles of the Parelli method to his training. The Parelli method builds trust between horses and people by simulating the way horses interact in the wild, working through the innate fear they have of people.

On Oct. 20, the pair will demonstrate their skills at a Parelli clinic in Upper Marlboro, Md., part of the Parelli 2007 U.S. tour.

Tour director Alain Martignier said the demonstration aims to show the audience ‘‘what is possible with dedication’’ — that anyone willing can apply the Parelli principles, developed by horse trainer Pat Parelli.

The Parelli approach to horse training focuses more on teaching people than training horses, Martignier said.

‘‘It’s about revealing horses to people,’’ Martignier said in a telephone interview. ‘‘It helps people live their dream with horses. A lot of people have a vision in mind of riding into the sunset, and then their horse has problems. ... The dream starts to turn into a nightmare.’’

Julia’s mother, Christine Wertz, first learned of the method in April 2001 at Equine Affaire, a national equestrian convention held annually in California, Ohio and Massachusetts. She bought the beginner’s kit, which contains DVDs, books and information to help horse owners apply the methods at home. She and her husband, Jim Wertz, have used it successfully with their horses, Gabrielle and Flash.

Before the Parelli method, Banana — as he’s known around the barn — would also rub Julia against fence poles in an attempt to remove her and pull on the reins. Basically, Julia said, he would refuse ‘‘whenever you asked him to do anything against his will.’’

Once they applied the principles, though, things changed.

‘‘I’m just amazed at what she’s doing with him,’’ Christine Wertz said.

Martignier asked Julia via e-mail Sept. 26 to be part of the demonstration after seeing a DVD the Wertzes submitted to the Parelli staff of Julia working with Banana.

Also featured will be two Parelli instructors and three to four students.

‘‘Every time she asked the horse to do something, the horse was happy to do it,’’ Martignier said in a telephone interview. ‘‘The horse never lies. Their body language tells (how they’re feeling).’’

The method avoids force, coercion and dominance, according to the Parelli Web site, Parelli and his staff determine why a horse has a certain issue — biting or kicking, for example — and focus the corrective action at the root of the problem because ‘‘smacking the horse doesn’t work,’’ according to the Web site.

‘‘You need to get the horse to where he trusts you, likes you, respects you ... and none of that is achieved through violence,’’ Parelli states on his Web site.

Parelli calls his method natural horsemanship, and there are other trainers who subscribe to similar methods, such as Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance. All are based on ‘‘horses’ normal behavior,’’ said Ann Swinker, a professor of equine science at Penn State University Park, which means that they work with a horse’s instincts.

‘‘They’re going from dominating and training to teaming up,’’ Swinker said. ‘‘They’re making the horse want to do it, not out of fear but because it wants to do it.’’

Several ‘‘games’’ are used to build trust between horses and people and simulate the way horses interact in the wild. When Julia started working with Banana, she ran a carrot over his back, which Christine said reminds horses of ‘‘their mother’s tails swishing over their backs when they were foals.’’

Julia and Banana don’t compete in horse shows, but Julia said she enjoys working with her pony and building their relationship. Sometimes, she’ll lay down in the pasture with him as he naps, and one afternoon Christine found Julia reading ‘‘Black Beauty’’ to Banana.

‘‘It’s what I like to do,’’ Julia said of natural horsemanship. ‘‘It’s a lot better than just using extra equipment and tougher bits to do everything.’’

Christine and Jim Wertz are ambassadors for this tour stop and are able to provide complimentary tickets, DVDs and other information to those who would like to attend. For more information, call Christine Wertz at 942-7277.

Mirror Staff Writer Ashley Gurbal is at 946-7435.

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