It starts with a steady, reassuring look in the eye. And within an hour, Lesley Neuman, a wild-horse gentler, has mustang number 7550, recently...

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It starts with a steady, reassuring look in the eye.

And within an hour, Lesley Neuman, a wild-horse gentler, has mustang number 7550, recently rounded up by federal land managers from the Oregon sagebrush country, nuzzling in close to smell her neck.

So it goes for Neuman, a master practitioner of a different kind of horse training that is a distinct break from the cowboy-movie genre of swagger and whip, “breaking” wild horses through force and intimidation.

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With Neuman, it’s all about the asking. Horses aren’t “broken,” but “started.” Saturday, Neuman demonstrated her skills at a wild-horse auction held at the Evergreen State Fair Grounds in Monroe, working with mustangs put up by the Bureau of Land Management for adoption. The bureau gathers wild horses from the open range and puts them up for adoption to control populations.

The mustangs milling in corrals at the fairgrounds had arrived Friday, trucked in from holding corrals in Burns, Ore. The auction and horse-gentling demonstration continues today. It’s a moving sight.

Today’s events

The wild-horse auction and horse-gentling demonstrations continue today at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe, 14405 179th Ave. S.E. Information booths about trail riding, horses and equipment, and supplies for sale can also be found at the event. Among the events:

8-9:30 a.m. Viewing of the horses and registration

8-9 a.m. Wild-horse gentling demonstration by Lesley Neuman

9:30 a.m. Bidding on wild horses for adoption

10:30 a.m. — 3 p.m. Load adopted horses and walk-up adoptions.

“Let’s see if he’ll let me do this,” Neuman says, easing him into turns, and showing the horse he can feel the snick of lightly tossed rope over his back without panic. Big stuff for a horse that had never felt a person’s touch until Neuman got into the ring.

Getting it done

Neuman takes her cue from the horse. She says her job is to mimic the leadership usually offered by the lead mare of the wild herd. Gently. “The old way was to grab them and tie them up and make them do it,” Neuman says. “But if you create a fight, you get a fight.”

Instead, she works with a horse’s urge to move, watches its feet for cues, and uses body language to engage a horse’s attention.

She’s unafraid to put on the pressure to get what she wants out of a horse with an authoritative pull on the rope, a direct look in the eye and even waving her arms to “get big” when needed.

Don’t nag, she tells the audience watching in the bleachers. “Then the horse loses respect. Just present it so they can understand it. You want to get it done.”

Sometimes called natural horsemanship, the nonintrusive training technique is at root a misnomer, notes local trainer Terri L. Cook, who uses similar methods at Gunderson Barn in Mount Vernon.


U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management:

Horse trainer Tom Dorrance:

Wild horse gentler Lesley Neuman

“There is nothing natural about a prey animal letting a predator tell them what to do,” Cook says.

The name, however, does reflect the method’s emphasis on working with a horse’s natural tendencies. The method works as well for purebreds, too, and can be used to instruct horses in everything from the basics to sophisticated moves.

A quiet revolution in horse training, the movement has been building for about 25 years, culminating in popular culture with the novel “The Horse Whisperer” and the subsequent movie.

Changing lives

It’s an adage of the method that horse “problems” are really people problems: “Most people will tell you that a horse will mirror the owner,” Cook says.

Some owners bring the same inability to focus or communicate with people into the ring with their horse.

“The horse will perform up to the rider’s level,” Cook says.

She has found that what works well in the ring works well outside it, too. Learning how to pay attention, how to communicate intent directly and how to provide leadership has changed the lives not only of many a horse, but many an owner, Cook notes.

And like people, horses have long memories.

“Unfortunately, they have a long memory for pain,” Cook said. Pain gets in the way of learning, so Cook has three rules for training:

• It can’t hurt the person.

• It can’t hurt the horse.

• The horse must be calmer after the lesson than before.

Take it from mustang number 7550: It works.

Skittish, circling the ring and initially standing away from Neuman, by the end of the lesson, the bay looks her in the eye, and allows her, finally, to rest the back of her hand on his nose. Then her fingertips. Then an actual stroke, just one. Then real pets, all the way down the side of his neck.

“This is when it gets quiet. This is when it gets soft. This is when it gets comfortable,” Neuman says as the animal snugs in close. “He is reaching for me. That is his offer to be with me.”

Finally, the bay even lowers his head, stands close to her. And relaxes. “I say, ‘if they allow me’ because if he didn’t, I wouldn’t be here, there’s no way,” she says. “It’s a partnership; it’s not controlling the horse or being a dominator.”

Finally, the bay breathes so close to her, his breath snuffles over the microphone clipped to Neuman’s collar. And for an instant, the sound of the mustang’s calm, steady breathing fills the arena.

“That,” Neuman says softly, “is pretty special.”

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