In November I participated in a European symposium with Robert M. Miller, DVM, author of "The Revolution in Horsemanship."
In Spain, Dr. Miller presented seminars at the Barcelona Veterinary College and the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez. In Portugal, we held a symposium at the Royal Veterinary College in Lisbon and at the Equuspolis Center at the world-famous National Horse Fair in Golega.
This traditional equestrian show began in 1571 on St. Martin's Day. It features the best Lusitanos for international buyers.
Our mission was to acquaint horse enthusiasts with the concept of imprint training of foals followed by habituation training. Imprinting occurs most efficiently within the first hour of the foal's life. One hour of imprint training directly after birth, while the foal is still recumbent, removes fear of humans forever.
The technique requires the trainer to touch the foal's entire body, with special attention to rubbing the ears, mouth, inside the nostrils, and legs and feet.
On the following days, the foal is taught by habituation to tolerate blankets, saddles, noises, vehicles, other animals and anything that could potentially scare or "spook" an adult horse.
Dr. Ron Fuller, who organized the symposium, demonstrated how he habituates his own Standardbred foals to a harness and carriage ensemble.
Both Drs. Miller and Fuller feel that imprinted and habituated competition horses can be calm at the starting gates. This conserves their adrenaline for the race and gives them a winning advantage.
A foal's early lessons will be remembered for life. In this way the foal will not be afraid of tack, humans and everyday encounters, including medical procedures.
Two or three years later, when it is time to train these horses, they have no fear and no need for coercion. They are willing to be handled, bridled and saddled with little to no resistance.
Miller explained the technology he uses to communicate with adult problem horses by using the body language of natural horsemanship. He explained how horses respond to the reward system, the use of comfort-discomfort techniques.
Kathy Reeves of Longview, Texas, demonstrated her unique technique of using long lines that exert side and rear pressure signals to gently train horses to lead and follow.
Portugal's equestrian community celebrates at the Golega Horse Fair. It was amazing to see how the small city of Golega accommodates 2,500 horses every year for its traditional horse fair. Riders of all ages and stages parade round and round on a large outside show track for days.
Entire families participate, riding in carriages of all types and sizes pulled by beautiful horse teams or individual horses, mules, or ponies. Most riders dress in charming traditional costume and ride their horses with great pride.
It was thrilling to stand near the riders and carriages as teams entered and exited the track at four points.
Vendors filled the streets, selling delicious breads, food and wares. We saw some close calls but not one injury in the peaceful chaos of this gala horse fiesta. The event ran at this casual chaotic pace until almost midnight every day.
Beautiful ancient and contemporary sculptures and artwork honor horses as a way of life.
Some of our group went riding in Carmona, Spain. They rode from one olive grove to another for several hours without encountering fences or "keep out" signs. The instructor-guide said that landowners feel honored to have his beautiful horses traverse their property.
The Spanish and Portuguese method of horse training is all about control. It will take time for any traditional horse culture to change the way it does things.
The Moors ruled over Spain and Portugal for 700 years.
Their skillfully trained Arabian horses gave them advantage in battle. When the Spaniards adopted the training techniques, the battlefield evened out.
It takes an open mind to accept new information. It took more than 40 years for natural horsemanship to gain a solid following in the United States.
Dr. Miller felt that the horses we saw were not rewarded enough for their good behavior and could be happier if they performed without fear and coercion. He feels that natural horsemanship will evolve in Spain and Portugal when more women take up riding.
He said that each country needs one or two of its own national leaders to change the status quo.
I asked one rider if she had a bond with her beautiful and well-trained Lusitano stallion.
"He is a stallion, not a pet," she replied. But on further questioning, she said she would consider a well-trained mare that her daughter could safely ride a "pet."
Dr. Villalobos is president of the American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and is on the editorial review board of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.