S E C T I O N
Cover Story Friendly persuasion Story by Dave Boyce Photos by Michelle Le
Slick, an American quarter horse, cleared these barrels most of the times he leapt over them for the benefit of an Almanac photographer. He was “at liberty,” meaning he wore no halter, and responded to Ms. Witters’ body language, sometimes in combination with spoken commands.
f films and TV shows about the Old West are any guide, cowboys and ranchers back then persuaded a horse to perform on command by subduing it. Part of the process, the photogenic part, was getting on the horse’s back when it was an untamed bucking bronco and staying there until the horse calmed down and learned who was boss. Bending a horse’s will — and even the term “horse breaking” — did not arise with the Old West. The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem from 800 BC that recounts the battle of Troy, refers to three of the battle’s dauntless protagonists — Hector, Agamemnon and Diomedes — with the admiring epithet “breaker of horses.”
Woodside’s Rebekah Witter helps equestrians learn the language of their horses Whether employed to carry a warrior or pull a plow, the horse was a living tool and as such, needed to learn deference, Woodside resident, equestrian and author Rebekah Witter says. “That’s why it’s called ‘breaking a horse,’” she says. “They break their spirits.” Ms. Witter doesn’t break the spirits of her horses, and by not doing so, participates in a parallel history of horse-human relationships. Along with a few words,
she communicates using body language, something that horses understand since they use it among themselves, she says. The practice is known among equestrians by two names: natural horsemanship and, less commonly, horse whispering. While horses have yet to whisper their thoughts and feelings, the focus of natural horsemanship seems to be the horse’s evident enjoyment of a relationship with a human, and the human’s appreciation
for the complex character of the horse. Ms. Witter has written four books on horses and offers free coaching for equestrians interested in developing fuller relationships with their horses. Xenophon, an Athenian, student of Socrates and fifth-century author of “On Horsemanship,” spoke well of gentleness. “The one best precept — the golden rule — in dealing with a horse is never to approach him angrily,” he wrote. “Anger is so devoid of forethought that it will often drive a man to do things which in a calmer mood he will regret. Ö By training (the horse) to adopt the very See FRIENDLY PERSUASION, page 19
December 11, 2013 N TheAlmanacOnline.com N The Almanac N 17
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FRIENDLY PERSUASION continued from page 17
airs and graces which he naturally assumes when showing off to best advantage, you have got what you are aiming at — a horse that delights in being ridden, a splendid and showy animal, the joy of all beholders.” If Slick, Ms. Witter’s brown 8-year-old American quarter horse, is not the joy of all beholders, it would be incumbent upon the beholder to explain why. He is spirited and cooperative, independent and friendly, curious and reserved. There can be little doubt that he has a mind of his own. Ms. Witter trained Slick using seven “games” designed by trainers Pat and Linda Parelli to establish a trusting relationship and lines of communication. The techniques of natural horsemanship acculturate the horse to being in cooperative relationships with people, Ms. Witter says. “It’s heart to heart as well as mind to mind and body to body,” she says. “It makes a horse want to be with you, and that’s a huge thing. It’s not the same old, same old. They’re excited. They’re inspired.” The training starts with gentle touches and graduates to hand and wand signals and the sound of the trainer exhaling. Her horses respond to cues to approach her or back away; walk, trot or run in a specific direction; stop; move sideways; and pass through close quarters, such as between where she is standing and a fence. These soft techniques are several steps removed from “traditional” methods in which the horse is indoctrinated through fear and intimidation, as outlined on the website “Hart’s Horsemanship” by trainer Ben Hart. A traditional relationship includes a boss and it isn’t the horse, Mr. Hart writes. There may be whips and spurs. The horse’s individual characteristics and emotions may be ignored and the horse expected to fit in and learn lessons as dictated. Mistakes are seen not as opportunities but as cause for frustration, with fault being laid at the feet of a “stubborn” or “difficult” horse. Mr. Hart acknowledges the long history of so-called “modern” horsemanship and Xenophon’s take on it. He also notes that many traditional trainers “have soft hands and can help the horse to learn what is required of it with the minimum of pressure or force.” And, he adds, there are modern trainers who have “poor timing, use excessive amounts of punishment and negative rein-
Rebekah Witter of Woodside gets a hug from her spirited quarter-horse Slick, who is encouraged to express his emotions.
forcement and force the horse to comply.” Watching Slick
As Ms. Witter put Slick through the routines in her circular corral near Woodside Road, her horse would walk, trot or run as requested, particularly on the first of the two demonstrations witnessed by this reporter. Slick responded smartly and immediately to every request. On the second occasion several weeks later, this time with a photographer kneeling in the center of the corral, Slick did not
seem as into it and Ms. Witter resorted to some cajoling. At one point, Slick walked intently over to the photographer, nuzzled her camera and seemed to want to get to know her, but Ms. Witter gently interrupted and got him back to his routines. The only prop in the coral were two barrels lying end to end. Slick,without halter or any other accoutrement, jumped them repeatedly as the Almanac photographer, seeking a lowangle image, placed the camera at her feet and shot from there. A relaxed friendliness prevailed as Slick trotted up to the barrels
with Ms. Witter, 60, setting the pace by running a little ahead and to the side. On some runs, Slick stopped short, whereupon Ms. Witter would turn him around and try again. He made a couple of the jumps from a standstill and made it look easy. On the last couple, his hind legs did bump the barrels, but the incidents went unremarked upon by Ms. Witter. At one point, Slick lay on his back and rolled in the dust. Most of the time, Ms. Witter waited for him to come to her — a sign of respect for his personal space, she says. His relaxed state around
humans is remarkable, she says, given that horses are prey animals that see humans as predators. Skittish by nature, horses are suspicious. The 4-foot-long foam sticks that brush the backs of horses who pass into Ms. Witter’s corral can’t be welcome, but they work to desensitize the horses and discourage spooking, she says. In a related game, she plays “jump rope” with Slick. While riding him bareback and without halter, she passes a loop of rope over his head and down to the ground and he steps over it. The high point was Slick walking himself into a horse trailer, and backing out. At direction from Ms. Witter, he would walk over to the trailer, step inside and take himself all the way in. With a gentle tug on his tail, he would back himself out. “One of the toughest things to train a horse to do is (go) into a metal box with wheels,” she says. “In the horse world, that’s really cool.” The demonstration complete, Ms. Witter walked over to the corral fence to talk with the reporter. On his own, Slick came up behind his trainer and rested his chin on her shoulder. A
More information Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 650-851-9008 to contact Rebekah Witter about her coaching services. On the cover: Natural horsemanship advocate Rebekah Witter and Slick, her 8-year-old quarter horse, exchange kisses in the corral at Ms. Witter’s Woodside home. Using gentle persuasion, she has trained Slick to perform routines while retaining his independent spirit and scampish nature. Photo by Michelle Le.
December 11, 2013 N TheAlmanacOnline.com N The Almanac N 19
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H A P PY H O L I DAYS
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ne of the eight gifts listed this year in the Neiman Marcus annual Fantasy Gifts catalog is called â€œFancy Flying.â€? It details a falconry experience complete with â€œbespokeâ€? accoutrements such as a 20-karat gold-plated perch. Fantasy? Not entirely. A Palo Alto couple created a similar, albeit lower-key, experience for themselves on a trip celebrating their daughterâ€™s 40th birthday. Original, creative, high-end gifts are delighting many local residents. The falconry experience took place in the Cotswolds, where the family rented a home, com-
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plete with copper bathtub, and where a chef came one night to prepare a special English meal, with smashed peas, Yorkshire pudding and a sticky toffee pudding that the wife described as â€œto die for.â€? Some Internet research on TripAdvisor led them to West
of England Falconry, near Bath, where falconer Jay Marshall gave the participants instructions. â€œWe put on vests,â€? said the wife. â€œOn our left hand we put on a thick glove and were told to keep our right hand firmly over the right pocketâ€? â€” in which they had the supply of baby chick
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H A P PY H O L I DAYS fighter jet lessons a Woodside woman gave to her husband. Her husband, although not a professional pilot, was certified and was a member of the Swedish equivalent to our Special
Forces. He has bona fides as an excellent skier, (helicopter skiing in Canada), competitive parachute jumping, horseback Continued on next page
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gizzards. She then described how they were led into a field surrounded by a forest. With a piece of bait transferred to the left hand, arm outstretched, the
â€œbeautiful, beautiful birds swoop down at enormous speedâ€? to take the bait. One bird perched on her head for a bit. â€œA sort of falcon fascinator,â€? she said. â€œWe
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were there for about two hours and I would do it again in a heartbeat.â€? Yet another avian-like experience was the birthday gift of
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H A P PY H O L I DAYS
Continued from previous page
riding (fox hunting in Ireland). You get the picture. The wife said that she had
had the opportunity to ride in a fighter jet in New Zealand and was looking for a similar experience for her husband. â€œBut I knew that he wouldnâ€™t want to
be taken for a ride. Thatâ€™s not the way heâ€™s wired. He would want to take the wheel.â€? Quite by chance, she met someone at a party who introduced her to
Peter Zaccagnino, a certified instructor who owns his own L-39 jet and who gives lessons in Heber, Utah. What started out as a gift
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of three lessons, at $2,500 each, has now blossomed into â€œat least 12 more, in which he has learned to take off, land and do all kinds of maneuvers,â€? she said. The couple, who decided years ago to give each other experiences rather than gifts, has also enjoyed whitewater rafting down the Carnali River in Nepal and private polo lessons in Palm Springs. Nine months before their 40th wedding anniversary, an Atherton glass collector decided to commission a piece for his wife from the glass artist Emily Brock, whose miniatures the couple had long admired. â€œThe theme was four decades, so I told her I wanted to represent four places we love,â€? said the husband. The result is a sort of four-roomed glass doll house. One â€œroomâ€? is a fall scene in Central Park in New York, another, the counter in the Paris restaurant Lâ€™Atelier de Joel Robuchon, another, the coupleâ€™s family room (including the miniature glass collection) and, finally, their as yet unfinished dream house in Marthaâ€™s Vineyard. â€œEmily was very clever in her execution, right down
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to the lamb chops and cocktail my wife always orders,â€? he said. Since Emily Brock lives in New Mexico, the piece was fabricated using photographs, either taken by the husband or found on the Internet. â€œThe only thing she had some trouble with was the color of the family-room sofa,â€? said the husband. â€œI also asked the artist if she could somehow incorporate all the memories we have of these places, said the husband. The result is a memory drawer that pulls out from each section. Each drawer contains a piece of glass with an etched list. The piece cost $20,000. â€œIt was shipped, intact,â€? said the husband. â€œEvery time we look at it, we smile.â€? If your imagination needs a creative boost, there is always that Neiman Marcus catalog. â€œGinger Reeder, vp of public relations in Dallas, works all year round selecting the Fantasy Gifts,â€? said Samantha Hartwell, manager of public relations in the Palo Alto store. The Fantasy Gifts are found in the Christmas Book 2013, called â€œThe Heart of Giving.â€? The first catalog was published in 1926, and the Fantasy Gifts were introduced in 1959 by the Marcus Brothers as a publicity coup. The most expensive gift this year is â€œRoughing Itâ€? and includes not only a 25-karat rough Forevermark diamond, but also an edifying trip to the De Beers headquarters in London, and the opportunity to design your own piece of jewelry with a New York-based jewelry designer. Price tag: $1.8 million. â€œThe cars always sell out within the first 24 hours,â€? Hartwell said. This year, they are featuring a 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish Volante, one of
H A P PY H O L I DAYS only 10 in the world. â€œAnd the His and Hers are always popular,â€? she added. â€œIn 1967 it was His and Hers camels.â€? This year each Neiman Marcus store will donate a portion
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of the proceeds from each Fantasy Gift purchase to the Heart of Neiman Marcus Foundation, from which each store will in turn donate funds. The Palo Alto Neiman Marcus store
selected Stanford LIVE, the production company behind the Bing Concert Hall, which provides musical experiences for K-12 in this community. As for next year, Hartwell says
that Ginger Reeder is probably hard at work on that right now! A
Freelance writer Susan Golovin can be emailed at susangolovin@ yahoo.com.
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â€˜Golden Gate Reflectionsâ€™ This Frances Freyberg photograph, titled â€œGolden Gate Reflectionsâ€? and printed on metal, is one of the artworks featured in the â€œSmall Works Ă– Great Valuesâ€? group show at the Portola Art Gallery at Allied Arts Guild, 75 Arbor Road in Menlo Park. The show runs through December.
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Gingerbread House workshop The Village Pub will host a Gingerbread House workshop from 11:30 to 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at the restaurant, 2967 Woodside Road in Woodside. The price per child is $85 and includes instruction, a gingerbread house, snacks, and a gift. The class is designed for children 5 years and older. To reserve, email email@example.com or call 851-6844.
Jazz concert The Joe LaBarbera Quintet, with Joe LaBarbera, Bill Cunliffe, Clay Jenkins, Bob Sheppard and