“It’s about time!” yells a girl in the audience, punching her fist in the air. Neil Davies, the Australian horse trainer, is in the center of a small arena at the 2019 Equine Affaire in Columbus Ohio. He has just finished explaining the negatives of training techniques that feature waving flags at horses, using cruel restraints or running them in a round pen until they are trembling, sweating and exhausted. “That doesn’t work,” Neil says, rubbing the horse’s head now. “This works.’’
Fifteen minutes before, this horse was pulling on the lead rope and swishing his tail when his owner passed him to Neil. The horse’s eyes darted, in search of an exit, a moving portrait of fear. Now his head is dropping. He is standing still, tail relaxed, lips licking. “There,” says Neil, “I have shown him I am easy to be with, that with me he is safe and relaxed and happy. Not until I have reached this point can I progress and ask him to do more. And this took me fifteen minutes. It’s easy. Anybody can do it. No mystery at all.”
Neil holds up his hand. “This,” he says, looking at his hand as if it’s something new, “is the best tool you have. And you have two of them!” His only other tools are a standard nylon halter, a cotton lead rope, a simple Australian Barcoo bridle, fitted with a ring snaffle, cushioned with rubber rings on either side, and a long dressage whip, so he can tap the rump of the horse to ask for forward movement. Otherwise, the whip stays end to the ground.
Neil Davies is casual and amiable, would not stand out in a crowd. But when he is in the presence of a horse he becomes completely aware. He is asking the horse now to walk in a simple circle. “This might look easy, but it’s not. I want my circle, at my speed, exactly. It is not any circle. It is my circle. And he must give me full concentration, not look over there, or look over me or around me. He must give me exactly what I want. And when he does, I ask him to come to me and I will rub his head, just like this…”
The crowed is hushed, as if each of them too is having his or her head rubbed.
“I am sorry this is not entertainment,“ Neil says. “No bucking colts, no saddling and ‘breaking’ in record time. I don’t do entertainment. I do fear-free horse training. I don’t like bucking horses. Dangerous for me, dangerous for the horse. If a horse bucks, I see that as failure, and I must ask myself what I did wrong.”
Heads nod along the bleachers, as Neil moves back to creating the perfect circle.
“The biggest problem we all have is our own ego. We think we must win, that we must end on a good note, whatever that is. But the horse doesn’t know about ego, doesn’t know about notes. Doesn’t even know time. This is a simple animal. He knows fear and he knows the opposite, which is calm. He learns nothing when in fear. He learns everything when he is calm. And we must teach him every single thing we want.”
A girl raises her hand. “How long does this memory last?” she asks.
“Forever,” says Neil,“with the bad experiences never far from the surface. So you want no bad experiences. Only good ones. And from time to time you will need to reinforce these happy and desirable experiences. Rub his head. You can never do that too often.”
He returns to the perfect circle, that has indeed grown more precise, strides extended, rear hooves falling where the fronts have just left. Now Neil saddles the horse and rides the perfect circle. To the right, then to the left. The ears of the horse are either rotating back at Neil, or forward. Sometimes one in each direction. “When they are back at me, I know he is concentrating on me, looking for what I want, ready to give. That’s good.”
He dismounts. “Thirty minutes is all you should spend with a horse. After that, give him a nice head rub and feed him and you go have a cup of tea. The horse is done for the day, and so are you.”
But Neil is on for a full hour, so there is no tea break here. Another horse, another performance.
“All horses are different,” he is saying. ”This one is a little more nervous than the last, so we will go slow and I will show him it’s good being with me. We will get along just fine, we’ll be mates.”
At the end of the session he receives an enthusiastic reaction, then heads back to his booth where his wife Christine is selling his book, FEAR- FREE HORSE TRAINING, EVERY STEP OF THE WAY. Christine is a tall elegant blonde who amongst other talents is a master of the English language. She was a literary force in the production of his book. So they now move 600 copies a month, while enjoying a luxurious new condo on Surfers’ Paradise, while Neil tours the bush flying his new private plane. He is doing alright, this modest horse trainer from a cattle property on the rim of the Outback.
Figured all this out while training thousands of horses in a career launched as a teenager. He quickly realized the methods passed on by his father’s generation did not work as well his own gentle approach. So he began creating his own original knowledge. The simple head rub began his signature.
He now believes people who are harsh with horses while attempting to train them are simply afraid of them. “It’s a way of covering up their own fears,” he says. “They think by dominating the horse they will become a superior ‘leader.’ But a horse doesn’t understand any of that. Horses don’t process philosophy.”
While his book is on target to become the largest selling horse training manual in the English language – or any other language – he remains apprehensive. He knows the battle has just begun.
Walking back to his booth now in Columbus, Ohio, he stops outside a display by another popular trainer. The booth is full of balloons on sticks, whistles, hobble chains, halters with knots that fall on sensitive facial nerves. “It’s all commerce,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s marketing. Buy this gadget, see this video, get this result. It’s simply not true. Most of it induces fear, which is the enemy. Horses learn nothing when they are afraid. They just want to flee!”
Still, he noted the groundswell of people wanting something “different,” a soft and new approach to a task thousands of years old. “I think they just might be ready to see horse training, not entertainment at the expense of training the horse.”
While working with a horse, he says: “Be satisfied with progress. You don’t have to achieve it all in one go, or one week, or one month. Teaching the horse is something you should be doing all his life, for years. Then, he will be the very best horse he can be. That is the aim.”
Back in his booth now, he is shocked to find more people than not already have his book, purchased from his website Fear Free Horse Training. Christine tosses her blonde hair. ”I thought we were just getting into selling books,” she says, “but hauling this many each week to the Post Office is actually hard manual labor.”
The reader reaction to the first book has been so enormous Neil and Christine are now busy writing a sequel, based on answering questions not addressed in the first book; and a harvesting of the endless blog Neil writes.
Given all of what he has achieved, his greatest joy remains that he has put it all on paper.
Some say Neil Davies has launched “a quiet revolution,” but he smiles and says: “Time will tell. All I know is that the more people who follow my words, the more horses will be happy. That pleases me greatly. Because the horse and his happiness is what it’s all about. I’m going forward with that.”
As the girl said, the time for change could be now.
Visit Neil at his website and buy his book directly from him at: FEARFREEHORSETRAINING.COM
And read his blog posts on Facebook at Fear-free Horse Training with Neil Davies
And read a description of his book by Colin Dangaard HERE.