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Horses and the challenge of understanding them better at heart of Equitana festival

Guy McLean performs seemingly impossible feats with horses.

Like having his mount stand calmly over a sitting bullock while, from the saddle, he cracks a pair of thunderously loud stockwhips.

Dan Speers’ displays on horseback frequently draw a collective gasp from horse-loving crowds.

Dan Speers performing as one half of an act called Double Dan Horsemanship. (ABC Landline: Tim Lee)

His tricks include galloping around the arena and waving a blazing torch above his head.

Then dismounted, he uses slight hand signals to make his prize stallion rear up or sit on his haunches like a dog.

“People have to figure out how we’re getting those horses to do the things that we get them to do, and it’s through those subtle aids. Sometimes they wonder whether we’re deliberately doing it or not deliberately doing it,” Mr Speers said.

“Maybe the horse is doing it by himself? It can look like you’re a bit of a horse whisperer.”

Communicating with horses

The term “horse whisperer” gained prominence after the 1998 box-office hit starring Robert Redford.

The term implies that the best horsemen and women possess an almost mystical ability to communicate and connect with equine friends.

Mr McLean scoffs at the notion. He said his success stemmed from being able to read a horse and nurture a bond that cultivated trust and an absence of fear.

Photo of a man riding a horse with two other horses and a bull.
Mr McLean says the trick is to make the horses calm and comfortable.(ABC Landline: Tim Lee)

“It’s all about finding ways that motivate the horse to do the things that we want,” he said.

“We’re not asking them to do anything they can’t do. Now, if you see me next year flying one around the arena with wings, then you can say I’m amazing, but I’m not getting them to do anything that they can’t do on their own.”

Mr McLean has been entertaining crowds with his horsemanship since his teens.

For the past two decades, he has been a headline act in Australia and overseas, especially in the horse-mad USA, where he spends a great deal of time performing and running clinics for riders.

He uses an approach called “natural horsemanship”, which seeks to get the best out of a horse by harnessing its natural instincts and abilities and avoiding putting it under duress.

Photo of a man smiling with a cowboy hat.
Mr Speers says industry research has improved techniques for communicating with horses.(ABC Landline: Tim Lee)

Mr Speers has a similar approach, but he said he and other trainers were continually refining their methods as science shed new light on how horses ticked.

“We’re learning better ways at being able to communicate, and it’s creating a more willing horse, and when I say willing, he’s relaxed, and that’s the big ticket.”

Warwick Schiller is also a big ticket. The son of a rodeo proprietor from Young in New South Wales, he has lived and worked in the United States since 1990.

equitana horse festival

The trio were the headline acts at Equitana in Melbourne last week, a four-day festival celebrating every aspect of the horse, including education, competition, displays and spectacular entertainment.

Mr Schiller’s horsemanship videos focus as much on the human as the horse.

Photo of a man wearing a cowboy hat.
Warwick Schiller went to the United States to pursue his dream of a career with horses.(ABC Landline: Tim Lee)

“If you’re a bit too timid in life… then your horse may be a little bit pushy,” he said.

“If you’re a little bit too aggressive in life with your horse… the horse might be a bit too scared, so it’s almost like your shadow side, and to get along well with horses, you have to be able to access all.

“So anything that’s missing in your psyche shows up in your horses.”

At last count, his videos have had 25 million views worldwide.

The best in the business

Mr Schiller observes that the best horse people have similar personalities.

“There is a calm, confident demeanor that every single one of them has, and it’s kind of palpable between all of us. I really think that’s the crux of the whole thing, to be good with horses,” he said.

Bruce O’Dell, an accomplished horse trainer from Victoria, notes that the best horse trainers are also terrific communicators.

“The whole lot of them are great talkers and great horsemen, so it’s a good blend for teaching everyone around; they’ve got very good communication skills,” he said.

Mr McLean said the success of Australian horsemen and women also stemmed from sheer hard work and skills forged in the bush.

Photo of a man with three horses in an arena.
Mr McLean says you can tell if a horseman or woman is really good by the way the animal looks at them.(ABC Landline: Tim Lee)

There are an estimated 1 million horses across Australia in paddocks and stables.

While many are used for recreation, they are still vital for everyday stockwork.

Most of the crowds who attended Equitana were keen to learn from the master horsemen on finding ways to build a better bond between themselves and their horse.

Dan Speers is excited to see it continue to evolve.

“I know for a fact that I’m not going to master this in a lifetime,” Mr Speers said.

“It’s just impossible because we are learning new ways, we are getting better, and the possibilities are really endless. You’re only limited by your own imagination.”

Watch ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday or on ABC iview.

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