Talking Horse Sense

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The horse whisperer looks small and vulnerable beside the half-wild beast thundering around the fenced pen, and her task seems more daunting by the minute. Kelly Marks is supposed to put a saddle and rider on Cisco, when no one has managed more than slipping a head collar on this half-ton of nervous horseflesh after six weeks of trying. The 300 spectators in the equestrian center watch the tiny ring intently. Will this prove an embarrassing fiasco?
They should have had more faith. Within 10 minutes, Cisco is slavishly following Marks around like a pet dog. In another 15, the mare is saddled up. Five more, and a rider is trotting Cisco quietly around the ring without even using a bit in her mouth for control. The conversion happens so quickly that the skeptics have their own explanations: it must have been rigged, it's a trick, drugs were used. Even Cisco's owner, riding instructor Gayle Moreton, is speechless. "I can't believe what I'm seeing," she says. But in truth, she does. Moreton, after all, had driven Cisco 500 km across England to this demonstration in a village 90 km north of London precisely because she had faith in Marks' powers.

Although these belong in the tradition made famous by the best-selling 1995 novel The Horse Whisperer and the Robert Redford movie that followed, 38-year-old Marks did not whisper a word. Horses don't whisper, and Marks talks horse, a silent language of the body and eyes, not human sounds. California horse tamer Monty Roberts, who pioneered these equine communicating techniques and wrote about them in his best seller, The Man Who Listens to Horses, calls the language equus. Marks, his British protege and herself a former champion amateur jockey, speaks it fluently. Surprisingly, although the concept is still controversial among horsey folk, it is being embraced enthusiastically by some big players in the corporate world.

Roberts learned equus as a young man on the high deserts of Nevada, where he rounded up herds of wild mustangs for his father, a horsebreaker of brutal, if traditional, methods. Roberts senior subjected the horses to pain, fear and humiliation to force them into submission. His son and Marks achieve the same results in a fraction of the time without any violence. They simply imitate the body language used by dominant mares to train colts in the disciplines of the herd. It involves positioning the body in relation to the horse, facing the animal square-on or at an angle, using passive and aggressive body language, and making and breaking eye contact at different points. The sequence of movements is important; the idea is first to establish leadership, then invite the horse to trust and cooperate with the leader in effect to invite the animal to join the herd. "Anyone can do it," says Marks. "It's not magic. I've taught so many people, it can't be a trick."

The technique is still regarded with suspicion, perhaps because it is all so low-key, so far removed from rodeos and bucking broncos and the heavy-handed discipline regarded in some stables as necessary. But even members of the British royal family became converts after a Roberts demonstration of his "join-up" techniques in 1989 at Windsor Castle. And equus impresses the business world because of the management concepts involved: leadership, clear signals, trust and turning recalcitrant individuals into dedicated team players.

Scores of corporations including Exxon, American Express, Volkswagen and Disney have traipsed to Roberts' California farm in recent years to watch him at work. Now Marks, too, is attracting business people to her courses and clinics in Oxfordshire (, as well as to the demonstrations she gives on European and British tours. "Join-up provides a powerful statement about building followership if you want to lead," says Anne Deering, vice president for leadership development at the management consulting firm A.T. Kearney in London. "I can see lots of benefits in this for business." John Arnold, dean of the Manchester Business School, would like to use Marks' training to develop a course for his own students. "The link with her teaching is to do with empowerment and self-learning and finding win-win situations," he says.

But why should humans learn to talk to horses in order to talk to each other? One reason is that horses do not try to please the boss, cannot tell a janitor from a company president and react only if the message is right. Companies that thrive also depend on motivated, dedicated workforces. That, after all, is just plain horse sense.