Country & Abroad July 2004 Article

Originally printed in the July 2004 Issue of
The Country & Abroad

A small group of spectators walk up to the gate of a circular practice ring – what is known as a round pen – curious about a new arrival to Windrock Farm in Amenia, New York. A sleek dappled Holsteiner gallops past, the muscles of her flank tight and her hooves reverberant tympani against wet gray footing that sprays in every direction, leading our group to jump back a step. We are here to see not her, but the man in the pen with her. In the center of the ring Ruben Morales, a horseman of unique ability, is on his way to making a connection with the horse.

Communication with the horse is the first rule at Windrock. We have come to see how lines of communication can trump lines in the sand when it comes to training, riding, and perhaps most important, rehabilitating a horse.

Cari Swanson, the owner-operator of Windrock, has a lifelong connection to horses, and a growing reputation for taking difficult horses and helping them get right. To bolster her rehabilitation mission, Cari has imported this medicine man of sorts – a Chilean who speaks fluent equine – and a gentle man whose approach develops gentle horses.

Ruben dislikes the term horse whisperer. Indeed what our small crowd witnesses is not a whisper at all. Ruben leads a dance in circles, his arms raised, first in one direction and then in the other. He pushes the air between them, and the horse backs up. He turns, drops a shoulder, walks away and the horse follows. “We have to think like the horse. They can’t think like a human. I am a horse with clothes. My behavior is horse behavior.”

For us onlookers, this is a show; for Windrock, it is a philosophy. Ruben reaches for a lunge whip, but only as an extension of his arm – no crack is heard. Rather the whip cuts the air and draws a plane, a wall the horse will not penetrate. The tools are simple. Ruben ties on a white grocery bag, waving it behind and over the head of a stallion – his second horse of the exhibition – and to either side as he moves away. “I am saying to him that I am higher than you. I am faster than you.”

Slowly the horse calms and allows the bag to lie lightly between his ears. Ruben puts it to the ground and the horse’s jaw loosens. He is letting Ruben in.

Cari found Ruben through recommendations from visitors to a natural horsemanship website and brought him to Millbrook as her teacher. “We have the same philosophy and same approach to horses. Now I have to learn from the master.”

Years of a natural approach have served Cari well. Horses given up as losses reenter competition after only a year with her. While unconventional, hers is a careful and considered process, and it is difficult to argue with results.

Her horses undergo extensive evaluation through traditional methods with the vet and farrier, and holistic with chiropractor and acupuncturist. They are treated with essential oils – cypress, thieves oil, lavender – to reduce swelling, to disinfect and to calm. Turnout is critical and abundant, as are the types of workouts that build muscle naturally, namely hacks and cross country. Cari is happy to borrow from all disciplines, however. Cutting, jumping and dressage approaches are all co-opted in an equestrian cross-training regimen.

Then there is the chi machine. Cari views it as her ace in the hole. A funny black plastic device that resembles an old army field telephone, Cari discovered the chi machine years ago when she broke her back. The machine delivers chaotic energy pulses to the body to help remove trauma at a cellular level – forgetting painful muscle memory if you will. Looks strange. Sounds strange. Apparently works.

Some things Cari says leave the skeptical listener awaiting a wink or a punch line. Then, however, there is the realization of how strong a connection she feels to the horses that come to her. Cari will discuss feeling a psychic tie to them, and even to the skeptic, it is clear she does. “I have to listen to my horses. A lot of people don’t pay attention to their horses. They’re giving you subtle signs all of the time.”

Put simply Cari connects with the horse to understand both its emotional fears and its physical pain. “I try to understand where their fear is by working with them on the ground through traditional flat work. You work to build the correct muscles and this supports the skeletal system, eliminates pain, eliminates memories of pain.”

Just as important is the relationship of horse to owner. “You have to work within the horse’s limits,” Cari asserts. “Each horse needs the right rider, someone whose goals match the horses abilities.”

Permission to place this article on this website was kindly granted by The Country & Abroad.