Global Observer

Meet Melbourne's horse listener

Meet Melbourne's horse listener

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MELBOURNE -- Ahead of Australia's biggest horse racing event of the year, we get acquainted with the man they call the 'horse listener.'

MELBOURNE -- When Whittlesea resident Melissa Stevenson first bought Gideon, a 16.2-hand, warmblood horse, he came with some baggage -- namely a nervous disposition and a confidence issue. He would panic, run, try to buck and constantly stop when Stevenson rode him. Gideon was -- in textbook language -- a nervous wreck.

Then Gideon met Carlos Tabernaberri, an Argentinian horse trainer said to work wonders with 'troubled' horses. Over six months, Tabernaberri helped both Stevenson and Gideon find 'common ground' with a series of gentle exercises based on the formula CCKL = TOR. The acronym is Tabernaberri's philosophy that through demonstrating Confidence, Consistency, Kindness and Leadership to Gideon, Stevenson would gain her horse's Trust, Obedience and Respect.

"Gideon's probably 90 percent better," Stevenson says, expressing her gratitude towards Tabernaberri. "At times he still has his hang ups, but I have learned to listen to him. Carlos is able to provide different ways of coping with challenging moments whereas other instructors would say 'get tough with him' or 'work him harder'."

In Hollywood-speak, Tabernaberri is known as a horse whisperer. He doesn't mind the title, but he prefers to be known as a 'listener.' "But you can't hear what the horse is telling you when you're whispering to him, can you?" says Tabernaberri, 48, a man known for his sayings.

Tabernaberri's approach to horsemanship can be traced to his Argentinean childhood living in Gaucho country. As a young boy, he witnessed gauchos (Argentine cowboys) using the traditional, but cruel, Doma Nacional method to break in horses. Saddened by this sight, a nine-year-old Tabernaberri made a promise to a horse that he would always care for its kind.

Today Tabernaberri, whose family immigrated to Australia when he was 14, lives and works on a 32-acre Whittlesea ranch, 25 miles from Melbourne's central business district, and practises what he calls 'good horsemanship.'

The Melbourne trainer is opposed to traditional horsemanship, which sometimes employs whips, drugs, tongue-tying, bits and spurs. He says that though many trainers claim to use the natural method, a term usually reserved for non-aggressive horse-training techniques based around communication, not all conform to the definition.

His pain-free methods, which reject all types of abusive methods, are resonating with horse owners globally, as reflected in his profit margin, which has increased by 200 percent over the past five years. In addition to private consultations, he runs 46 clinics a year; he can go from a remote outback station in Australia to Chicago, all in one month.

Dr. Andrew McLean, a scientist who holds a Ph.D. in equine cognition and learning, says that despite not being formally educated, Tabernaberri is practising some great horse science. He explains that behavioral problems are sometimes associated with dysfunctions in the animal's learning process, which stems from basic animal psychology.

"Horses form bad habits which we instil in them through bad riding and some habits take a long time to undo," Dr. McLean says. "Riders can also have bad habits and some have no proper equestrian or equitation science education. I believe that if you are going to train an animal, you owe it to them to know as much about the psychology of the animal as possible before training."

Generally when horses fail to start or jump when prompted, are too stubborn, run away or get distracted, they are branded as having 'behavioral' problems. But Tabernaberri says that blaming the horse will not fix the issue. "We should be taking the fear out of the horse, not putting fear into the horse," he says.

The Australian state of Victoria is known for its thriving horse industry. A 2012 Economic Impact Study commissioned by Racing Victoria revealed that thoroughbred racing events last year generated AUD$620.1 (USD$596.5) million in gross economic benefit to the state's economy.

The industry's biggest event, the annual Melbourne Cup, will take place next month. But behind the accolades and fanfare is an ugly side. The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR), an animal welfare body, reports that an estimated 18,000 horses are killed every year.

The CPR claim that failed and injured racehorses which no longer have the potential to return a profit or have very little commercial value are sometimes discarded -- sold to abattoirs to be killed and turned into pet food -- in what the industry calls 'wastage.'

Cara Shelley, an equine welfare officer for Racing Victoria told SmartPlanet the number of retired racehorses euthanized in the industry is considerably less than that reported by opposition groups. She said that since 2011, Racing Victoria has introduced a new equine welfare department, grown their support for outplacement programs and become an active member of the equestrian world by fostering opportunities for thoroughbreds.

Ward Young, a representative for the CPR, acknowledges some recent movement in the transition towards natural horsemanship but claims the racing industry still lags behind with old-school training methods which often try to dominate the horse rather than work with it.

While not an activist in the conventional sense, Tabernaberri's work rehabilitating horses has been acknowledged with an equine welfare award. He says he's never met a horse that he wasn't able to help, though unfortunately, he has met plenty of owners who have decided it wasn't worth the time or money.

He states emphatically, "I never give up on any horse that needs help," and explains that, "rehabilitation of these horses take longer due to trauma and distrust of humans."

Photos: Whispering Acres.

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Lieu Thi Pham

Correspondent (Melbourne)

Lieu Thi Pham is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She has contributed to The Age, Associated Newspapers, Melbourne University Magazine, the Big Issue, Dazed and Confused, Indesign Group, Time Out, SOMA and Niche Media. She holds degrees from the University of Melbourne and RMIT University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure