Integrative horsemanship focuses on communication between horses, humans
Owen is a palomino quarter horse that once qualified for the top levels in the quarter horse show world. But that was before he kicked a concrete waterer, blew out a tendon and spent six months in a cast at Colorado State University, said Andrea Datz, of Fruita.
Datz has been working with Owen for thee months through her integrative horsemanship program, dealing with both his physical and behavioral issues.
He is doing much better physically and, Datz said, “He’s basically a sweet horse.” But there are still times when his behavioral issues come to the forefront.
“It’s almost like PTSD in people,” she said. “You never know what will trigger it.”
Dude, a chestnut gelding, had different physical problems. A veterinarian had told his owner he was finished and she should write him off. He was also prone to spooking. But Datz has been working with Dude and his owner, Jill Soffer, for several years. He’s doing much better.
Datz’s success working with both horses is based on her experience with equine touch and massage, as well as movement exercises tailored to the horses particular needs. But most important is communication with the horses.
Through it all, Datz listens closely to what the horses are saying — not with words, of course, but with ears and tails, lips, eyes and the way they move. And she responds with changes in her techniques. It’s a means of teaching the horse to be willing to have a conversation with people, she said.
Datz also believes it’s critical for her to work with the horse’s owner, trainer or rider, not just with the horse. “What I need to teach people is how to connect with their horse,” she said. “If you just come and learn one technique, you’re going to be limited in what you can do.”
It’s all part of an ongoing evolution in Datz’s horse training and rehabilitation to deal with problems through integrative horsemanship, which, she says, helps people discover and maintain a deeper connection with their horse. With it, she works to train horse owners to better listen to their equine partners, and with these enhanced communication skills, to be better prepared to spot health and injury issues before they become serious problems.
Datz has been developing her technique since her days as a student in Colorado State University’s equine science program in the late 1980s. She has chosen what she has found most useful from a number of programs and ideas — from traditional training methods and more recent gentle training techniques, to massage and equine touch, even some things that weren’t designed for horses.
“My husband I started taking ballroom dance classes about eight months ago,” Datz said. She’s found some of the exercises and ideas useful for working with horses. “I set parameters. It’s like in dance — there is a leader and a follower,” she explained. However, it’s not a relationship built on dominance and fear, but acceptance and choice.
Datz grew up in the Aspen area, where her parents operated a ski lodge. The family had horses boarded nearby and later kept them at a ranch her father bought near Silt. Later, after college, she managed a dressage barn in Carbondale, then worked and eventually managed a veterinarian’s office.
In each stage of her career, she met more horses with different problems and learned new ways of dealing with them.
One of the earliest such events was at CSU, when she participated in the colt-starting program with horses shipped from a large ranch in Texas.
“My filly, Gin, was particularly willful,” she said. “All of the techniques they were teaching us were not working and I was discouraged.”
At the end of the semester, Pat Parelli gave a demonstration to the CSU staff and students about his then relatively unknown natural horsemanship methods.
“It inspired me to do something different,” Datz said. “I didn’t exactly adopt the whole Parelli method, but I used some of his techniques.”
She also bought the filly she was working, and Gin remains a trusted member of her horse herd.
Later, she began riding with another famous trainer, Mark Rashid, and Kim Walnes, a member of the U.S. Equestrian eventing team. Both emphasized communication with their horses, and Kim talked to her horses, even as she was riding them, Datz said.
“It was not rigid technique. There was a lot of flexibility in what they did,” she said. “They taught me how to present things in a way that made sense to the horse. Neither came from a standpoint of dominance over the horse.”
At the Glenwood Springs Veterinary Clinic, where Datz worked as a vet’s assistant and eventually clinic manager, she saw a variety of lame horses. One in particular, an 8-year-old thoroughbred named Romeo that was going to be euthanized because they couldn’t solve his persistent lameness problems, touched her. “I asked the owner if she would give him to me rather than have him euthanized,” Datz said. “She did, and I got him reasonably sound.
“Mark Rashid had an equine chiropractor who worked with him. I had him work on Romeo, and everything changed.”
She began using some chiropractic treatments for horses she was rehabilitating. Then she became certified as an equine massage therapist. Following that, Datz became a practicioner and then an instractor in equine touch, which involves a series of movements of the horse’s body to help it reduce tension.
Datz worked eight years instructing and utilizing those techniques. But she also began to realize she was primarily helping them relax when they were standing still. “If I incorporated movement,” she said, “I found they recovered more quickly.”
Datz and her husband, Steve, an artist, moved to Mesa County eight years ago and to their farm northeast of Fruita five years ago. There, she works to rehabilitate horses for a number of loyal clients, including Soffer and End of the Trail Horse Rescue in Olathe. She also presents clinics on integrative horsemanship in this region and in other states.
As her knowledge of what works best for different horses continues to expand, Datz believes her techniques will continue to evolve.
But, most importantly, she will continue to find ways to communicate with the horses she works with, and to assist owners in communicating better.
As Datz puts it on her website, “Our horses are communicating with us all of the time. The question is, do we know how to listen.”