Originally created 08/05/98

Woman has natural affinity for reading, training horses



BETWEEN, Ga. -- Jan Weisman doesn't whisper.

Sure, the horse trainer practices "natural horsemanship" or "resistance-free" training, the method mythologized in the 1995 Nicholas Evans novel, The Horse Whisperer, and its recent film adaptation.

But listen to her commanding voice, with its sorghum-thick Southern accent, carry across the stables at Wellspring Farm and it quickly becomes clear that it's not about murmuring into the animal's ear.

"Look at that top lip pulled way down over the bottom lip. He's a pouter," notes Ms. Weisman, 43, as she leads a skittish, bay-colored Rhinelander named Rommell into the training pen. It's Rommell's first official session at the 90-acre farm, nestled in the pines off U.S. Highway 78 about 40 miles east of Atlanta. Ms. Weisman has been the sole trainer here for about three years.

The horse towers over his trainer's 5-foot-9-inch frame, and Ms. Weisman said he has enough power in his neck "to throw me to the ceiling." But she's confident, as she has been with the countless other young and problem horses she's eased into domesticity over a decade as a natural horsemanship practitioner.

"I can make any horse better," she said as she eyes Rommell, who appears dubious. "It's just a matter of how much money the owner wants to put on top of what they've already spent."

Depending on the breed, a typical horse costs $2,000 to $30,000. Add $550 a month to board and train them at Wellspring. And there's no telling how long you'll need: Ms. Weisman's had horses graduate after 30 days and others still trying after six months. Such as one named Nido, nicknamed Piranha, who took a nip out of Ms. Weisman's calf while she was trying to ride him. "He needs to be in a can," she jokes.

Natural horsemanship -- which relies on body language and lots of patience -- is generally attributed to California equine expert Tom Dorrance; his 1987 book, True Unity: Willing Communication Between Horse and Human, is considered the bible on the subject. Disciples such as Buck Brannaman, the Wyoming trainer who inspired Mr. Evans' novel and who served as an adviser on the movie, have popularized it.

In the May issue of Smithsonian magazine, Mr. Brannaman describes getting the animals "comfortable, to where they don't mind being around you." Ms. Weisman puts it this way: "I've just learned how to set a situation up physically and let the horse figure out a way to get out of it easily, on his own. Horses are lazy, and they'll usually choose the easy way out. So you've got to let the easy way be the right way."

The method is not without controversy -- by Ms. Weisman's estimation, only about a tenth of Georgia's 100 or so trainers practice it regularly.

"There's no such thing as resistance-free training," said Roger Sosby, a full-time trainer and former president of the Georgia Quarterhorse Association. "There are techniques that are more humane, but there has to be some `resistance.' Just like children will run wild if you don't use discipline, so will horses."

Still, it's hard to argue with Rommell's progress. The horse begins the session in flight, running endless circles around the outer wall of the pen. "It ain't worth it, baby!" Ms. Weisman calls from center ring. "It's too hot today to do all that running!"

In fact, she explains, the running is part of the horse's learning experience. "It can take five minutes or it can take 30 minutes, but eventually his lungs are going to hurt and he will try something else."

Some nonverbal commands that help Ms. Weisman achieve her goal: She'll look the horse directly in the eye if he's doing something she doesn't like, and she'll turn away from him if she wants to take the pressure off.

"It's like if a person is being held at gunpoint," she said. "If they've got the gun pointed right at you, you're going to be real nervous, but if they drop the gun and are walking away, you're going to be a lot less nervous. That's how the horse feels."

Sure enough, by the end of the hour-long session, horse and trainer have reached an understanding, and Rommell is willingly dropping his head into a halter.

"She's the best there is," said Leah Richards, a Forsyth County homemaker who has been boarding her family's 3-year-old thoroughbred Kateef with Ms. Weisman since September. "The horse will be done with what he needs to know soon, and then I'll come to her to learn what I need to know."

Like Robert Redford's character in the film, Ms. Weisman doesn't have much time for city amusements.

"I know I won't see the movie until it comes on pay-per-view," she said. "There are days when my truck never leaves this driveway." (Ms. Weisman, who is single, lives in an apartment inside the barn.)

The trainer doesn't know where her ability to "read" a horse comes from, though she said she's always loved to ride.

"When I was little, my dad used to take me to a place called Little Creek in Decatur. They rented horses by the hour, and I'd just ride all afternoon.

"I guess it must be some kind of God-given talent," she muses. "I couldn't go take piano lessons and play like Beethoven. I can't do anything but this."