The Horse Whisperer

By Meghan K. Hill  •  Photography by Betty Wiley

Warm morning sunshine glistens off the back of a beautiful bay-colored Tennessee Walker horse named Rocky as it is led by trainer Bob Burrelli to the center of a circular corral at Double B Ranch in Plymouth. Burrelli pauses for a few moments to stroke the horse’s soft nose and neck, a rope halter draped casually over one arm. Then, without a word, he reaches up and places a hand atop the horse’s head and begins applying a gentle downward pressure. The horse instinctively begins to lower its head and Burrelli immediately takes his hand away.

“See that?” Burrelli asks me as he easily slips a rope halter over the horse’s head. “As soon as he does what I’ve asked I release the pressure.”

As Burrelli sees it, the relationship between horse and rider takes time and consideration to forge, through thoughtful communication, reflection and intentional training. To have a healthy relationship with a horse, the rider must be prepared to put themselves in the “horse’s shoes” and do whatever it takes to develop a relationship based on mutual respect, rather than dominance.

“First and foremost, the relationship between horse and rider must be based on trust,” says Burrelli, who has over 40 years of experience as a horse trainer and is heralded across the United States as “the cowboy who brought the west to the east.”

“A person has got to be able to understand and change what is going on inside the horse, and the outside will follow. It is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.”

Natural horsemanship stands apart from “traditional” training techniques in that the natural movements, mannerisms of the horse are observed, studied, appreciated and embraced, as the trainer strives to build a rapport with a horse.

Burrelli runs Double B Ranch together with his son, Bob junior, and daughter-in-law, Christine, who are also natural horsemanship certified instructors. They each implement holistic and safe training techniques, always keeping the best interests of the horse in mind.

Earlier on in his career, Burrelli taught all forms of English riding, from equitation to classical dressage, which he attests was an excellent foundation for his journey to become a renowned clinician. “There are no gimmicks,” says Burrelli, who uses only a simple rope halter and lead. “When you place emphasis on body language—yours and the horse’s—and how we think and react to what is going on in our environment, an organic bond begins to form. It is when we let our egos take over that the trouble begins,” says Burrelli.

There are different styles of horseback riding that can be practiced by pleasure riders enjoying a solitary trail ride as well as experienced competitors at grand prix jumping events. And, as with most hobbies that can also be considered professions, there are “experts” in the field who consider their unique take on training to be “the right way.”  Often times, these methods seem better suited to manufacturing some “thing,” rather than shaping a living being.

Burrelli uses traditional Vaquero training methods, which is the Spanish tradition of working riding that became the foundation for the North American cowboy, and later played a role in the birth of the “horse whisperer” philosophy. Burrelli’s gentle and progressive approach to starting and training horses has brought many horse owners throughout the United States to new levels with their equine partners. Spending a significant amount of time on ground work—training done on the ground, rather than on the horse’s back—Bob asserts that the premise is very simple.

“It’s really just about doing as little as possible,” says Burrelli. “We make the wrong action difficult for the horse and the right action easy.” A common conditioning method Burrelli returns to is the use of pressure and release, by which physical pressure is gently applied to specific spots on the horse’s body until the horse complies, or tries to comply, at which point the pressure is released.

At Double B Ranch, Burrelli oversees an academy that includes a rigorous certification program in natural horsemanship that he likens to “a college education,” which underscores the importance of understanding how both the human body and the horse’s body work, and how they can work harmoniously when in proper alignment. “Love, language and leadership” are the underpinnings of his training methodology. When properly embraced and employed, these practices prove to contribute to the horse’s mental, emotional and physical state and create a happier horse-rider duo.

An extremely humble and open-minded man, Burrelli says he has never, and will never, stop learning, and that the horses are the best teachers. “A good trainer will always set aside price, ego, aggression, punishment and all other traits that block true kinship with the horse. He or she will be able to embody the physical and mental manifestation of the horse.”

Known by his clients for his resounding generosity and unwavering patience, Burrelli maintains that nothing is guaranteed to happen overnight, and that proper training can require a long-term, ongoing commitment. “When a horse doesn’t understand right away, that’s okay—I look at it as an opportunity. The horse has given me the privilege of working with him, and that is a wonderful thing.”

Nancy Kitchen of Lakeville is a longtime equestrian who started riding as a teenager, and has known Burrelli for 15 years. “I saw a demo Bob did at an expo and was very intrigued. He emphasized the proper way to sit on a horse, with accurate balance and lightness. I didn’t know much about natural horsemanship,” says Kitchen, “but I knew I liked what I saw.”

Kitchen, who had a young, high-energy horse, hired Burrelli to help her with training. “He did a wonderful job,” says Kitchen. “I am an intense person—when I want to get something done, I want to get it done now—and that isn’t necessarily the best mindset to have when training a young horse.”

As a pleasure-trail rider, Kitchen’s ultimate goal was to develop a relationship with her horse, and she says that she owes her transformation into a thoughtful equestrian to Burrelli. “I didn’t truly know what it meant to communicate with my horses, until Bob helped alter my thinking and develop me not only as a rider but as a human being. He kept bringing it back to patience, and for a while, his mantra was, ‘it will get done’.”

When Kitchen, 60, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis several years ago, and became unsure of her two horses’ futures, Burrelli’s team stepped in to help.

“Bob and his family took my horses in and cared for them when I couldn’t,” says Kitchen. “They were there for me with their time and knowledge, and it was apparent that my health and my horses’ security were more important to them than money.”

Now riding comfortably and confidently again at her hobby farm, Kitchen has Burrelli come out to give her lessons regularly. “I will train with Bob until the end.”

There have been studies of the efficacy of natural horsemanship techniques compared to “traditional” exercises, and they have indicated that natural horsemanship exercises are more effective at improving the human–horse relationship and reduce stress on the horse during training, without compromising technical performance.

Sandy Bailey of Central Massachusetts bought her first horse as a beginner adult rider.

“I wanted a horse my whole life and decided to achieve that dream as an adult.” Unfortunately, Bailey wound up with a “problem horse,” which is often the case when an inexperienced rider and amateur trainer partner to procure a mount to place into training.

“That experience was heartbreaking, because I eventually had to get rid of the horse; neither myself nor my trainer at the time had the tools to fix him. But, from that experience I came to realize how the way in which we handle the horse is vitally important.”

Bailey took some time off from the horse scene, still feeling terrible about her first experience as a horse owner. When she decided she was ready to get back in the game, she knew she needed to find the right trainer to help her.

After researching Burrelli’s business, Bailey picked up the phone and scheduled a lesson. “I told Bob I wanted to learn how to handle horses the right way, and he looked straight at me and replied, ‘Here’s a rope. Go get that horse’.”

Burrelli wound up finding a horse in Canada to meet Bailey’s needs as a pleasure rider. “I’ve been working with Bob for six years and couldn’t be happier. He is a remarkable trainer who taught me how to think like a horse. I now have absolute assurance in myself, and think, ‘I can actually do it!’— and I owe it all to Bob Burrelli.”

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