If you have read the book or seen the film "The Horse Whisperer", you may have some sense of the special relationship that can exist between humans and horses and how there are certain people who have an almost uncanny ability to communicate with horses. This special connection is recognized too in programmes for riding for disabled children which exist all over the world.
When I asked Steve Vergis, in-house trainer at "Thanassis Farm", the horse riding and training centre that opened this year at Ambelas near Naoussa, he readily acknowledges the role that his horses played in helping him to fully recover from a serious accident a few years ago. But when I asked him to explain a bit more about that "special psychology", he shifted a little uncomfortably from one foot to the other. I told him I realized that this wasn't a subject that necessarily lent itself too well to words and that perhaps it was rather an "unspoken" language between horse and man.
"Yeah, well perhaps it'd be better if I tried to show you, rather than tell you," Steve responded in his distinctive Aussie twang. He led "Izza", a four-year old bay mare, into the ring.
Steve's been working with horses for over twenty years. Of Greek origin, raised in Australia, he came to Athens three years ago to be with his family after his debilitating accident. While recovering, he began training racehorses. Unable to ride due to the accident he worked with them on the ground and had others riding under his supervision. Working with horses again contributed dramatically to his recovery.
Prior to the accident Steve had been working in Australia for one of the biggest horse owners in the world from Dubai, doing endurance training for his Arabians. From Athens, he had planned to move to the USA where his son is a professional show jumper, trainer and instructor, but he came briefly to Paros last year to train a horse for a friend of his sister's on the island. He met Thanassis Roussos who owned the farm where the horse was boarding and, drawn together by their love of horses, a friendship quickly developed between the two.
Thanassis has been breeding and raising horses of his own on Paros for more than twenty years and Steve stayed on to help him at the farm as they began together to plan a riding centre where summer visitors could experience the beauty of Paros on horseback and residents could learn riding skills and horse management.
Thanassis already knew where almost all of the horses on the island could be found and so they started slowly collecting those that were available and some where the welfare of the animal was of concern. A few of the horses have also come from the racetrack in Athens. Over the winter, with proper care and with extensive training from Steve, each horse has developed into a physically and psychologically healthier animal, ready to participate in trail rides and lessons. "There's a huge difference between then and now," Steve says.
But back to the ring and to Izza... and, yes, it is hard to explain what happens in words, but watching Steve and Izza work together makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
He starts by standing in the middle of the ring and, with just a quiet word to her, Izza starts to canter in a circle around him. Then, as if by some telepathic command, she suddenly stops and comes to stand beside him in the ring centre. He moves to the left, she follows; to the right, again she places herself right beside him. Wherever he goes, she follows like a shadow. He tells me this is called "Link-up" and is one of the techniques of the "Liberty" horse training system he uses. Horses have a much wider peripheral vision than humans, which is why they are often easily distracted or alarmed by something to the side or back of them. If frightened, horses by nature will run for their self-preservation, Steve says, and they are naturally very aware of their surroundings and ready to take flight if they feel threatened in any way.
"I've been around them long enough now to be able to feel the basic nature of the animal," Steve explains. "The horse is a herd animal; there's a pecking order or hierarchy and I have to gain their respect and get them to see me as the leader of the herd. Once they trust me and realize I am not a threat, they cooperate and training them becomes very easy.
"Every horse is different, but it's mostly a matter of being sensitive to the animal, spending time with each one, being ready to open up and get to know each horse individually, setting up the right environment and then having the patience to let it learn at its own pace. You must reward the horse when it does what you want it to do and you have to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult for it. It's very important to be consistent. Personally I don't train by rewarding with tidbits like a carrot or lump of sugar as I find it more effective to simply cease the activity and give the horse a rest as soon as it has done what you want. Like humans, horses also respond really well to praise."
Steve also explained that horses are social animals, and they are stabled at Thanassis' farm so that they are able to see each other and feel part of their own "community". That community currently comprises many horses and ponies (and even a baby mule): Izza, Grace, Lightening (a.k.a. Keravnos), Mr Red (a.k.a. Simitis), Bulldozer (a.k.a.Flame), Ermina, Arapina, Lady, Grinia, Spirit, Kaloni, Fancy, Danny Boy and Gypsy.
As well as trail rides of 1 hr (30 euro), 2 - 2.5 hrs (40 euro), 3+ hours 55.00, 6hrs/full-day with lunch (120 euro) which could take you to monasteries, Afkoulaki, the outskirts of Lefkes, farmland, old trails and some of Paros's beaches; and speciality rides (you name it!), Thanassis' Farm also offers individual lessons for adults and kids. These cost 30 euro per hour for all ages with special package prices for children. Mindful of safety, they have hard hats and safety vests available in various sizes.
Skilled instructors Nehama and Doris, both of whom have over 30 years riding experience, give lessons in English, Greek and German.
Nehama has been riding since childhood, participating in three day eventing competitions (dressage, cross country and stadium jumping) in the U.S.A. She was trained and educated through the Pony Club system which includes both mounted and dismounted lessons, which means not just riding but also learning to take care of tack and stable management. She is certified by the Camp Horsemanship Association.
Doris owned her own racehorse in Germany for 18 years after he was injured in steeplechasing. He had many psychological problems at first, was fearful of everything and everyone, shook whenever anyone came near him and was quick to kick and bite. It took six months of working with him before he first approached Doris on his own to "sniff at her" and not to shy whenever he saw other animals like deer or cows. Although he always remained restless and fidgety, through Doris's patience and care, he finally calmed down and learned to trust her. But that kind of damage is typical in racehorses, she says.
Cantering along one of Paros's beautiful beaches on one of these powerful, yet gentle, creatures and returning to the farm just as the sun is setting behind the hills in the distance definitely feels like something from a movie script. Life doesn't get much better than this!
For further information call Steve on 699-8413813, email: firstname.lastname@example.org and see advertisement opposite.