Making a connection: Lake Stevens trainers use ‘Horse Whisperer’ approach

By KRISTIN KINNAMON

Herald Writer

LAKE STEVENS — Julie Bader had a gentle old pack horse to ride when she was growing up in the ’60s near Lake Stevens.

It was a little girl’s dream come true.

Earlier this year, she convinced her husband to renew that dream with a retired racehorse. She figured it would be well-trained and only cost $100 a month to keep.

She was wrong on both counts.

Bader found out the high-spirited racehorse she bought named Stanzi was hard to train. After going through several conventional horse trainers, Bader found Heart Centered Horsemanship in Lake Stevens. Owners Ron Valentine and Kathy Joseph follow John Lyons’ methods – the gentle approach to training made famous in the movie "The Horse Whisperer."

Valentine used to go to work at the electronics firm Fluke Corp. in Everett in a shirt and tie. Now he wears a cowboy hat and boots and uses kissing noises and body language to communicate with horses.

"On the racetrack, they teach them only a couple of things – to go fast and to turn left," Valentine said.

So Valentine and Joseph had to teach him to calm down. Stanzi’s previous owner sedated him before going for a ride. But Valentine calms the horse and rider by helping them succeed as a team.

Now, Stanzi has learned to trust and respect humans. That’s the starting point for a happy horse that loves its "job," Joseph said.

She started training horses professionally 10 years ago, and quickly latched on to the approach of Lyons, who lives in Colorado. Conventional methods with bridle and bit work on some horses some of the time, she said. But Lyons’ approach always works.

"If I can connect with this horse’s mind, there’s no stronger lead rope in the whole world," Joseph said.

The trainers teach riders to think like a horse, which isn’t easy.

"Horses are prey animals, people are predators, so we think different," Valentine said.

By offering horses something they want – safety and comfort – riders can get them to behave without big bits or crops.

Meanwhile, Valentine’s horse, Fancy, follows him around at the shoulder. The pair is practicing for a demonstration Sunday at Farm-City Days near Granite Falls. Clucking and slightly motioning with his shoulders, Valentine directs Fancy to walk backwards through a narrow path.

Valentine said it’s not magic, just good communication. Joseph is willing to say it’s something more.

"I’ve seen some real big miracles happen with some of these horses," she said.

Bader, who lives in Kirkland, agreed.

"It’s coming along well," she said of Stanzi’s training.

You can call Herald Writer Kristin Kinnamon at 425-339-3429 or send e-mail to

kinnamon@heraldnet.com.

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