- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

DILLON, Mont. — How unlikely is it that a Frenchman-turned-U.S.-citizen, the founder of a global power-generation company who makes his home in New York City’s eclectic SoHo enclave, is transforming a small college town in southwestern Montana into the horse-whispering capital of the world?

Curious ranchers in these parts don’t call William Kriegel the “French cowboy” for nothing.

“I love Montana and its people,” says Mr. Kriegel, who, from beneath his black cowboy hat, scans all the eye can see of his quarter-horse and black Angus ranch, La Cense (pronounced La Sonse). “This is a big place; there’s much to share, and it’s nice to be able to do so.”

Foremost on the receiving end of the rancher’s generosity are students from the nearby University of Montana-Western, small in curriculum but, thanks in large part to Mr. Kriegel’s grand vision, the only university in the United States to offer degrees (both associate’s and bachelor’s) in “natural horsemanship.”

“Horses over the years have been taught to race around a track, pull a buggy, work a farm, but rarely are they trained as recreational horses for people who simply want to take an enjoyable ride across the countryside,” says Mr. Kriegel, who purchased and renamed La Cense five years ago. “That’s what we do here.”

Word is spreading across the United States — and across continents.

Riding Western saddle across La Cense’s breathtaking 135 square miles and into its 60,000-square-foot indoor arena are equine students and teachers from around the world — France, Belgium, Australia and Switzerland — learning a unique brand of quarter-horse training. You won’t find any language barriers here, though.

“Horses don’t speak English; their language is body language,” says Australian-born master horseman Steve Byrne, La Cense’s chief trainer and a four-star Pat Parelli professional. (La Cense says it is the only ranch in the United States endorsed to offer registered quarter horses educated under the renowned Parelli method: teaching horses and humans together.)

“Horses teach people, then people teach horses,” says Nathan Day, another of La Cense’s renowned trainers, who similarly hails from Australia. This fall, the cowboy became professor Day, the first to teach the university’s horsemanship program.

(Equine theory is taught in the classroom, with hands-on training sessions at La Cense. The ranch also hosts, in conjunction with the university, the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association’s annual horse show and competition.)

Keeping track of horses and humans alike from his office in a beautifully restored 1897 barn is La Cense ranch manager Bud Griffith, who for 35 years managed Montana’s Flying D Ranch, owned since 1989 by media mogul Ted Turner. (Mr. Griffith also minds La Cense’s herd of several thousand Angus cattle.)

Here’s how La Cense operates: Mr. Griffith’s team of ranch hands constantly canvasses the countryside in search of “untouched” 2-year-old horses, hand-picking about 50 every year.

“We select a horse for its disposition,” Mr. Byrne says, “because no differently than with children, whatever happens in the first two years of a horse’s life becomes its foundation, what we call its ‘horseanality.’”

(Apart from disposition, horses also are chosen for strength and looks.)

Upon arrival at La Cense, each horse is numbered, given a registered name and then — surprising to me — set loose for a year to roam the range in a natural herd environment.

“Horses are gregarious. They want to be together,” Mr. Byrne says. “What we eventually do is make them want to be with people, too.”

When a horse turns 3, it begins its formal “language” training, a patient and time-consuming process for both horse and teacher.

“It’s a confidence-building game,” Mr. Byrne says. “If a person doesn’t understand a language, they can’t be confident. The same goes for a horse. When a horse is confident, it is comfortable. And when a horse is comfortable, there’s no reason for it to get spooked, run off, buck, bite, or anything else.”

In a year’s time, each animal’s “horseanality” is known to the trainers. Only when a horse is deemed confident, sensitive and responsive is it offered for sale. The average price is $18,000, far less than the cost of a Mustang convertible — and a horse doesn’t run on gas.

This is where Beth Stefani steps in. “My job is to match a customer with a horse,” says La Cense’s marketing manager. “Somebody interested in buying a horse will come to the ranch and stay for three or four days. (The ranch supplies a quintessential Montana cabin where prospective buyers can bunk.)

“First we get to know the person; then we match them up with four or five horses we think they’ll most likely be compatible with. For the next several days, the horse and rider get to know each other— one-on-one, here in the arena and out on the trails.”

Intriguingly, a perfect match is often decided by the horse, not the rider. As La Cense’s handbook reads: “The natural affinity between a rider and the right horse is often immediately apparent, and a horse’s reaction to a prospective partner is just as important as your reaction to him. So, you may just find that it’s your dream horse who ultimately chooses you. And this is where the lifelong bond of trust and loyalty begins.”

That’s what this cautious city slicker needs, a horse I can “trust.”

The last beast I climbed up on — Christmas morning five years ago at my brother’s horse farm in Maryland — turned me into its human spear, somehow hurling me up and over its head while it advanced at a terrifying gait. The last thing I saw before slamming into the cold winter ground was the tops of its ears.

Mr. Day smiles politely as I recall this harrowing experience, obviously still implanted painfully in a cavern of my brain. If it’s any consolation, the trainer tells me that just the previous day, a big bull landed on him during the annual rodeo in Dillon. He wasn’t hurt too badly, but the cowboy next to him was carted off in an ambulance with numerous broken ribs.

“Your horse’s name is Laredo,” he says. “You can trust him.”

To prove it, Mr. Day leads Laredo and me through a series of get-acquainted sessions that consume almost an hour. I begin by rubbing the horse from nose to tail with my hands, then I stroke its skin in a circular motion with a riding crop, and finally I give it horse goose-bumps by gently dropping a rope across its back and around its legs and pulling it back toward me. Before long, I am leading the horse through a series of exercises and jumps. Then, to my astonishment, the horse actually rests its head on my shoulder, listening intently as I “whisper” my fear into its ear.

Not to worry, Laredo tells me back. (I’m not kidding.) Soon, the horse and confident rider are galloping across La Cense’s breathtaking foothills, still as pristine as they were 200 years ago, when in 1805 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark acquired horses from the Shoshone tribe just west of the ranch.

Riding alongside is Mr. Kriegel, who explains that La Cense was one of the earliest ranches in Montana, established in 1869. If you think that’s old, Mr. Kriegel also owns the 800-acre Haras de la Cense outside Paris, which dates from the 17th century. Today, the ranch is recognized by the French Federation of Equestrianism as the first in France to teach natural horsemanship.

Late that evening, while browsing through several coffee-table books about horses in Mr. Kriegel’s large ranch house, I come upon several chapters on La Cense: photographs and impressive profiles of Mr. Kriegel, Bud Griffith, the famous pair of Australian trainers (I should have known that Mr. Byrne and Mr. Day are considered among the most capable horsemen in the world) and, of course, the ranch’s magnificent quarter horses.

One of the books contains a quote I jot down, summing up the spirit of La Cense: “To ride a horse well you have to know it as well as you know your best friend.”

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