Eagle Point woman uses silent signals to gain control

EAGLE POINT — Patti and Kenton Breidenthal bought a wild mustang at a Bureau of Land Management auction last April. But once they brought the mare home, she quickly showed them how much she missed the freedom of the Eastern Oregon range lands.

When I was trying to groom and feed her, she picked me up by her nose and threw me across the horse barn, Kenton Breidenthal says.

But last month, the Applegate couple brought their wild mustang, Rhoanne, to a 28-year-old Eagle Point trainer, Chera Chase.

In 20 hours, Chase taught Rhoanne to obey silent commands — even to stand still while a rider stretches her legs out across the mare's back.

She needs to let me climb on her like a jungle gym, says Chase, smiling at the relaxed attitude of the horse.

Known as the Rogue Valley's horse whisperer, Chase is gaining a reputation across the West Coast for her ability to transform wild mustangs into obedient saddle horses. But Chase is also known for rehabilitating domestic horses with bad habits — from balking at trailers and picking pockets to kicking a horseshoer or refusing to be led by a rope.

Chase is one of the top trainers in the world, says Tim Westfall, who works with the Medford BLM's wild horse and burro program. Chase combines natural horsemanship with dressage, the classical type of riding seen in the Olympics or in Lippizaner shows. Chase and her Arabian stallion, Miami Vice, were named 1998 champions by the United States Dressage Federation, earning the highest score in the nation that year.

I'm pretty skeptical — — there are a lot of people who claim they are trainers, Westfall says. But when I first saw Chera working a mustang, it was like watching Tom Dorrance work. The way she understood the horse, the results she got in a short time period, really impressed me.

Tom Dorrance, 97, of Salinas, Calif., is the godfather of natural horsemanship, having trained 15,000 horses over the past 60 years.

Chase calls her training method scientific horsemanship. No spurs, whips or bits are used on the horse. Chase teaches riders to communicate with the horse through body movements that can't be seen by a spectator but can be felt by the animal.

You've noticed I haven't said the word ?whoa? or used the reins, Chase says. The only time she goes forward is when I put my foot on the gas pedal (squeezing her legs or seat against the horse), and when I take my foot off the gas pedal, she stops. I don't need a brake. Ideally, I should be able to sit up here all day and she should not take a step until I ask for it.

Chase starts every training session by pressuring the horse with eye contact until Chase becomes the dominant member of the herd.

When the horse looks away, I put pressure on him by walking toward him. When he looks at me, I stop. So it learns very quickly, ?Oh, I look at her, she leaves me alone.?

All riders establish dominance. Cowboys do it by riding a horse until it quits bucking; many trainers do it by forcing a horse to run in circles, said David Hoyal, a retired Medford doctor, horse breeder and an ardent believer in Chase's training methods.

This showed dominance, but it was a cruel way of doing it, Hoyal says. Chera shows dominance by interacting with the horse.

Hoyal describes watching Chase work with Luna Negra, a Kiger mustang who was nearly ruined by her first trainer.

Chera made a rope bridle and put it around (Luna Negra's) nose and behind her ears, Hoyal says. She brought the horse over to the corral fence, climbed on the horse and began working the horse in the pen, gently giving pressure commands with her body. She actually had that horse so calm that while we were talking, the horse fell asleep.

Tina Pereira, of Rib Ranch in Big Springs, Calif., first met the Rogue Valley horse whisperer six years ago when Chase's job was training 200 Polish Arabians near a Mount Shasta ranch.

I watched her in absolute awe, Pereira says. Chera puts herself in danger constantly. Within a second, a horse could kill you.

A horse nearly killed Chase last spring. The young trainer unsuspectingly became trapped by a 1,200-pound stallion that charged, hitting Chase between the eyes with its teeth, breaking Chase's collarbone and fracturing her skull. She still has a steel plate in her neck and a pending lawsuit against the horse's owner.

But Chase hasn't let the accident slow her down.

On a clear autumn day recently, Chase worked with Rhoanne and owner Patti Breidenthal at Bar S Ranch in Eagle Point, where Chase is based. Unlike most trainers who work with the horse's body, Chase trains the brain.

It's like us memorizing a speech and then forgetting it when we are under pressure, Chase says. We ask a horse to memorize commands and then when she's nervous, she has trouble recalling the information.

If I can train her brain, she will take care of her body. That's why I don't need gadgets like bits. If a horse can feel a fly landing on its rump, it can feel the pressure of my legs or seat.

Chera Chase charges $35 an hour or $120 for four lessons. She holds clinics from Santa Rosa to Portland and offers local lectures for the Oregon State University Extension Service, the Siskiyou Chapter of Dressage and Jackson County Stockman's Association. For information, call 941-2700 or check out her Web site, www.grrtech.com/chase.