Through the desert on a horse with no rein

Uri Peleg has just crossed Israel on horseback, but it's his training method that makes for a unique ride.

horse ride 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
horse ride 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'Think about it. Would you like to run around with a quarter kilogram of metal inside your mouth, with someone tugging at it to change direction?' Uri Peleg recently chose a novel way to traverse the country. Peleg, who runs a horseback riding school on the Golan Heights, crossed Israel from north to south along the Israel National Trail on a horse. Six other riders took part in the Bank Leumi-sponsored trek, which was designed partly to draw public attention to the trail and to encourage more Israelis to use it, and also to provide exposure for a new method of riding horses that Peleg has developed. "It's called Natural Connection," Peleg told Metro during a meeting near the Dead Sea 10 days into his two-week trek. "I started developing the technique in 1992. Since people started riding horses, 3,000 years ago, I'm sure there have been all sorts of techniques. But I believe mine is unique," he says. Peleg is delighted to demonstrate Natural Connection to all and sundry, especially out "in the wild." "I thought to myself that the best way to put Natural Connection to the test was to try it out in the most extreme conditions. And what could be more extreme than to take a horse from Kfar Giladi in the very north of Israel all the way down south, through the Judean Desert, to Eilat." So what, exactly, is Natural Connection? Peleg jumps on his horse, Sean, and starts trotting up and down the desert terrain. All looks perfectly normal until you notice that something is missing. Peleg is not holding any reins and Sean has no harness. Instead of controlling his steed by pulling on reins connected to a metal bit in the horse's mouth, Peleg directs Sean through what he calls "vocal orders," comprised of an assortment of sounds, and by shifting his weight on the horse. After a few minutes of cantering back and forth, interspersed with trotting and some changes of direction, Peleg guides Sean toward a formidable-looking sand dune. But Sean makes it safely up the steep incline, guided by Peleg's clicking sounds. Peleg then dismounts and guides Sean through a series of exercises, involving changes of direction and walking pace, while walking alongside the horse and delivering instructions by making sounds and signaling with his arms. There seems to be an almost symbiotic relationship between the two. "I've been training Sean for a long time," says Peleg. "We understand each other." While Peleg admits that other trainers do similar things with their horses, he believes he has taken his approach a step or two further. "You can see trainers directing horses inside enclosures, but there is no one who does it in places like this, across the desert and such difficult terrain." Isn't he at all apprehensive? What would happen if Sean suddenly bolted? "It all depends on the extent of the training," he answers. "Sean is highly trained. I'm not worried at all." In fact, Peleg believes horses prefer his method. "Think about it. Would you like to run around with a quarter kilogram of metal inside your mouth, with someone tugging at it to change direction? [My] technique is not based on physical pressure and pain, but on signals that the horses find much easier to live with. I train the horses until their response becomes automatic. It is, literally, more natural." As far as Peleg is concerned, what's bad for humans is bad for horses. "As soon as you put a bit in a horse's mouth, it drops its head. If you look at wild horses running freely, their head is held much higher. If threatened by a human being, he or she will also drop their head." And to put more of his money where his mouth is, Peleg plans to take Sean and four other horses on a much longer trek this summer. "I want to cross the entire United States - from the Canadian border all the way to the Mexican border - using the Natural Connection technique. I'm looking for sponsors to help with the funding, but I'm confident Sean is ready for it," he says. Besides touting his Natural Connection method, Peleg is also keen to get more Israelis to avail themselves of the natural beauty to be found along the Israel National Trail. "We don't know how lucky we are, here in Israel. You can't walk across most countries in Europe, and large parts of the United States, without coming across some barrier. In Israel, we have the great advantage of being able to walk, or ride, across the country without encountering enormous privately owned farms with walls and fences around them. There are around 7,000 people who ride horses in Israel, and there are plenty of riders who go off for weekend rides… Especially for horseback riders, we are truly living in the Promised Land."