The first time Liz Vann set eyes on Ghandi, she knew she had to have him. He was gentle but strong, quiet but sensitive, disciplined but not rigid.
But the relationship soon soured. Once Vann took him home, Ghandi exhibited none of his former traits. Almost overnight, he had become a kicking, biting, bucking nightmare.
"I finally found a horse I wanted to keep and suddenly he hated me, hated being in his stall and was totally unridable," said Vann, director of the Cal Lutheran Equestrian Center in Thousand Oaks.
"I tried patting him, talking to him, giving him the best room in the house, but nothing worked," she said. "I spent $5,000 for him, but I was ready to send him where people buy horses for dog food."
Then Vann heard about Carol Gurney, a self-described animal communicator. Using telepathy, Gurney claimed to be able to "send" horses questions and receive answers in the form of mental pictures. Gurney would then describe the problem and tell the owner how to correct it. Owners interested in learning more would be shown how to communicate telepathically with their animals.
Vann figured she had nothing to lose.
"I asked the horse what was going on, and he said he had had it with people," said Gurney, who showed up at the stables shortly after getting Vann's phone call.
"He had been drugged when the owner saw him the first time and had just come from a racetrack situation. All he had ever experienced were demands being made on him. No one had ever taken the time to be his friend. He wasn't going to put up with it anymore."
On Gurney's advice, Vann set aside her saddle and allowed the horse to graze undisturbed for several months. She added herbs to his diet to quiet his "stressed-out system." She talked soothingly to him and went with him on walks. Soon, she said, Ghandi was his old sweet self.
"The difference is incredible," said Vann, who was so impressed with Gurney that she asked her to give monthly workshops on animal communication and deep-muscle massage at the equestrian center. "He's like my partner now. The experience changed the whole way I look at horses."
Vann isn't the only one to have her equine attitudes altered. In a county where cocktail conversation commonly revolves around feed and shodding--where keeping up with the Joneses often means having the biggest stable--horse ownership is taken seriously. Weekends are filled with dressage, hunter-jumper events and Western competitions; children live for their Saturday lessons at riding academies. In contrast to 10 or 15 years ago, when just a few horses dotted the countryside, the agricultural commissioner's office now estimates that there are at least 5,000 horses countywide. Many are kept at the more than 50 ranches that board, train or breed horses. Although boarding fees vary, monthly costs can run as high as $700 at the multimillion-dollar Ventura Farms in Hidden Valley. When a horse becomes ill or unresponsive, the vet isn't the only person an owner calls. Increasingly, horse owners throughout the county are turning to alternative and sometimes unorthodox forms of treatment when traditional methods fail.
Sore backs or sensitive limbs may be treated with acupuncture, acupressure or Swedish massage; erratic or baffling behavior can prompt a call to an equine parapsychologist. A few months ago, an animal chiropractor from Northern California flew in for a few days and went to work on several horses whose necks appeared stiff and misaligned.
"She turns their head in a certain way, holds it in a certain spot and then gives a little jerk," Vann said. "They love it. They hate her to leave."
Mary Kay Kinnish, editor of Equus magazine, a national publication that deals primarily with traditional approaches to horse health care, said Vann's attitude is typical of a growing number of horse owners nationwide.
"I think what we're seeing is that, as these treatments become more popular in human medicine, horse people also are coming to accept them more and more," Kinnish said.
That's not to say that the idea of a horse getting a back adjustment or expressing its thoughts telepathically doesn't strike plenty of people as odd. More than one horse owner admitted that when the subject of alternative therapy for horses comes up, common responses include smirks, rolling eyeballs and renditions of the theme from "The Twilight Zone."
Dr. Matthew Mackay Smith, a veterinarian and horse surgeon, and the medical editor of Equus magazine, said there are some real practical problems with doing massage and acupuncture on a horse. The obvious one is that it is "almost impossible for the person who obtains these services to tell" if the technique has accomplished anything. The problem is compounded, he said, when the owners start experimenting with telepathy and parapsychology.