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.
"I know ones who claim that if they have the horse's name, they don't need to know the problem--that they will tell you over the phone," he said. "If we have trouble knowing if someone is really accomplishing something with massage, imagine the difficulty in determining whether they are doing it over the airwaves."
But owners across the county appear willing to endure such skepticism, if the treatments produce the results they want.
Sandy Stone, a Camarillo horse breeder and president of the Los Amigos Peruvian Horse Club, said she called her vet a few months ago when one of her mares pulled a back muscle. The muscle had become knotted and sore, and it was obvious to her that the animal was in pain.
After the vet examined the mare, Stone said he told her that there was only one treatment he could provide--a drug prescription. But that was undesirable, she said, since the mare was pregnant.
When the vet suggested calling in an equine acupuncturist, Stone, a former nurse, was initially hesitant. "I'm a real conservative person and it was unorthodox, but I didn't have any choice. My husband still thought I was nuts to spend money on it."
The treatment turned a skeptic into a believer. "It had an almost immediate effect" on the mare, Stone said. "Her back went right back to normal. I rode her, and she was fine."
Stone's vet isn't the only one to recommend acupuncture. Kim Bryant, who works at the Conejo Valley Veterinary Clinic in Thousand Oaks, said horse owners at the clinic are commonly referred to Debra Jones, a Los Angeles equine acupuncturist who treats such problems as arthritis, lameness and muscle spasms.
Jones said she received her training on humans at the Santa Monica School of Massage. For nine years she worked as a holistic vet's assistant in North Hollywood, where she learned acupressure and acupuncture. Nowadays, she said, vets from Los Angeles and Ventura counties contact her if there is nothing more they can do.
Last week she received a call about Leo, a 27-year-old gelding. Leo's owner, Lu Farmer, noticed that the horse's entire body had broken out in what appeared to be hives. In addition to having a swollen, sensitive belly, Leo--usually of gentle disposition--was stomping, biting and swishing his tail whenever Farmer came near him.
Farmer's vet came out to the Foxfield Riding School in Thousand Oaks and said the horse probably was having an allergic reaction to an insect bite. Drugs were inadvisable because of a previous lymphatic disorder, so the vet suggested calling in Jones.
Jones ran her hand gently over Leo's back, to his obvious displeasure. He craned his neck, the whites of his eyes showing as he watched her. His tail swished. He lifted a hind leg and let it thud to the ground.
"He's very sensitive, that's for sure," said Jones, extracting an acupuncture needle from the pocket of her jeans and inserting it into a point on his back. "This is like an aspirin point, which helps the body to release its own cortisone."
She then twisted the needle in a circle several times and moved on to another spot on his hind leg. "This point helps draw swelling out of the body," she said. Soon, needles protruded from numerous spots on Leo's body.
In a few minutes, the horse gave a slight shudder. He took a deep breath and let out a long, audible sigh. His lips quivered. Suddenly, he began stretching his neck back and forth against a nearby post.
"She treated Leo last October, and he hasn't had a lame step since," said Farmer, a Simi Valley executive secretary. "Look at him. He's getting so relaxed. . . ." Within a few days, all traces of Leo's allergic response were gone.
The majority of vets contacted said that they might suggest a treatment such as acupressure, acupuncture or deep muscle massage, but that they would draw the line at recommending telepathy and parapsychology. Nevertheless, a few said they are willing to consider a range of alternative therapies.
"I still believe in blood tests, surgery and traditional forms of care, but I also believe there are whole other ways of looking at an illness that we in the Western world are just beginning to look at," said Dr. Kathleen Carson, a Lawndale vet who took one of Gurney's workshops at the Cal Lutheran Equestrian Center. On occasion, she said, she has referred pet owners to Gurney if the animal's illness or behavior appeared rooted in psychological problems.
"I don't want people to think I'm crazy," she said. "But I think a lot more people are beginning to say, 'Maybe there is more to the brain than we know.' "
Debbie Martin, who keeps her daughter's barrel-racing quarter horse, Gunslinger, in her Simi Valley back yard, has embraced New Age therapy in a big way.
Not long ago, Martin noticed that Gunslinger had trouble lifting one of his legs. With an upcoming race, his back was too sore to be ridden. Martin's vet came out and looked at the horse, and said the best treatment was to warm him up before riding.
Martin decided on her own form of treatment. A friend had told her about Karen Hamel-Noble, an Oklahoma-based equine parapsychologist who claims to heal a horse's blocked energy passages over the telephone. Last year, Hamel-Noble gave a seminar in Santa Paula, attracting horse owners from throughout the county who hoped to learn her technique.
After taking such things as the horse's name, birth date and registration number--plus $50 from its owner--Hamel-Noble says she can tell where an animal's weakness is.
"With that information, I take a quartz crystal that is tuned to me, and I swing it over a diagram of a horse," Hamel-Noble explained in a telephone interview. "If I find a weakness, the crystal swings in circles instead of back and forth. Then I can do what I call a metaphysical clearing, and also make certain recommendations--such as dietary changes--to the owner."
Martin, a former orthopedic technician, insists that Gunslinger recovered in time for her daughter's barrel race the next day.
"I know you're going to laugh, but she healed him," she said. "It really goes against all my medical beliefs, but I saw what I saw.
"I don't understand any of it," she said, "but it works."