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  • Elizabeth Kaye McCall

SYLVIA ZERBINI and RAJALI KA - a conversation

Updated: Jun 8, 2020






Nine years ago, I made an overnight decision about a straight Egyptian stallion that changed my life. He was dappled, handsome, and seemingly had the movement for a dressage prospect. But my thoughts of showing, or even riding him in the near future, evaporated, as the scope of his issues from former training as a halter horse turned every interaction into a challenge. I finally threw out my agenda and focused on reestablishing trust. A big breakthrough came at three months. By that time, he was calling to me at the first glimpse. Almost overnight he began


audibly responding when I asked. Rajali KA’s “speaking” did compensate for his erratic behavior. After some consideration, I opted for liberty work as the best way to clear ghosts from the past and work on trust. I’d worked with live shows like Cavalia (and before that, Arabian Nights) where liberty is an equestrian art form that revolves around the horse-human bond and connection. So when a one-day liberty clinic with Cavalia alum, Sylvia Zerbini, came up this spring where my horse is stabled, I seized the opportunity. I’ve seen Sylvia perform enough to admire her masterful talent and special affinity for Arabians. Still, I wondered how Rajali KA would respond in a single 45-minute liberty session on his first meeting with her. It turns out Rajali KA not only excelled, he was the star student. Seeing Rajali KA in Sylvia’s clinic that day was a testament to this extraordinary “reborn” horse, who has educated me about horses in ways I never imagined. If only I could grasp Sylvia’s liberty training techniques as easily as he did. As Sylvia explained, “As soon as I come into an arena, I connect with the energy in front of me. All the work I do with horses is with energy and through eye contact.” Zerbini, who typically works without sunglasses during training sessions to gain maximum eye contact with a horse, explained, “When I start with a horse, I just look and can see how he is right away. I’m pretty quick at reading their characteristics. I can tell if the horse is dominant or if the horse is very insecure just by its mannerisms, the way he holds himself, the way he comes or walks away. Every little trait tells me about the personality. I’m really good at reading energy in horses, so as soon as I see a horse, I can tell where he’s at mentally. “When I met Rajali KA, I looked at him and he looked at me,” she continues. “I could tell right away that he’s a horse that’s been there, done that. He’s very confident,” she said. “I just came in with this great energy like, ‘You’re pretty amazing, but so am I. We’re going to have fun!’ And, he just cocked his head and looked at me and did his little Arab turn and I said, ‘OK, here we go!’” Explaining how the clever stallion could instantly grasp the nuances of her training process and virtually perform in a 45-minute clinic session, Zerbini remarked, “It’s because this is their language. Horses react to energy. Horses communicate with eye contact. A motion is everything. “I’m beyond the stick,” she added. Gifted in using body energy to build enduring trust, Sylvia teaches communication with horses without halter, whips, ropes, or carrot sticks. Specific body language and vocal cues are understandable by horses of all breeds and ages. “I get people to use their bodies and their hands,” Sylvia says. “We start with our shoulders. We apply pressure. Sometimes, when I’m running, I pick up sand and get a huge response. Just the energy associated with the movement of tossing sand,” she added. “I’m always very clear in my direction.” At the multi-day clinics she gives across the country and at her Grande Liberté Farm in Williston, Florida, Zerbini repeatedly mentions, “Walking a straight line. Watch people with horses. They don’t pay attention, they’re just walking, especially when they start liberty. When we start walking crooked, if we’re constantly walking right, then walking to the left, our horses tend to fall back and see where we’re going. Horses are very clear in the way that they move. Ten years ago, I started making a point of walking very straight lines as they did. The response was incredible. Our appearance is important, too, like keeping our chins up when we’re walking with horses, means a lot.” Multi-lingual, Zerbini spoke to Rajali KA in French during his session — something she does with her own horses and while teaching any breed or age. “Every time he gave me an inch, I would just say ‘Brave’ (pronounced as a drawnout ‘braaahv’). Does he know French? No! Does he understand the energy associated with the tone? Absolutely! They all do,” said Zerbini. “I wish they would step up the liberty they do at Arabian shows a notch,” Sylvia added. “We need to do a little bit more. In my liberty there is communication. I’m expressing the horse’s beauty, but at the same time, we’re having a conversation.” And, a conversation she truly had with Rajali KA.

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