Confidant of Moody Mares and Glum Geldings, Terry Niels Listens When Disturbed Horses Speak

updated 05/05/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Terry Niels has a photograph album bound in Belgian leather. It is filled with photographs of horses, only two of which he has ever owned. Most of the photos are simply head shots of horses, portraits really. There is a Belgian jumper with a weary expression of sadness. There is a black with a heavy-lidded expression of defeat, a dappled gray with a look of tight-lipped repression, a roan with an expression of whimsy. That one is standing in a stall in Belgium, nuzzling the thinning hair of the smiling man beside him. There is writing above the photograph: "1982—Orson is the best horse I never had—I sold him to come here."

A horse's expression is very important to Terry Niels, a 30-year-old Belgian citizen now living in Pompano Beach, Fla. It tells him about the horse and, by extension, the horse's owner. That's how Terry earns his living. He makes disturbed horses—and, by extension, their owners—happy again. He has an old black Lincoln Town Car with a white sign on each front door that reads "Horse Psychologist," followed by his telephone number.

"People see the sign and they laugh," he says in his thick Belgian accent. "But that's what I am. I am not a trainer. A trainer works quickly. He beats a horse. He forces him to behave a certain way out of fear. I try to understand a horse. I let him teach me what he knows first. Then I work slowly. I talk to him, become his friend, play with him, pull his tail like a pet. I make it a pleasure for him, and then I find out his problem and fix it. One time in Kentucky an owner was trying to clip his horse's ears. It was very ticklish for the horse, so the man was going to put a twitch on him that would cause him just enough pain that he wouldn't feel the clipping. I told him not to do that. I talked to the horse—just stupid things, the main thing was the tone of my voice. I calm the horse, and he let me clip his hairs without the twitch. The owner was shocked. But it was only common sense. Horses are simple animals. They are born on this earth to eat hay, run fast and jump. It is people who give a horse his problems, and then they call me to make him happy again."

In short, Terry Niels restores a horse to his true nature, which is not always what an owner wants. That's how Terry differs from a trainer. A trainer modifies a horse's behavior through discipline howsoever an owner wishes. Terry refuses to do that. He mentions the case of a 14-year-old trail horse who had spent six years in stud before being castrated. Whenever another horse tried to pass him on the trail, the 14-year-old would kick him. The owner called Terry, who soon got to the heart of the matter. "Even though the horse had been made a gelding," Terry says, "in his mind he was still a stud, a leader. In the pasture with other horses, he acted like a leader and they treated him like one. That was his natural personality." Terry told the owner he wouldn't change the horse's behavior and suggested simply that the horse always be allowed to lead on the trail.

Another owner called Terry about a horse that seemed to get spooked without provocation. Terry spent three days simply observing the horse before deciding it wasn't dangerous. ("After all," Niels says, "I am not the stuntman.") Then he began to talk to the horse, to play with him, feed him, groom him, clean his stall. The first time Terry rode him, the horse was fine until they passed a car on the road. At first Terry thought the horse was afraid of all cars, but no other car provoked that reaction. The car was white, so Terry began to wonder whether the horse was only frightened by white cars. Then one day he visited the horse wearing a white shirt. The horse seemed uneasy, and the next day Terry dressed entirely in white. Sure enough, the horse was a nervous wreck. "It was the color white that spooked him," says Niels. "I don't know why, maybe something from his past. So I wear white every day until finally he relax around me. Then, after a month, I paint his stall white. He did not react. He was cured."

Niels claims that horses' psychological problems stem from a simple fact of their nature. "A horse is not clever," he says, "but he has a lot of memory." Most disturbing equine memories, Terry believes, have something to do with a person. That's why Terry spends almost as much time trying to reorder the psychology of a horse's owner as he does the owner's horse. "Some owners calm themselves by beating their horses," Niels says. "Then the horse becomes dangerous, and they call me. Some owners ride their horse once a month and then turn him over to their groom. Next month they wonder why their horse is nervous when they ride him. Some owners are nervous or fearful when they get on their horse. He reacts and they wonder why. But a horse is not a motorcycle. He is not there just to please. The owner and the horse must be happy together."

Niels is a soft-looking man with timid blue eyes. He wears brightly colored silk shirts and lots of gold jewelry that seem, on him, a mimicry of the flashy South Florida style. He seems to have acquired, like many of the horses he works with, certain traits that are foreign to his nature and background. He is a simple, uncomplicated man who is ill at ease around people until he begins talking about his passion. He will go on for hours about horses until abruptly, in mid-sentence, he will stop, lower his eyes and say, "But maybe you are not interested in that, heh?"

Born in Belgium and raised in Switzerland, where his father was a restaurateur, Terry began riding horses at 8 and in his teens competed successfully in dressage and jumping. After getting a university degree in hotel management, Niels took a job in Lausanne, working 15 hours a day at a job he didn't like very much—dealing with the problems of his staff and his guests. "I had a reputation of being too nice," he says. "It was a weakness in business, but not with horses."

At 25, he quit the restaurant world and hung out his shingle as a horse psychologist and trainer. He had few clients. People in Europe were not sure just what a horse psychologist was, and they were not inclined to entrust their expensive horses to him. Terry decided to emigrate to America where, as he puts it, "a person can start something new."

After selling Orson he immediately encountered different problems. The hot Florida weather was not good for horses. Nor were most of them very expensive. Terry found it difficult to charge an owner $500 to cure a disturbed $1,000 horse. So he told owners that his fee would be only $200 if he tried to cure their horse and couldn't. The first question American owners asked was, "How long will it take you to cure my horse?" Terry tried to explain that if he had two horses of the same breed, the same age and with the same problem, he might be able to cure one in four days and the other in four weeks. "I can't explain it," he says. "But I am patient. Sooner or later people in America will learn how good I am for a horse. I understand him. I can work with a horse for 15 hours a day and not feel lam working at all."

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