I believe there is a special horse for each of us, one who’s willing to challenge us to learn our big lesson in life. Certain horses come into our lives with issues that can teach us a lot about ourselves. They seem to zero in on the areas where we need to grow the most as if to say, “You can learn this; start on me.” And these horses won’t grow out of their troubles until we humans grow out of ours.
But we don’t always see the positive in the messages they send. Sometimes the signals get misread and the honest feedback our horses give us comes across as an affront or a threat, instead of a challenge to grow. The relationship becomes tangled. That’s where I come in. I am an interpreter for horses. At my clinics and lessons, and in all my other work, I try to help people who are searching for meaningful relationships with their horses understand what those horses are really trying to say.
This search for understanding has always been part of my makeup; it’s in my DNA. Among my earliest memories as a lad is going for one of my first haircuts. I found the raspy buzz of the clippers held little interest for me, neither did the big chairs that rose up and down and could spin in circles. I slipped away. When my turn came I was finally found in a back room in deep communion with the barber’s Irish Setter. And of course I still remember the first time I ever met a horse. I was very small but I remember being swung onto his back and how my right hand instinctively reached out to touch his mane. It felt like soaring and I never wanted to come down.
When I was thirteen I got a job as a groom for a string of show horses. For two summers I traveled with them to fairs and horse shows. I slept in stalls with those horses, I ate my meals with them--all my time was spent with horses—I felt like Agba, the boy in King of the Wind. It should have been heaven for me and mostly it was, but it was there that I was exposed to the dark side of our relations with horses for the first time, too. I saw the lengths to which humans will go to win a ribbon. My employers were trainers on the cusp of making it big and the pressure on them to win must have been enormous. Everything from heel chains to ginger under the tail was fair so long as it gave those poor horses the “look.” From what I gathered by watching other trainers at work in the practice rings and warm up arenas, these practices were customary at the time. The folks I worked for were mild in comparison to many others in the show ring in those days and I, unfortunately, went along with it.
A random opportunity to exercise a little Quarter Horse mare who rarely got out of her stall caused me to change course. She was a bay and she blew up like a torpedo the first time I rode her. I didn’t know why she blew at the time, only that I was sure I must have done something wrong. In fact I was so certain that it was somehow my fault that I begged a woman who happened to be there—an accidental witness to my first real bronc ride—not to tell anyone. Even though I rode the little mare to a standstill (and, as a teenage boy, could have gotten very full of myself for it) my instincts told me I had not heard something that horse had tried to tell me. I can still picture the woman sitting on her lanky chestnut horse, wide-eyed and looking at me as if I were a little daft. Well, lady, as it turns out you aren't the only one to come to that conclusion.
I wish I could tell you that experience turned me into some magical, empathetic, Zen-like horseman but it didn’t. For all my pondering afterward, the only thing I could come up with was how surprised I was—I’d never even seen it coming. Looking back on it now however, there was a really big lesson in it for me. It was a stark reality check about not seeing a horse where she was at a particular moment and working with her there. I just assumed she was where I thought she should be and went ahead with my plan.
I wish I had spent more time pondering that lesson back then; I might be further along in my journey than I am now. Instead I concluded that cowboy stuff was cool and got into rodeo, riding bulls and broncs all the way through my college years. While I’ll be the first to admit I was never really all that great at it, it helped get me through school and I had a lot of fun. I do have my regrets about it now, though. Even in those days a little part of me was dubious about some of the practices involved in the sport but instead of listening to my conscience I made myself good at justifying what we did. Later, as my awareness about all the life around me increased, I was forced to conclude the rodeo as it is practiced is unnecessarily abusive to animals and the person I am now is not proud of my part in perpetuating it.
Some good did come out of it for me. Once, when I was still pretty young at it, a rodeo contractor hired me to night herd all of his livestock. There was a big meadow next to the fairgrounds with lots of tall grass. As darkness fell he handed me the reins to one of his pickup horses and pointed at all the various broncs, bulls and roping steers and then to a gate leading out to the field. “Now, kid,” he told me, “you take them out there and let them get their bellies full of grass. Ride around and keep them in a bunch. And make damn sure you get ’em back in here before it gets light enough for anyone to see you.”
Blissfully unaware of the implications of this modern day free-grazing as a means to cut hay expenditures, I had a blast. It was one of the best nights of my life and my eyelids never drooped, not for one moment. There is something about sharing and observing the secret lives of animals—the part that takes place after we go home and nobody is watching—that’s so incredibly inclusive and fulfilling that I didn’t want the sun to come up. I knew then working with livestock would always be part of my life. Plus that guy paid me eight bucks!
After college I had the great good fortune of working for the Kerns family on their ranching operation in northern Wyoming. They gave me the opportunity to really learn “which end of the animal to feed and which end to clean up after.” Long days in the saddle allowed me time to observe animals and begin getting into their heads. The Kerns’ gave me the freedom to make mistakes and figure out ways to fix them.
In the years that followed I worked for various ranches, mostly in northern Wyoming but some in Montana and even a brief foray into western South Dakota. I loved all things livestock but, of course, was always drawn closest to the horses. There is just something about them that makes my soul tingle. It’s not only cow horses either— more than once I’ve been caught at the corral with some book about classical dressage or the science of breeding in my hands, waiting for the sun to come up.
Along the way I got the chance to ride in my first horsemanship clinic. I’m not sure how many years ago it was but I do know it was something of a turning point for me. Immersed as I was in the machismo world of the ranch hand, I will admit to having poked a little fun ahead of time at the particular clinician. I’d seen some of his students prior to attending and frankly, I was less than impressed. But when I saw him in action for the first time, saw how he related to horses as if they were more than tools to be used for work, it got my complete attention. It was as if my deepest feelings for horses, thoughts I couldn’t fully articulate as a kid and later had to keep hidden in the hard adult world I was a part of, were suddenly given permission to fly.
I’ve never really looked back. For a period of time I think I spent every disposable dime I made (and then some!) traveling to work with various horsemen and trying to make bridle horses. I learned a lot during those years and will be forever grateful for the knowledge those folks shared. It focused my life.
I might still be following that trail were it not for an encounter with a palomino mare who had no interest in following any particular training method; she only wanted to see the top of a hill. This mare lived in a small pasture with another horse. She was five, seriously overweight and seriously under mannered. I was hired to start her under saddle, although she seemed to feel otherwise. It wasn’t that she was particularly nasty; rather, she was absolutely disinterested in the vaquero tradition, cow horse tradition or any other tradition for that matter.
Right from the get-go she met my most sincere efforts with a far off stare. It was as if her mind had simply abandoned her body to carry on for itself. She wasn’t stupid; she just wasn’t there. While I eventually made enough progress to begin riding her, motivation remained an enormous struggle.
One day I took her out for a little ride. It was big, beautiful country and a lovely morning. We started out as you’d expect—slowly. Very slowly. I’m quite sure I was expending far more energy than that yellow mare. We plodded along, my legs working furiously and hers not, and eventually we reached the base of a kame, which is a pointed, often isolated hill left by the receding of the last Ice Age. There are many in that country and there was nothing outstanding about this one except that it was in plain sight of that mare’s horse pasture. As I matter of fact, I had noticed that she always seemed to be in the fence corner, facing it, when I showed up to work with her but I‘d never really connected the hill to the horse.
I should have. As we trudged and plodded our way along the base of it, she turned her head and looked up at the peak. Somehow she communicated such longing to me with that look that it stopped my natural reaction to straighten her out. Actually the feeling was so strong that I stopped trying to do anything at all with her and just dropped the reins over the horn. I will never forget the way her right ear swiveled slowly back to double check if she understood me correctly. I raised my hands toward the hilltop as if to say, “Sure, go ahead.” Those ears snapped forward and off we went, lively and straight up. We reached the crest without pausing and once up there she made an eager circuit before stopping to look off in all directions. She stood, looking intently for about five minutes then relaxed, getting hipshot as if satisfied and at peace.
A few minutes later we turned and went off that hill. We’d each had a glimpse of what could be and we could both see we’d underestimated one another. As we rode away with life in each step I knew been given a choice; that moment at the base of the hill could have gone either way. When she turned her head I could’ve chosen to keep her framed up; you know, between the reins, straightness is greatness and all of that—it was after all, how you make a bridle horse, a goal I’d been working towards for a long time. Instead I went back to being that kid in the barber shop, searching for understanding. I turned away from following any method or tradition except listening to the horse and asking him what works. To me that is the path to real horsemanship. I do not regret taking it.
I haven’t perfected this yet and I never will. I’d dearly love to but I accept it isn’t going to happen. There is just so much out there when you start listening to horses; every sound you learn to hear opens your ears to another, like music that never ends.
Teaching horsemanship has become my purpose in this world. I live for those moments when the light comes on for a horse or a person. Sometimes I translate for the horses. They tell me in their own way what they are trying to say and I try to put it into words for the people in their lives. Sometimes I must speak to them and help them understand the language of their humans. But whatever it is, whether it’s getting a person to go out on a limb and try some new thing or watching a horse let go of a load of tension he’s been packing around for years, I come alive when it happens.