Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Cowboy Way(S)!


In the above story, Jane Smiley recounts her education in educatin' horses:

GETTING a horse to do what a rider wants is at the heart of the human-equine relationship. It is by nature a coercive practice. The real challenge, however, is to tap into the intelligence and strength of the horse without diminishing either. Bits and spurs are two tools of the trade, but they have their limitations. Some horses will either fight the rider or never quite understand what the rider is asking.


The Dorrances came to value the vaquero approach, which is as much a philosophy as a methodology. "Listen to the horse," Tom would famously say. "Try to find out what the horse is trying to tell you."

On the ranch, the brothers needed quiet horses that were cooperative and capable of acting as partners in the endless work of finding, moving, herding, separating and tending to cows, calves and bulls.

The method originated in Tom's detailed observations of how horses in herds interact to establish dominance and exact submission, to form relationships and to communicate to one another what to do and when and how to do it. It makes use of techniques that, to begin with, are easy for horses to understand and perform and that add up to ever more sophisticated communication between horse and rider.

My own experience in educatin' - and gettin' educated - by horses started... under less then ideal conditions. I was given a four year old Morgan stallion that had never been ridden and had rarely even been touched by a man.

Things started badly - and went immediately down hill.

In addition, my best friend's half-brother, Tom, felt my existence on this planet was a personal affront, and he quickly devised a hazing process designed to remedy the unfortunate fact of my existence. Luckily, though, that process also - eventually - created the intensely close bond between me and my horse, Mr. D.

Not long after that, and shortly after me and my horse had proved ourselves to the others, I first saw how Lance, Tom's half-brother, broke a horse.

He walked around a corral with the horse.

Yup! That was it! Lance would just look at the animal, walk around with him for an hour or two, and then the horse would - finally - come up and lay its head on his shoulder. Lance would then stoke its head, get on his back - and ride him bareback with but a hackamore.

My first thought was - if he knew how to do that - why the hell had he watched me being pile driven into the ground of the Owens Valley for two months?

I soon realized, though, I had to undergo a baptism of sorts to be accepted by the others and that it was only after that, that I would be introduced to the mysteries of the man/horse relationship. One of the surprises about the above article, however, was my realizing how many different techniques have been developed over the years to accomplish the same goal, all created by understanding the nature of the horse as a social and herd animal.

There was the method I saw Lance do and which I began to learn how to do (wholly inadequate as I was at it), and then there is the 'horse whisperer' approach I've heard about, but have avoided reading about. I presume, though, it must be quite different as Lance never used his voice at all in the initial taming of the horse; it was all in his walk and in his eyes. And I recently scanned a brief description of using a lead rope, and now this technique described in this article.

And I almost did not read this piece as I am just finishing the main chapters of my memoirs that talk about horses in general (and my later experiences with wild mustangs that finally gave me a real understanding of horses) and my horse in particular and I did not want to influence what I recalled by reading other's people's experiences.

But I am glad I did read this article and as soon as I do finish those chapters, I will plow into other people's experiences and discover how they, too, learned the language of the world of horses.

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