When his new owner stroked and played with him, the young mustang was friendly, as far as it went.
But he couldn’t be ridden, and the horse held his own against veterinarians sent to castrate him, according to Westcott.
His bucking and kicking so terrified one vet who tried to catch him that the doctor ended up cowering behind a barrel. Another vet’s idea was to rope the stallion – to snare him around the neck.
That plan, Westcott said wryly, “Was not very successful.”
Now the owner was back where she started, with a scorecard of Horse 2, Humans 0. Even worse, the stallion knew it. That’s where Westcott came in. A helpful friend suggested Westcott’s Coal Creek Stables.
SAFETY FOR HORSE AND HANDLER
Westcott’s most immediate goal is safety, for horse and handler. “I’m always thinking about how to prevent a wreck,” he said, “and I want to stop a problem before it starts.” Mustangs can be particularly tricky. “They were wild once,” and Westcott believes they remember what it felt like to be free. A mustang stallion is about as difficult as it gets. “But I’ll train anything,” he added.
Today’s goals were simple, though not necessarily easy, for a horse used to getting his way.
The idea was to establish Westcott’s leadership. “Horses are herd animals, and most of them don’t want to be leaders,” he explained.
“They don’t trust themselves to be leaders, but they also don’t trust you.”
On this spring morning, the stallion was in a round pen. Westcott approached the horse, and attempted to stand by its left side – the side that a rider or a vet might typically first approach the horse from. The stallion began to back away.
Westcott next flicked a long stick with a piece of cloth dangling from it at the horse and miraculously, soon had the horse cantering around the pen.
After a few turns, Westcott would lower the stick, the horse would stop, and equine and human would approach each other again.
It went on like this, a dance between man and animal, the two locked in a sort of communication only they seemed to understand. Over the next forty minutes or so, the stallion allowed Westcott to a) put on a halter and b) rope it around his neck, c) and then rope its rear leg, all displays of trust that never seemed forced or coerced.
“My first goal was to get the horse to allow himself to be touched,” Westcott explained later. “The next was to get him to move out when asked, to change directions, and to allow himself to get caught. All this work was to establish a leader.”
With that, the session was over. The horse stood quietly, and Westcott scratched its nose. The young stallion, all muscle and tension just half-an-hour earlier, opened his mouth, flashed his teeth – and yawned.
Westcott, who made “taming” the stallion look effortless, as if he was bending himself to the horse’s will as much as the other way around, is a practitioner of natural horsemanship, a form of training that emphasizes working in empathic partnership with horses, instead of frightening them with whips, tie-downs or other, harsher sorts of coercion, in order to “break” them. The term “horse breaker” was originally applied to the men who “broke” horses for cattle barons, Westcott explained. The cattle barons were in a hurry, and wanted new horses to be put to work right away. “A horse breaker would rope a wild horse and toss a saddle on him. Buck and go – those guys were tough! The breaker kept the horses for 10 days, and then turned them over to a cowboy to ride.”
Natural horsemanship takes the opposite approach, using the same cues horses use amongst themselves – how they assert dominance over one another, for example, or behave submissively – and then mimicking that natural body language in the training ring.
“I think natural horsemanship has been around for hundreds of years,” Westcott said. “The best trainers always used what they learned from watching horses in the wild. Then Hollywood came along and romanticized it.”
‘THE HORSE WHISPERER’
He was referring to the movie The Horse Whisperer, and before that, Nicholas Evans’ bestseller of the same name, which came out – as did trainer Monte Roberts’ popular (and controversial) autobiography The Man Who Talks to Horses – a couple of decades ago.
Since then, there’s been an explosion of books on “natural” training, programs on RFD-TV, horse fairs and weekend training clinics around the country. In the process, many trainers became celebrities. Clinicians at the top of the heap “attract fans the way rock stars do,” notes Richard A. Lamb in The Revolution in Horsemanship. “Hands rough and calloused from years of handling ropes and reins now cramp from signing autographs. A few years ago, some of these very people were working cowboys, one of the lowest-paying professions in America. Now they have entourages.” But while the term natural horseman may be in vogue, “few know how to do it,” Westcott said. “I’ve tried looking for people to assist me. I haven’t found anyone who can.”
Westcott found his own way to natural horsemanship when Craig Cameron (who now has a show on RFD TV) roared up on a black-and-white gelding one day a couple of decades ago at Ralph Lauren’s Double RL Ranch above Ridgway, where Cameron and Westcott were working.
Cameron’s mount was notorious for running away with people. “It’ll take you 40 yards to stop him!” Westcott exclaimed as Cameron pulled up. “Not if you set him up, it won’t,” Cameron replied. And with that, Cameron relaxed back in the saddle and loosened the reins – unmistakable signals to the horse that riding time was over, and it was time to settle down. “That was it. That inspired me,” Westcott said. “Before, all I cared about was being a cowboy. After watching Cameron, I wanted to become a trainer.”
Back then, natural horsemanship was much more unusual than it is now, so Westcott studied classic works on horsemanship by Tom Dorrance (True Unity: Willing Communication Between Horse and Human) and Ray Hunt (Think Harmony With Horses). He refined his teaching techniques during his years as a horseman at Sleeping Indian Ranch, and eventually was hired by the Black Canyon Paint Horse Ranch as its trainer.
Today Westcott runs his own show – which does not include training show horses, though he’s done that (and has won numerous ribbons). He likes a horse to learn at its own pace, he explained.
Clients “can be in too much of a hurry to get the horse into the show ring. People want things done right now. But with horses, it doesn’t work that way. With horses, everything is one step at a time, and every horse is different.” His philosophy is simple: “If you can’t get it done at a walk, you can’t get it done.” The core of what Westcott aims for is trust between horse and owner. “It’s a partnership,” he said of this particular communion between man and beast, but it’s “a partnership with a leader. You are the leader. If you’re confident, they’ll lean on you for comfort, but if you’re not, they’ll do what it takes to survive.”
At Coal Creek, Westcott helps clients like Meghan Crosby train her quarter horse, “Trooper,” for pleasure riding, and Maggie McNally, a service specialist at Telluride’s Wilkinson Library who brought her Arabian, “Skhy,” to Montrose for help with better control of him at endurance events.
Intelligent, sensitive and spirited, Arabs are built for endurance. They can also be extremely difficult to train, but navigating 65-mile-long courses with numerous blind spots and obstacles calls for a perfect accord between horse and rider. After several months, Westcott’s affect on Skhy “was remarkable,” McNally said, and when she rode him at endurance events, “He was a totally different horse.”
The real test of McNally’s partnership with Skhy came not on an endurance course, but on an ordinary trail ride behind Coal Creek Stables. It was a windy day, and as Maggie and Skhy loped along, a tumbleweed caught in his tail, which would terrify any horse.
He could have taken off – McNally uses only a halter, instead of a bridle, when she rides for fun –and he wouldn’t have been easy to retrieve: 30,000 acres of open BLM land abut Westcott’s ranch, where McNally was riding that day. Yet Skhy allowed his owner to dismount and gently remove the offending bramble. “He was a little snorty, and a bit of a handful on the ride home,” she said. “But he never tried to run away with me.”
Instead, as she put it, “Skhy trusted his human.”
Looking for a Trainer?
Joe Westcott has three suggestions.
• Get referrals,
• Watch the trainer work so you can mimic what he teaches your horse; and
• Be prepared to put in “whatever time it takes” to reinforce what the horse has learned. “Everyone’s looking for a quick fix,” he said. “There isn’t one.”