Jimmy Griffin is a lawyer in Houston, Texas. While admittedly not a horseman, he nonetheless promised he would attend his first horse training session recently. In his narrative, and in his words, Jimmy shares his thoughts from that day. Reprinted by permission of the author.
My daughter insisted that I had promised. I had to go and she would, too. She had read the website and watched a video about a horse named Miracle. Sienna Stables in Missouri City had adopted Miracle and taken her to raise, after she was found abandoned in a ditch at birth. A year and half or so later, it is a pretty, but slight palomino with a white face. Miracle is spirited and feisty, with literally unbridled energy and a mind of its own. Her training is to be entrusted to a young, 29-year old trainer with a degree in Equine Sciences from Texas Tech.
We arrived a bit late and followed another late arrival to the main covered corral, where a young cowboy stands just inside a smaller temporary circular corral. His project stands, seemingly disinterested, directly across the small enclosure, wearing only a halter. I know nothing of horses, horseback riding, or horse training, the latter of which we had come to see in action.
I did spend several of my formative years dressing up as Wyatt Earp and several parties at Wee Wild West, where my friends and I could sit atop Shetland ponies and be led around a ring. And one time, I rode behind my friend Tommy at his ranch in Llano. The horse was saddle-less and when Tommy started up a steep incline, I promptly slid off the rear. As I recall, I walked the remainder of the trail.
But here I was, seated with 12 or so others, watching the Marlboro Man speak about what he’d already done with Miracle, what he hoped to demonstrate today, and some of his philosophy for training horses. I guess it had never really occurred to me that horses didn’t intuitively understand that they were to provide a ride for whomever wished to employ one horsepower transportation. But this 6 foot 3 inch or so, angular, slow-talking cowboy waxed eloquent concerning gradually educating his young horse to walk, run, and lope, as well as how to respond to physical and audible demands, and how to become comfortable with someone taller than herself sitting astride of her.
He preferred praise to rewards or treats to motivate the horse. He said he had borrowed techniques from other trainers whom he respected and had seen in action or read about. He preferred a slack rope and low tone; he wanted the horse to respect his space; and he wanted the horse to like what she did; to enjoy whatever tasks her rider asked her to perform.
The trainer was just a kid, really. But he commanded the arena. He clearly knew his audience and their questions indicated that they respected his skills. It was apparent that he was a real cowboy. I think the dirt on his hat and the broken heel on his boot authenticated his avocation. Occasionally and subtly, he spit a juicy stream.
“It was apparent that he was a real cowboy.”
I happened to already know that he was nervous about the program. He had talked his bosses into letting him charge for attendance to see his training in action and, of course, if Miracle didn’t cooperate, it could turn into a long day of unsuccessful training technique demonstrations. Defensively, he incorporated some humorous, self-deprecating remarks. I remember at one point, while using his chaps across Miracle’s back as part of his agenda, the chaps fell to the ground in a heap and he pointedly exclaimed that he hoped that wouldn’t be him later in the program.
The first few notes sound
Almost without transition, and without any expository interruption, he angled his frame toward Miracle and with a cluck, urged her into a clockwise walk around the training circle. Soon she was running and then loping. Audience members referred to Miracle’s lope as a canter and the young cowboy proudly commented on how far the horse had progressed since their earlier duet before the same audience a month or so before.
Seamlessly, he pulled his boots together in the center of the ring, bowed slightly, cocked his head toward Miracle, and moaned a low “whoa!” that brought the horse to a stop. The Cowboy straightened his back, pointed left, and clucked and began the same show in a counter-clockwise direction. The communication between trainer and horse was spellbinding.
He added a 15-foot rope to the halter and demonstrated how he directed the horse by lightly adjusting the direction of the horse’s nose, while never making the rope taut. Miracle cantered gracefully fore and back in response to almost inaudible verbal cues and almost invisible tugs of the lead rope. You could feel the need for applause build and become stifled by the desire not to intrude so noisily on the relationship before us.
“The communication between trainer and horse was spellbinding.”
The Cowboy brought the horse to a stop and while stroking Miracle’s neck and patting her haunches, fielded questions and bantered with audience. He quickly stepped just outside the ring and re-entered with a blanket and saddle, explaining that despite the importance of acclimating a horse to the gear, in this case, he had become convinced that Miracle was unfazed by the saddle, blanket, and cinch. In fact, he had already been atop her in the saddle. So, except for the occasional joke and the sheer elegance of the horse, that portion of the training exercise, wherein Miracle performed again, starting, stopping, walking, and running, was rather unremarkable.
The break between stanzas
The Cowboy sternly admonished that Miracle should have a break. The saddle was loosened and removed and the horse once again stood mostly motionless and stoic for a cooling off period, while the Cowboy never allowed the appearance of relaxation in his tall frame, easily conversed with the attendees, and spoke firmly but politely to two outside the group about whether Whiskey (a quarter horse owned by one of the stable’s clients) was sufficiently warmed up to help work with Miracle.
The tow-pony portion of the show was clearly meant to be a highlight. But Miracle showed her personality, dug in her heels and refused all of the tricks that her trainer could muster to bring her to a walk, run, and lope behind Whiskey. While the training technique seemed to fail, I think it did manage to showcase the strength, patience and skills of both horse and horseman, as together Whiskey and the Marlboro Man foiled Miracle’s attempts to break away and subvert the training session.
Whiskey was magnificent and her generous owner stood and pridefully watched the Cowboy handle her – withstanding the tow-rope repeatedly pulling sideways on the saddle horn and nearly throwing the trainer, and moving deftly forward, backward, or laterally when called upon to edge closer or further from the young trainee intent on disruption. The technical failure of the tow-pony routine somehow validated the reality of the training advice being offered – it was not just a horse and pony show. The training took a toll on horse and trainer, who, dripping through shirt and jeans, and no longer able to hide his limp (which made his spurs jangle all the more), insisted again that Miracle required a break, this time outside the ring.
They had worked together and with the accompaniment of Whiskey for the greater part of an hour and half by now and the coup de gras was still to come. Cowboy and horse walked to the center of the ring once more, together. He placed his foot in the left stirrup and raised himself, then let himself drop to the ground. The process was repeated slowly several times from both sides of the horse. He assumed a riding position after vaulting into the saddle from the right side and then dismounted on the left.
Something was happening now, but there was more a sense of tedium than excitement. I guess his hat was pulled a little lower; he sat tall for a moment, holding just the one rope rein attached to the bridle; he answered a question and provide an explanation of this portion of the training activity. Then, he clucked softly and Miracle began to walk. Seconds, later, with only the one rein lying firmly in the Cowboy’s hand and softly across Miracle’s neck, Miracle was running and then loping, as she did before with an empty saddle. The two transformed into one and the air sucked from the larger arena.
A low “whoa” and the Cowboy reversed direction. He and Miracle ran and re-ran. The dust raised and settled over us all. Tears came to my eyes in the next minutes of sheer delight between horse and horseman. I recalled Julia Roberts’ character in “Pretty Woman” claiming after seeing an opera, with no clue of the translation of dialogue and song, that she had almost pissed her pants with joy. Likewise for me, the ride by the rider was special. This was art. He was a virtuoso. The Cowboy had a gift and he had shared it with us…with me.
I didn’t know exactly what I had seen. But I knew what it made me feel. I wasn’t wrong. This Cowboy was more that the product of a good marriage. I was proud before today that he had followed his dream, but now I knew beyond a doubt that my son was special. ★