Today I tagged along to watch James do a session with Nellie, a five-year-old sorrel quarter horse who’d rightly earned the reputation of being dangerous. The farrier was scared of her and so was her owner, Joan, despite being the only human Nellie trusted. The strong-rumped mare had a way of kicking out and muscling in on Joan; with everyone else, she was simply untouchable. The worse she got, the less handling she received, which reinforced her negative behavior. She wasn’t bad-natured, simply mistrustful, fearful, and dominant—a tough combination in a 1,000-pound prey animal.
Nellie spent the first hour tearing around the round pen, wild-eyed, working up an impressive lather, while James calmly stood with a long, telescoping stick garnished with a whispery strip of plastic at the end. He lightly shook the stick in Nellie’s direction whenever she took flight, goading her to run faster—straight into her primal fear. “She’ll eventually learn that panicking doesn’t solve anything,” he explained. “Right now she’s causing her own discomfort. She needs to learn that comfort lies here with me.”
Every time Nellie paused, James stopped flexing his stick and moved a few steps away from her, giving her space to rest and reflect. “I want her to realize that it’s easier to put her attention on me than to run away.”
Since flight had been her modus operandi for five years, Nellie didn’t take easily to the new option. She ran, slid, staggered, and catapulted herself around the ring with amazing force, barely acknowledging James as he repeatedly made her change direction with a quick shake of his stick.
After countless exhausting sprints around the ring, Nellie’s attitude slowly began to change. She started turning her face to James and even taking a few tentative steps in his direction. She warily let him touch her sides with the telescoping stick, shifting nervously but not bolting. She seemed to be asking, What do you want from me?
Through his body language and patient, repetitive motions, James answered her question: I want you to pay attention to me, to trust me, to respect me.
It was not the answer she wanted. Nellie kicked out in frustration and loped around the ring some more, her energy flagging. She stopped, clearly baffled about what to do next.
“We’ll take a break now,” James said, climbing onto the rail of the round pen, where he perched like an old cowhand. “She’s less likely to run so hard after she pauses and feels how sore her muscles are.”
He was right. After a fifteen-minute break, she balked and ran a bit, but without the same conviction. Then came what James called “the mudslide”—the point at which Nellie capitulated completely, handing her entire being over to his leadership. She followed James around like a child, munching proffered treats and soon letting him attach a lead line to her halter.
“I’d say we’re done for the day,” he said, leading her to the barn for a cool rinse with the hose. She stood quietly while he sprayed her with water, a far cry from the turbulent animal of two hours ago. To my admiring eyes, she looked like a different horse: softer, more giving, surer of her place in the world.