Ten Things to Know about Natural Horsemanship

James is finishing up a three-week stint in Montana, where he held clinics and private trainings, visited family, and reacquainted himself with his old hometown, Lewistown. He’ll be hitting the road tomorrow to make the long drive from ranch country to the rolling hills (and sweltering summer heat) of central North Carolina. Since those of us at Fiore Farms have been without the benefit of his expertise for several weeks, this seems an apt time to publish James’ list of the top ten things to know about natural horsemanship. Have a safe trip home, cowboy.

  1. Quit thinking your horse feels what you feel.
  2. Stop thinking your horse thinks what you think.
  3. Don’t try to get your horse to act the way you think he should act.
  4. No matter what you are doing, your horse is learning something.
  5. Natural horsemanship is really about understanding prey animal psychology and using it during the training process.
  6. Natural horsemanship is not just for beginners, colt starting, and green horses. It’s applicable to the highest levels of performance.
  7. Natural horsemanship is the number-one proven method to stay safe when working with horses.
  8. Natural horsemanship is the most powerful way I’ve seen positive change brought into both horses’ and humans’ lives.
  9. Practicing natural horsemanship is a progressive process. It’s not about how good you are—it’s about trying to be a little better than the day before, always with respect for the horse’s integrity.
  10. Natural horsemanship applies to anything you can do with a horse. It is the true foundation for everything.

Chained to the Wheel of Life

I am a recovering perfectionist, which means I wage daily battle with my desire to do things perfectly. I thought I’d come far in my recovery: I had admitted powerlessness over my affliction and acknowledged that it made my life unmanageable. I intentionally dropped my standards and allowed myself to embrace striving and imperfection.

Until a white horse came along and sent me back to step one.

A white horse can never be perfectly clean—at least not one that lives in the orange clay of central North Carolina. I used to joke that chestnuts were the perfect-colored horse for North Carolina, while white horses belonged in the snowbelt.

Then Mystic the white horse came into my life, and the joke wasn’t so funny. This is how he looked the other day after a light rainstorm:

I tell myself this is a karmic challenge: my charge is to let it go. Let Mystic stay spotty orange-brown. Horses, like children, haven’t had a good, full day unless they get dirty. Dirt means play, earthiness, gusto, freedom. It means the opposite of neurotic perfectionism.

If this is a karmic challenge, the cosmos is winning. I can’t do it: I can’t keep from washing Mystic when he’s dirty. I’ve assembled a heavy-hitting lineup of shampoo and conditioning products:

My ace in the hole is Quic Silver shampoo, which comes out dark purple and turns dirty white hair into a magically brilliant silvery coat. I have no idea how it works, and I’m happy to keep it that way. I don’t need to know how computers work either. A finish coat of ShowSheen Hair Polish helps repel dirt, though I’d prefer plastic wrap.

Mystic does not particularly enjoy being bathed, especially because I’m a novice and take a long time to do it. When he tries to exit the bathing stall prematurely, I say things like, “Well, you shouldn’t have been born white!” I guess blaming is another bad habit I need to work on.

During the extensive, turbulent, tsunami-like bathing process, I travel through the emotional states Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described in her landmark study on the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I suspect Mystic is also moving through them, though stopping short at acceptance. Then, when it’s all over and he looks like a shining unicorn—minus the horn and beard—from a medieval tapestry, I reach a sixth stage: bliss.

The trouble with bliss is that you keep grasping for more of it and feel lousy when it eludes you. I’m sure the Dalai Lama would tell me I’m the architect of my own suffering: by longing for a clean white horse, I’m keeping myself chained to samsāra, or the wheel of life. My latest effort to let go of my obsessive need to wash Mystic involves visualizing a sand mandala, an intricately patterned circle made entirely of colored sand. Buddhist monks spend weeks creating a mandala, then destroy it to symbolize the transitory nature of material life.

In my interpretation, bathing Mystic is like building a dazzling sand mandala. Then nature steps in and dismantles what I’ve created, reminding me that everything is fleeting—beauty, happiness, desire, life. And cleanliness.

This strategy is kind of working. Sort of. Okay, not really. I guess I’ll have mastered the karmic challenge when I stop fighting the process and quit thinking of far-fetched analogies like the sand mandala.

Meanwhile, my friend Ben, who keeps his dirt-colored Clydesdale cross at Fiore Farms, loves to tease me. “That horse is looking mighty dirty,” he’ll say, or, “Can’t you keep your horse clean?” He teaches religious studies at UNCG and knows all about soul struggles. The twinkle in his eye comforts me, telling me he understands it’s tough to be a human chasing perfection while trying your best to let it go.

King of the Horse Pedestal

Mystic is now King of the Horse Pedestal. He assumed his title several days ago, after three weeks of sniffing and pawing at the pedestal, occasionally resting one hoof on top as if waiting for a pedicure.

During those weeks I wondered if I should prod him in some way. People offered suggestions: “Give him a gentle nudge on the butt with the progress stick.” “Tap him on the inside front leg.” “Use treats as reinforcement.”

Mystic sniffs the pedestal as James looks on

In the end, as always, Mystic did it his way and in his own time. One second he was contemplating the pedestal; next he hefted his left foot up, then his right, magically elevating his front end. Suddenly he was huge. He looked like a statue you might find in Trafalgar Square with a brigadier general astride him.

I felt as proud as when my son took his first steps twenty-one years ago. I looked in Mystic’s eyes and saw pride beamed back at me: there was enough good feeling to fill up a hot-air balloon and float it high above the clouds.

Mystic conquers the horse pedestal

Margaret, a boarder at Fiore Farms, witnessed our moment from afar. She sent her daughter Grace over with a treat for Mystic, who’d stepped off the pedestal. Looking a tad dazed by the scope of his accomplishment, he chewed ruminatively on the horse cookie. I tried to get him to repeat his new trick, but no luck. I wondered how long before he’d show his stuff again.

I didn’t have to wait long. The next evening Mystic mounted the pedestal like an old pro; this time Angela, mom of 12-year-old boarder Amanda, documented the moment on video. I held my breath, hoping Mystic would hold the pose long enough for a good photo or two after the videotaping.

There was no need to worry.

Mystic stayed on the pedestal with a distant, triumphant gloss in his eyes. He seemed to be having an extended Zen moment in which he visited past lives—battlefield triumphs, levades at the Spanish Riding School, perhaps even Alexander the Great on his back.

Dreaming of a past life...

Mystic was so into his majestic pose that I decided to do some manure-gathering to pass the time. When I left the arena to get the bucket and manure scoop, he craned his neck backward—but he didn’t leave his post. Like disgraced US President Richard Nixon, he wasn’t going to step down easily.

Kings have all day to sit on their thrones, and statues rest on their pedestals for eternity—but in my more modest world, other things need doing. After fifteen minutes passed, I gently asked Mystic to step off the pedestal: he exited his Zen paradise with good grace and remarkable agility. He faced me attentively, ready to embark on the next adventure. King Mystic was a commoner again, but a spark of royalty lingered in his eyes.

The Road to the Colt

James Cooler will compete in the SEFHA Colt Starting Invitational in Virginia on Nov. 12

Start polishing your boots and shopping for a crowd-worthy cowboy hat—on November 12 James Cooler will test his mettle in a Virginia colt-starting challenge. He’ll be competing against two other natural horsemanship trainers: Pam Tanner of Stokesdale, North Carolina, and Randy Abernathy of McKenney, Virginia.

Of course, everybody wins because the audience gets to watch top trainers put green horses under saddle in a day, the trainers get to do what they love best, and the colts get an AP course in compassionate horsemanship.

The challenge, modeled after the famed Road to the Horse, will take place in the Mars Riding Arena at Chatham Hall (trivia: Georgia O’Keeffe is a graduate) in Chatham, Virginia, from 8 am to 4 pm. Tickets are $15. The event is sponsored by the Southeastern Farriers & Horseowners Association (SEFHA).

The competition, whose working title is the SEFHA Colt Starting Invitational, is rife with threes: three trainers, three colts, three one-hour sessions (with a one-hour break between each), three side-by-side round pens. After completing all three sessions, the trainers will guide or ride their horses through an obstacle course. A five-judge panel will take the day’s work into consideration, looking for the most effective training techniques and greatest range of accomplishment. In the end, all those threes will narrow down to one horse-whispering winner.

I had the good fortune to meet the creators of this challenge, SEFHA founders Lisa Tuite and David Tuggle, when they came to Fiore Farms in mid-June to interview James and watch him play with his ten-year-old roan gelding, Indigo. At that point they’d narrowed the field to five competitors who fit the requirements: full-time, professional natural horsemanship trainers living within a two-hour driving radius of Chatham.

David Tuggle, Tom Seay, and Lisa Tuite

Lisa, a horse owner and enthusiast (and former aide to late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd), has a wide-open smile and infectious gusto for the upcoming colt challenge. She and David, her long-time farrier, came up with the idea of a regional colt-starting challenge two years ago while he was trimming her horses’ feet. It’s been a long time germinating, but they now have an airtight game plan for the invitational, down to the emcee: Tom Seay, host of RFD-TV’s Best of America by Horseback.

“It will be a really good group of strong competitors—ones we’d be happy to see people send their horses to for training,” Lisa explained. “We want to encourage people to practice natural horsemanship because it’s in the best interests of horses.”

On June 24 James received the call that he’d been chosen as a competitor. When he told me the news in a modest, understated way, I couldn’t help squealing (I’m not a squealer by nature) and giving him a congratulatory hug. That’s when he cracked the big smile, revealing the boyish enthusiasm that lies just beneath the surface of his grown-upness.

“Yeah, I’m really excited,” he said, his eyes twinkling.

Me too. Me too.