Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I believe!

Now when you read the title of this post I'd appreciate it you would inject a "southern Baptist preacher calling from his pulpit a declaration of faith with enough force and conviction to shake the window panes!" accent into its enunciation.... for theatrical effect. Throwing your hand up in the air is strictly optional.

What am I talking about? The Gurus. The Gods. The.... HORSE TRAINERS!! *insert scary music from the infamous shower scene in the movie Psycho!* Don't know what I am talking about? Click here)

Last year I was a horse expo called the Mane Event- a collection of horse related trade booths, breed exhibitors, and a forum for local trainers and out of town gurus to strut their stuff in various demos and clinics. I really enjoy Mane Event and have always come away up a few ideas and down a few dollars.

One of the attractions that draws the largest crowds is an event called "The Trainers Challenge". Three professional trainers draw a colt each, (all unbroke geldings or mares off the same ranch, with similar breeding, conformation and temperament) and are allotted an even number of timed one hour sessions over the course of the weekend in which to break out their colts. On Sunday night the expo is closed with a competition to see who has managed to put the best handle on their colt by testing them at various maneuvers (standing quietly to be saddled and mounted, lope both directions, over poles, load in a trailer, etc.) Its all very exciting, very political and the choice of winner is often controversial. The trainers use this forum to demonstrate their techniques and ultimately solicit clients and sell DVDs. They also have to walk a fine line between pushing their colt hard enough to get results (and look good) but not too hard (so they look like a bully!)

The Mane Event has brought many well respect clinicians from around the US and Canada (Van Hargis, Steve Rother, Jay O'Jay etc.) to compete but one of the main stays has been a local trainer named Doug Mills. I'd like to make clear that I have absolutely nothing against Doug Mills, whatsoever. He seems like a nice guy, a good trainer, and his clients all seem very devote. Which brings me to my point. This post isnt about his methods, the Trainers Challenge or how many times he's won the event (3) or if he deserved to (which is open to speculation). This post is about his "believers".
We've all seen it, a local (or not so local) Guru who can do no wrong and who's God like stature in the equine community draws a fervent crowd wherever he goes. That's Doug.

So last year I settled into to watch the trainers challenge, wedged cheek to jowl in the stands around a round pen, when Doug Mills stepped in to begin his session. I wasn't surprised when the rafters shook with frenzied excitement, or that the crowds had swollen to double it's size since the last "outsider" trainer had started his session... or even that the judges had sat up in their chairs with renewed interest. I expected all of that. Because this was Doug Mills, our local hero.

Now part of the trainers score during the "training" sessions actually comes down to how well the clinician manages to communicate his techniques and if he keeps the audience's attention while keeping both his methods and language simple enough for his disciple's to understand. So Doug walks in to the pen and starts working with this colt, all the while chanting away about what he is doing and why, being his usual engaging and charming self when I noticed that a woman in front of me was taking each of his speculative questions and answering them as if he had spoken to her directly.
For example:

Doug: "Now do you see how Dusty clenched his tail there and braced up while I was throwing that there blanket over him?"

Lady in front of me: "Yes! He sure did."

Doug: "What do we want to do about that? Should we keep approaching it the same way or draw back a little?"

Lady: "Draw back! Right?" *nodding her head in wonder*

And so it went. But she wasn't the only one. Oh no! It was then that I noticed how the majority of the crowd was nodding along or calling out answers as well. You might be asking, "Well, whats wrong with that? Clearly he is a good clinician and has engaged his audience?" And I would say you're right....except... you must take into account the zombie like, glass eyed looks on the faces of my fellow horsemen and the sense of zeleous devotion that permeated the air around me with a freaky cult like atmosphere... Somehow I felt that, had Doug asked his "people" to stand up and dance like a chicken, they just might comply. 'Cause these people- they'd drunk Doug's Cool-Aid.

Sounds far fetched, right?

Well let me tell you when I decided to cut tail and run. Doug's colt had a break through! I heard a faint but distinct Hallelujah come from the small, gray haired lady in front of me. Just then Doug the Prophet exclaimed some sentiment of a deep, intellectual, universal truth... something Ray Hunt-esc like "let your idea become the horses idea" which the crowd sighed and mumbled words of affirmation. As if they had just become enlightened to some Divine truth. Doug nodded his head solemnly and called to the audience... "Can I get an AMEN to that?"

His believers called back, in perfect harmony, "AAAAAY-MEN!!!"


Ray Hunt

August 31, 1929 - March 12, 2009
One of the founding fathers of natural horsemanship, a God and Guru in his own right, passed away March 12th. Ray Hunt inspired people to change the way they related to horses. I am grateful that he was able to make the impact that he did on our psyche as horsemen, though he was the first to admit that he didn't do it for us. In his own words- "I'm here for the horse- to help him get a better deal."


  1. I know nothing about horses or training them.Have not been on a horse in about 15 years. Never had a horse. Working in the library I see the "Pat Perille" System (SP)I think thats his name.) It's a hot item and a long list of people that want it. What do you think about him?

  2. I think part of the devotion to our 'local heroes' is simply because they are just that. They're local so we almost 'feel' closer to them, and they've succeeded. I don't often find myself feeling 'star struck', but am amazed at the number of people that are. It's quite commical really! I'm glad I'm not the only one that doesn't feel the need to bow down and kiss their feet! I have every respect for trainers that do things well, and do them safely without causing harm to themselves or the animal. What I DONT understand is when there is a reputable trainer, that has been proven to or someone has witnessed them abusing their horse unnecesarily, or being extremely forceful with the animal, yet they STILL have that awe struck following..... It doesn't make sense to me...

  3. That's creepy! We had a guy kinda like that at the first barn I boarded at. He told me that the Arab I owned at that time was full of fire and just down right vicious. Ok, the Very Tall Arab was a 3 yr old going through the sillies. He never once hurt me or anyone else. However, because he said it, everyone believed Arabs were the root of all evil. Everyone else there owned stock horses. Needless to say, we moved our pony, and were happier for it.

    We have the the NW Horse Expo here just about 45 minutes south of me. It's this coming weekend and everyone's talking about the colt starting competitions in which they use Mustangs from the BLM. I imagine it's something similar to what you described. Wish I was going this year, but it's just not in the finances.

  4. Holy Cow - I agree, it is slightly cultish. Case in point - I know a woman, whose a very good horseman in her own right, who because her trainer told her to - injected her horses dock (top of tail) so it would carry it's tail flat. Result - perma poopy bum and burns. To be honest it quite baffled me how a normally sane person could do something so wack (in my opinion) because someone told them to. Great post today - too bad the people who should read it probably won't...

  5. Thanks for the Ray Hunt tribute. That hit home made my heart sink yes but lifted it as well - maybe we (horses too) haven't all lost something after all,

  6. Dude...people are that creepy about everything these days!

    I've always thought the worst thing that can happen to anything, a good event, a good trainer a good to get popular.

    On Ray Hunt-God Bless him! I never met the man and he completely changed my perspective of how to work with horses.

  7. You find this in every industry - people seek a leader like horses do.

    Ironic, right?

    Then when they find one, they follow them right over a cliff.

    It's the same phenomenon that explains the clothes and hair we had in the 80s.


  8. I laughed when I read your post! I too have noticed the cult-like nature that engulfs spectators at these events. I attended the NW Horse Fair and Expo this weekend and saw a few of the competitors in the Extreme Mustang Challenge that Oregonsunshine refered to in her comment. What I saw was a hord of people whooting and hollering for the trainer who could ride the fastest, spin the fastest, and stand on the horses back. Many of the moves were sloppy and/or haphazard, but the audience booed if a score below an eight was given by the judges.

    The trainer I like best was doing his first challenge. He didn't bring a single prop. The little chestnut mare he rode was solid. Not 100% accurate, but she was good and honest. I felt like I knew exactly what I'd be buying if I bought that mare.