When I say Whoa, I Mean Whoa!
When I was a youngster, my parents were good friends with another couple active in the horse circles. They ran the local horse auction every Saturday night. Gene was a truck driver, rodeo rider, horse shoer, and a trainer. He also was and still is a consummate story teller.
Disclaimer: I can’t swear that the following tale is true. I’m relaying it here the way I heard it, and within the same context. I tell it strictly for entertainment purposes, and specifically do not recommend or advocate the training method employed in the story.
I was about 16 years old, and Gene had contracted to break and train a horse. He frequently did this, and usually boarded the horse with us for the training period. He knew we would take good care of the horse. He cut my Mom in for some of the proceeds of the contract. And he usually put me on the horse after a few days of ground-work. “Uncle” Gene was one of my childhood heroes. In exchange for helping him train horses, I could earn a few dollars and, more importantly, reap the benefits of his vast wisdom and remarkable tales.
As we finished up the day’s session with a young bay mare who was displaying some difficulty learning to stop on cue, I asked him how he planned to deal with her in the next few weeks. He said, “Well, we’ll be patient. She’ll get the hang of it. She’s young, and hasn’t really developed any bad habits, yet.”
“OK, but what if she had? What if she was already trained, but didn’t have any brakes? How would you correct her?”
Gene grew pensive for a few moments, then, as if he’d come to a decision, he started. “Let me tell you, son, about one I got just like that one time. This one was a black gelding, but like you said, didn’t have no brakes. I tried a hackamore. That didn’t work. I tried all different kinds of bits. He would work OK at a walk, but ‘soon as you got him into a canter or a run, he’d just run off with you and not stop ’til he got to the barn.” A grin spread across his face as he said, “I finally managed to break him, though.”
“How? What did you do?”
He knew he had me hooked, and he played the line a little. “I’m not sure I should tell you, boy. It’s kind of dangerous. Don’t want your Mother to skin me alive for getting her oldest boy busted up. Besides, there’s some do-gooders out there that might take exception to this particular trainin’ technique.”
“Aw, come on. I’m not going to do it, I just want to know what it is. And I won’t tell anyone, promise!”
“Why do you want to know?” he asked.
“In case I ever have to train a horse with no brakes!”
“I thought your weren’t going to do it, remember?”
I tried to reason with him. “What if I promise not to do it unless you’re there to help me?”
Uncle Gene appeared to mull this over. By this time we had walked the mare to cool her down, and were brushing her off while she enjoyed a bite of grain in her stall. “Well – OK. But remember – you can’t tell anyone, and you can’t do it unless I’m there to help. Agreed?”
“Yeah, sure!” I suspected the real reason he didn’t want me to tell anyone wasn’t because he was worried about do-gooders, but because he didn’t want me to ruin a good story of his. Do-gooders back then weren’t quite the P.I.T.A. they are now.
“OK. Like I said, that horse always wanted to run off back to the barn, and just would not stop. You could pull the rains in and holler ‘whoa’ ’til you turned blue in the face, and he’d just run right back into the barn. Finally, I had enough, and I tied a jacket around his head and blind-folded him.”
“You rode him blind-folded? How did that help?”
“Well, at first he wouldn’t go at all. Eventually, with some coaxing, he started moving forward, cautiously. After ‘while, he got braver, and just went wherever I pointed him, always at a walk. I did figure-eights, circles, and roll-backs with him until he was quite comfortable with the whole thing. Then I spurred him into a run. I gave him a chance to do it right, boy – I tried once to stop him, but he kept right on runnin’.”
Here he paused appraise my level of interest. Of course I was completely enthralled and impatient at the way he was dragging it out. “Well?? What happened next?”
“I had him heading right for the barn, ‘cept the barn door was closed. He didn’t know it, cause of the blind-fold, see? At a full gallop, heading right for the barn door, just before he hit the wall I said ‘Whoa!’ and stepped out of the saddle and hit the ground. That horse hit that barn at about 90 miles per hour! It’s a wonder he didn’t break his neck.”
“Wow. Was he hurt?”
“Well, he was sure shook up. Fell on the ground, he did, but got right up and stood there shakin’. I took the blind-fold off him, walked him around a little so he would calm down, then got on and rode him some more.”
“And?? How did he do?“
“Oh, from that point on, no matter if we were walking, trotting, cantering, or at a full out run, when I said ‘whoa’ he stopped instantly. If you weren’t ready for it, you’d fly right over his head, he stopped so short. In fact, he listened extra hard, just in case I said it quietly.”
So is the story true? Uncle Gene still says it is, and even at 70 years old, he’s not one I’d trifle with.