In a Sow’s Ear
Exceptional talent in any individual is almost mystical. People with extraordinary gifts can inspire awe, amazement, admiration and wonder. Such is the case with horse trainers who seem to have special connections with the equine world. They speak horse.
Most of us can establish a friendship with our beloved chargers, but we all hope to do better, learn more, expand our horsey horizons.
These days “training” is the word used to describe teaching a horse how to behave, how to stand quietly, how to give to signals from reins and heels, how to enjoy carrying a rider.
In the “old days,” ranchers might hire “a bronc buster” to “break horses” for ranch use. The old-time bronc buster was known as a rough rider, bronc-peeler, bronc-twister or contract buster. He went from ranch to ranch and charged $5 for every horse he busted.
Busting horses wasn’t a cushiony life; the only benefits were three squares a day and a bunkhouse to live in. A buster had no company medical subsidies or insurance. He didn’t wear a plastic safety helmet on his noggin; he didn’t get lock-jaw shots; he didn’t wear sunscreen. If he got stove up that was his problem. A buster’s horse-breaking career lasted only a few years before injuries wore him out. Sometimes the violent jolting of the stiff-legged bucking broncs tore the buster’s lungs loose and he would spit blood after a few months.
Not all horses were broken to ride by having a cowboy hang on to a pitching animal till the horse gave up. Some were “Indian gentled.” These horses were particularly valued by cowboys. An Indian would rope a wild horse, put a halter on him, approach him gently trying to show that he was not going to be hurt. The Indian took days to get the horse used to being touched all over his body; get him used to having a blanket waved in his face; used to hisses and noises. Finally, the Indian would lay his arms across the horse’s back and pull himself up a little more each day. When finally, the Indian got on the horse’s back, the animal would move off without bucking.
Today’s horse trainer uses many of the Indian methods. Recently I attended a “horse clinic” at the Ellison Arena located in the Boulder River valley near McLeod, Mont., a town which has a post office and a population of approximately a dozen. With humor and amazing patience, the trainer, Spencer Dominick, worked magic with the horses and their riders. Throughout the three days of the clinic, he never lost his cool, his kindness or his smile.
“It’s always a learning process for me and the horse,” he said. “When a horse becomes able to listen to me, becomes able to take direction, achieves rhythm and balance, that’s good. If a horse moves off scared, I work with the fear till he moves relaxed and responsive.”
Spencer says he got into horse training when he was about 9 years old. Since his folks operated a dude ranch in Sunlight Basin in Wyoming, he had plenty of steeds to work with.
About his students, he says some people are intuitive ” naturally sensitive to what will work and what won’t with their horses. They don’t try to push the upset-button with their mounts.
Spencer says, “Being safe is my number one priority in any of my clinics, riding instructions or horse training.”
Spencer Dominick of Pokey Pines Ranch, Wilsall, Mont., travels with three of his own horses, a coal black, a copper-penny sorrel, and an angel-white gelding. I don’t know if he planned those hues or it just happened, but it’s obvious there’s a mutual love and admiration society between Spencer and his horses.
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