The Horse Whisperer
Teach the person first, says trainer Scott Thomson, and the horse will follow.
Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder
Scott Thomson stands motionless in front of his horse. He raises his shoulders slightly, and the horse seems to come to attention. He then looks at the horse's leg and the horse responds by moving it. He shoots another look at the equine's huge flank and the horse turns aside. The man relaxes his posture and the horse responds by planting all four feet and settling into a similarly relaxed stance, a sort of "at ease" for horses.
Scott Thomson and his horse of seven years, Cody, which Thomson calls "living proof that this method works." After years of being "mishandled by other humans," Thomson says, Natural Horsemanship has turned the horse's life and behavior around.
They say that if you really want someone to pay attention, whisper. Thomson is, in a way, whispering to his horse, giving instructions through the subtlest of movements.
Thomson is a professional trainer who uses a method called "Natural Horsemanship." But it's not really the horses he trains; it's the humans who ride and handle them. As the slogan on his business card puts it, "Teach the person first and the horse will follow."
"I consider myself a teacher of people, not horses," Thomson says. "It's all about learning how to keep yourself safe around these very large and potentially dangerous animals. Knowing where to put yourself is step one. Understanding how the horse thinks and responds is what tells you where to stand."
If all this sounds like horse psychology, well, it is. And Thomson gives his human students a heavy dose of it. In order to handle your horse, he says, you first have to understand how it thinks — what he calls adopting a "horse-centric view" of the world.
"This method isn't about 'breaking' a horse," Thomson explains. "It's about understanding your animal, building a relationship with it, a relationship based in trust and respect — the horse has to come to respect you — and communicating in a language the horse understands."
He subtly changes his posture and the 12-year-old quarter horse, Cody, seems to come to a heightened state of attention and then takes a step backward. Thomson again instantly relaxes his stance and Cody goes into its "at ease" mode.
"Cody is living proof that this stuff works," Thomson says with an added touch of determination in his delivery. "I was his ninth owner by the time he was just five years old. Ninth! Cody paid a dear price for all those tough humans who handled him."
When Thomson first took Cody to the vet, they discovered the horse was riddled with ulcers. A strong course of medication, a change in diet and pasturing, along with a heavy dose of TLC brought Cody back to health.
Then natural horsemanship training could come into the picture. "Cody had to learn that the best place to be is next to me," Thomson says. "It's taken years, but that's what I've been able to convince him. He knows now, 'If I'm with Scott, I get to rest, I'm safe.'"
Thomson and his wife, Alana Heckert, moved to Silver City last year from the state of Washington. Their nine-acre property came with a few outbuildings, "one of which was just perfect, just the way it was," Thomson says with a wry laugh. The rest needed some work, he admits.
He's built an entirely new barn and massively renovated a couple of the other buildings. He's also installed several riding areas and turnout pens, including a 155-by-175-foot arena and a 60-foot-diameter round pen. The new fencing he's had erected, he says, is the safest around.
"It's a mental rather than a physical barrier," he explains. "It's electrified, so they know to stay away, but if something spooks them and they go wild, the fence will break under pressure so they don't hurt themselves."
And now, having painstakingly set up his property to a level of some of the best training facilities in the country, he's ready to start training again. Thomson says, "I'm finally getting back into what I moved here to do."
Thomson gives a quick primer in Horse Psych 101, explaining how equines function in a herd hierarchy. "There's a number-one position, usually an alpha mare, that leads the herd," he explains. "The number-two position is at the rear, actually. That's usually a stallion, and that horse drives the herd." A horse's survival depends on having good leaders and respecting the hierarchy.
"You have to earn your horse's respect," Thomson emphasizes. "You have to earn that number-one position. By challenging you, the horse is asking you, 'Are you capable to lead me? Can you keep me safe?' Remember, the horse is a prey animal, not a predator. Respecting the hierarchy is what it knows to keep itself safe."
When the human understands this and can communicate with the horse, he says, the human becomes a safer, better rider. In turn, the horse becomes a happier animal, knowing its safety is assured.
A high-level advertising executive for many years, Thomson studied the Natural Horsemanship method, sometimes called "Universal Horsemanship," back in the 1990s. It's a technique made famous by the 1995 novel The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans and the 1998 movie adaptation starring Robert Redford; devotees of Natural Horsemanship, however, sometimes criticize the film's portrayal of their technique as too coercive.
Thomson took a progression of clinics — classes from nine days to 90 days — offered at the Reis Ranch, a famous training facility in Penngrove, Calif. At his first clinic, he was asked to take a horse into the ring and interact with it. "After about 10 minutes, he (the instructor) asked me how long I'd been working with horses like this," Thomson recalls. "I said, 'About 10 minutes now.' He couldn't believe it. He said, 'You have a real gift.'"
The two men talked about the session and decided that, for one thing, Thomson's years as a semi-pro basketball player had given him a certain style of movement and honed his perception in a way that was ideally suited to working with horses.
"In basketball, it's all about angles. You learn to see them and to move your body accordingly," Thomson explains. "You have to develop what's called 'soft eyes,'" which he describes as a sort of diffuse focus that allows one to see the whole field of vision equally, sort of focusing on nothing so you can see everything.
"The fact that I had a certain amount of grace, that I knew how to move my body, well, the training just came natural to me," he says.
Thomson turned out to have such a style with the training, and was so successful with his horse, that he became a frequent feature on RFD-TV, a cable channel aimed at a rural audience. "I was on the show a lot," he says. "I'd say I was on once a week for maybe six or seven months. They filmed the clinics, and then they made a lot of TV shows out of that footage."
But you don't have to possess Thomson's basketball size, sports background and musculature to command a horse. His more diminutive wife also practices Natural Horsemanship and capably leads Revere, her five-year-old Morgan. And many of his students have been women and girls, certainly lacking his strength and size.
Thomson started up and ran a Natural Horsemanship business for three years back in Washington. "I had a great horse practice," he recalls. "I had over 50 students and a six-month waiting list. I was doing clinics and had training offers at three barns."
But the great Northwest is, well, wet. "We couldn't drain our property to make it acceptable for riding. It could never be the kind of facility we wanted it to be. It was just so frustrating," he says.
The climate and wide-open spaces of southwest New Mexico seemed the perfect place to land, its concentration of people who love and work with horses a good pool of potential students.
Thomson has worked with students as young as 12 years old as well as plenty of senior citizens, some in their mid-70s. "A lot of (the adult) students are getting back into horses. They used to ride as a kid, and now they find they're afraid to get up there in that saddle," he says. "Well, face it, as we get older, we can get hurt a lot more easily from things we just shook off when we were younger!"
He offers a variety of Natural Horsemanship riding and handling instruction. And though he's got this top-notch facility, he goes to clients' homes to work with them and their horses on the equines' familiar turf.
"It can be counterproductive if I work with them here in this nice pasture, and then they take the horse home and they have very different conditions," he says.
Ground School sessions, in which human students learn to gain their horse's respect and learn the body language signals, run about two hours. "We always end on a high point," Thomson says. "If we achieve that a little before the two hours is up, we stop there. If we haven't yet reached that high point in two hours, we'll go a little longer until we get there."
Straight riding lessons, he says, are usually under one hour. "That's how long they can usually take it," Thomson says. "I mean the humans, not the horses!"
Thomson works with clients to match them with the proper horse, both in terms of what they can handle and what their horsemanship goals are. He trains new riders, people with a fear of horses, and women with health issues.
"I've worked with women who have had a mastectomy, and so they may have less strength on one side or the other. You have to be balanced and equal in what you are communicating to the horse, so if you can't raise the stick (a training prop) as high with that arm, it becomes a miscommunication," he explains. "I have to come up with a way for the student to compensate for that."
To demonstrate, he picks up a stick with a plastic grocery sack attached to the end. As he does so, his horse Cody comes to attention.
"The day they're born, horses know everything they need to know to be a horse," Thomson says. "The one thing they don't know, and what you need to teach them if you're going to handle them effectively, is how to softly yield to pressure."
He explains the levels of pressure he puts upon the horse, and how the horse learns to take this as instruction. The first level is "ask." By making himself look bigger, Thomson is giving the first level of "pressure." To demonstrate, he adopts the raised-shoulder pose that makes him look bigger and looks at Cody's flank. The horse immediately turns aside.
"If he gives me what I want, I immediately relax that pressure on him," Thomson says, and relaxes his posture again. The horse responds in kind. "I'll also give him a reward, usually stroking him on his withers like his mama did when she cared for him."
He touches the horse tenderly, affectionately.
"Or he may resist me and pin his ears back, in which case I ratchet the pressure up a notch," Thomson says.
That next level is "suggest."
"That's when I would raise the stick," Thomson says. "He may do what I ask, and then I would release that pressure, again immediately, as soon as he shows me he's going to do what I'm asking. But if he resists again, say he curls his lip or even starts to come at me, then I give him the 'promise.' That's when I give him a 'bite,' and that's a good smack with the stick."
The stick is one of the few specialized props Thomson uses. He also has a huge blue bouncy ball that is used in special training.
"The ball simulates the pressure of a crowd. It's big, it moves funny, and it can make noise," he explains. "Police horses, horses in fairs or parades, they have to be able to move in a crowd or perform with a crowd nearby and not get spooked." And the way a horse learns to tolerate the ball's presence, he says, is by knowing their human has the situation under control. It's that trust in the hierarchy thing again. Have you shown your horse that you are capable of leading, that you can keep it safe?
If all this starts to seem a bit esoteric — all you want to do, after all, is go trail riding and not get thrown off your horse — Thomson is quick to assuage those doubts.
"This is foundational stuff. It applies to all horses, no matter what you want to do with them. Once you can communicate this way with your horse, and he understands that you are boss and he accepts your leadership, then you can get that horse to do what you want or need it to do. You'll be a better, safer trail rider."
Thomson draws attention to the size of a horse's head, and the damage it can do simply by jerking up suddenly, perhaps smashing its human handler in the face, maybe breaking his nose. He holds out a bridle and gives Cody a light touch on the back of the neck. The horse immediately lowers its head and lets Thomson put the bridle on it.
"He's letting me do this, lowering his head for me, because he knows he can trust me to protect him," Thomson says. He climbs easily into the saddle. "I always mount from this side," he says. Once again, consistency of communication. Both horse and human know what to expect, thanks to the language they have developed between them.
He rides up and down the ring a couple of times, showing how Cody immediately responds to his subtle cues — a shift of his carriage in the saddle, slight pressure from one leg or the other. He takes off the horse's bridle and shows how Cody is guided without signals from reins.
Thomson asks his wife to hand him two of the training sticks. He goes up and down the ring again with Cody, raising one stick, then the other, then both just into the horse's field of vision. The horse responds by stopping, turning, going straight ahead. Using only the sticks — again, no reins — Thomson pulls the horse up to a stop. Cody stands at a relaxed sort of attention, resting yet ready for the next instruction.
"Watch this," Thomson says. "Just watch his legs."
With only the subtlest shifts in the saddle, giving cues with the movement of the sticks, Thomson instructs the horse to move its legs in a sort of equine dance. Cody crosses one of its huge hind legs underneath its body and begins to move sideways. It crosses a front leg under to take another graceful step. Thomson has the horse keep this up for several paces, then has Cody repeat the motion in reverse, bring it back to the original position. Thomson shifts in his seat and relaxes the sticks, and the horse once again settles into his four-planted-feet "at ease" mode.
Thomson pauses in the saddle and looks down at his horse. "It's like a fishbowl, if you can imagine this. There are black balls and there are white balls. The black balls are the bad things that happened to him. Those things are in there, and they just never come out.
"The white balls are the good things. I've been shoving white balls in there for seven years now. That's all I do with him, is to heap on the positive experiences. Every now and then, one of those black balls will pop up and show itself to me. Those are his tendencies. They're just there," Thomson says. "All I can do is add to the good things. That's my job in this relationship."
Thomson dismounts. "I want to show you something," he says.
He walks with the horse to the far side of the round pen, varying his pace, the horse keeping perfectly even with him. Then he breaks into a run, and Cody runs right alongside him. Thomson abruptly stops, but the horse keeps on a step or two, looks at Thomson and then walks away.
"Oh, that's a black ball," Thomson says with a laugh.
He gives an "ask" instruction and Cody returns to him. They run again, Thomson again varying the pace, then stopping abruptly. This time the horse stops on a dime.
Scott Thomson is accepting new students for Ground School,
horse handling, natural riding clinics and
individual instruction. 388-1830
Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.