Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR
After bucking and shying, the troublesome horse receives a pat — a reward for quieting down.
After bucking and shying, the troublesome horse receives a pat — a reward for quieting down. Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR
Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR
Real-life horse whisperer Grant Golliher with his wife, Jane, and "buddy" Freckles, who helps him train unbroken horses.
Grant Golliher is a special kind of horse whisperer: he subdues wild horses with gentleness and a dash of spirituality.
And true to form, he's made for Hollywood: about 6 feet tall and trim, with rough, leathery hands, silver hair and piercing blue eyes. He wears buttery tan chaps and a white 10-gallon hat.
As Golliher enters a round pen at a county fair in Jackson, Wyo., a chestnut horse bolts away, bucking and screaming. The cowboy pays no heed; instead he hoses down the pen so the horse won't kick up dust.
'Show 'Em Who's Boss'
He tells the four dozen spectators sitting on bleachers that he's been breaking horses since he was a kid.
"And we did things the old way, I call it," he says. "Make 'em do it, show 'em who's boss. If they give you any grief, whack 'em with a two-by-four. Get their attention."
Over the years, he ruined a bunch of talented horses that way, he says. One horse strangled himself with his rope trying to get away.
But a quarter century ago, Golliher met Ray Hunt, one of the original horse whisperers, who tamed horses by building trust not fear.
Golliher mounts Freckles, a gray horse he calls his "buddy," and begins to chase around the chestnut.
"Now, what I'm going to do is go ahead and drive these horses around a little bit," he says, as the horse lets loose a bucking spree. "This horse is troubled. He's a 5-year-old. He's been ridden quite a bit, but lately he's been bucking off his rider — his owner."
If Golliher can't cure his bucking, he says, the horse could end up at the slaughterhouse.
The cowboy shakes a white plastic bag attached to a long crop — he calls it his "flag" — and touches it to the horse's flank. The chestnut snorts, his eyes bulge. But — and this is key — the horse is not tied up. He knows he can run away.
And that's the secret of horse whispering, Golliher says: giving a horse the chance to make the right choices.
"If the horse won't come to you, you don't capture him, you don't rope him and choke him down," he explains. "You let him know he's free, let him know he still has the freedom to choose whether to come to you or not, see. And that's the relationship with God."
Odd talk for a cowboy perhaps. But Golliher applies spiritual principles to his horse training — and horse whispering principles to life.
Discipline And Love
In the round pen, the chestnut has stopped running but is dancing around, clattering against the fence in an attempt to avert the flag. Golliher persists.
"I'm going to keep pressing the issue until we get some change here," Golliher says.
Golliher follows the chestnut around the pen, tapping the plastic flag on his haunches and forcing the horse to face his fear. The horse finally stops.
"There," he says, removing the flag and stroking the horse's neck with his hand. Golliher then walks toward the audience, and the horse follows.
Golliher says this is tough love.
"Love is great," he says. "But love without discipline is abuse. Discipline goes along with love. I love you enough when you make a mistake, I'll bring it up. We're going to try to deal with it."
Golliher sees this as a metaphor for how God works with people.
"Hebrews, Chapter 12 says God disciplines those he loves," he says later. "And when we go the wrong way, he has his way through life circumstances, we run into trouble. God steps in and starts waving his flag," he says. "So to me, this is just the Bible opening up through God's creation — which is a horse."
In the corral, Golliher has a decision to make. It would be a good time to end the session with the chestnut. But he opts to press a little further. With one swift move, Golliher mounts the horse and reaches for his flag.
"Now, if he was to buck, I just need to stay on," he says. "If I can."
A Horse Is A Mirror
The horse dances around, his hooves in constant motion. But he doesn't buck. Soon the horse settles into a calm walk. Golliher reaches down and rubs his chest.
"See him lick his lips?" he asks. "That's a good sign. That means he feels good about what just happened. Horses really love you when you help them get through their fear."
The crowd murmurs with amazement. Afterwards, people rush up to seek his advice.
Golliher says what astounds him most is not the changes in the horses, but in the people who watch and practice horse whispering. Some abused women have told him they see themselves in the skittish horses. Some men begin to use gentleness rather than fear in their relationships.
Horse whispering, Golliher says, gives people insight into themselves.
"The horse is just a mirror," he says. "He's just trying to tell us, 'Let me show you how to live.'"