Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"

Throwing My Loop…    

By:  Michael Johnson


     What is it we want from the horse?  How do we elicit the highest level of performance from the one we are forced to call our partner?  After all, we must admit he is that.  Few of us could get close enough to a 250-pound calf to make a catch in the tie-down event.  We could hardly head the roping steer by ourselves, and even if we could, we certainly couldn’t pull him across the arena.  And reaching the dogging steer with only our legs churning would be impossible – no matter how hard they churned.  Even the most superficial analysis would have us all come to the same conclusion.  The better our horse, the better are we.  Having said that, the obvious question arises…what is the best way to teach him the “end game?”  Regardless of the event, we need the performance horse to be focused, calm, and spring from his center with willingness.  We need him to give us everything he has.  Some believe that lashing him across the butt is the best way. If Jesus hates anything, he hates that.  I’m not one of those.  A special friend taught me a better way.  To reach into the heart and mind of our partner – be that partner horse, human, or working stock dog, we must find a higher path – a better way.  How do we do that? 

     In the beginning, there was only one way to deal with horses – the old way.  The method and manner we were all taught by our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers.  And I do not believe this method had meanness or cruelty at its base, but rather an unquestionable belief – indeed, few of us would question what the men in our family taught us about horses – that control of the horse was vital.  When dealing with horses, firmness was an absolute foundation principle and required without exception in every conceivable circumstance.  Most of us in the horse world are so alike in one respect.  Before we had lived even a few years on the earth, we learned the “Eleventh Commandment.”  That commandment was, “Thou shall not let the horse win.” 

     This time-tested procedure of training horses we all learned took a familiar form regardless of where we were raised – and the procedure went something like this.  We were taught to leave horses alone until the beginning of their third year.  Then on a given day, a particular colt would be snubbed to a post in the center of the round pen.  After being saddled, the colt would be mounted, and then loosed.  This constituted the young horse’s first sustained human contact. 

     In the event he protested by bucking, we interpreted this as anger or meanness on the part of the horse – never did we suspect that his behavior might be caused by fear.  And if he bucked, we were instructed to ride him until he stopped.  Striking him was permissible and seen as our privilege; that right coming because our name could be found on the bill of sale or registration papers – therefore he was ours.  And we felt justified in doing whatever we deemed necessary to “break” the horse.

     The training for roping – and other performance horses – followed a similar unexamined procedure.  We ushered the horse into the box and began his training on the first day – indeed, on the first run.  We simply galloped after the intended target until the horse understood.  If he failed to understand in the time we allotted…striking him was permissible.  After all, how else could you teach him? 

     That was the method we learned - the old way – the best way – the only way.  Perhaps no one told us so in words, but that’s what we learned.  The “old way” is indelibly recorded in our mind due to the endless visual observations of the “training” we witnessed in our wonder years.  That’s what we learned when some significant other in our lives said, “Don’t let him get by with that.”  Or when we heard, “You’ve already started.  Even though the horse doesn’t want to, now you must continue until you make him do it.  You cannot let the horse win.” 

     That was the method I learned.  There was no meanness at its base, but more a question of practicality.  What other way was there?  What other methods would one use?  I believed in those methods all my days, and they seemed to work well.  I can never remember a failure.  And if I had a failure, the men on our farm had a ready response.  We simply rid ourselves of that particular horse because he was “not a good one.”  Then, I met a special horse – the horse called Shine.  I thought Shine was sent to me so I could be his teacher.  I had that backwards – he was sent to be mine.  Shine taught me a better way. 

     The first time I saw the big gray, something moved inside.  From the first moment I saw him, I knew this horse possessed the thing called greatness.  The rancher and current owner of Shine did not share my opinion…
     “Don’t buy him, Michael,” he warned.  “You won’t like him.”
     “And how much is he?” I repeated.
     “He’s been ridden only thirty days in his life,” he said.  “He was two then and abused during that time,” he said with sadness in his eyes.  “He’s five now, and no one has touched him for three years.  Don’t buy him, Michael.  He’s lost his trust in Man,” he warned again.
     Undaunted, I purchased the horse knowing my training methods and vast expertise would produce solid results quickly.  Unfortunately, no one told Shine what an expert I was.
     For two years and three months, I rode Shine every day.  At the end of that time – despite all my “expertise” – Shine was still the same frightened, distrustful creature he was on the first day.  Yet, my faith never wavered.  Still I knew.  Still I knew the horse possessed the thing called greatness. 

     Because I believed in him so, I picked myself up, and admitted to my arrogant stupidity.  That painful and humbling experience launched me on a quest to find men and women farther down the path than me…and I found them!  Because of those good souls – true horsemen we might call them – because they shared with me what they had learned, together we found the pieces to the puzzle of healing Shine.
     And I was right about the gray – except for one thing.  I always knew he possessed the thing called greatness, but once we found a path into the heart and mind of Shine, there was more greatness there than I ever imagined.

     How did we do it?  How and why did the transformation occur?  The 350-page novel and nine-hour audio book of Healing Shine is an attempt to explain and answer those questions, but so as not to appear mysterious, here are a few keys learned along the way that are still healing Shine – and healing me – ‘til this day…

·        When dealing with troubled horses – or any horse for that matter –       softness is the key.  There is no place for rushing and no place for force.  

·        “Your horse can’t be any better than you are as a person.”

                                                           -- Craig Hamilton

·        “As long as you remain ignorant of everything there is to know about horses, you will always be welcome in the presence of great horsemen.”

                                                                 -- Bronc Fanning

·        And finally, the most important key I learned that helped me with Shine…“I always thought Shine was the problem.  Shine was never the problem. The problem was always…me.”

                                                                 -- Michael Johnson

     The secret to healing Shine was softness and love.  May sound a little corny, and some have laughed at me for saying so - but I could care less.  The fact that my Shine-Man isn’t sick any more is worth far more than whether anyone thinks I’m a “real” cowboy or not.  I should have remembered what a little girl said long ago.  She was hiding in the attic from the Nazis when she wrote these words in her diary at the age of fourteen.  Even though she was so young, she knew the secret to reaching into the hearts and minds of those around us – be they horse, human, or working stock dog.  Later, the soldiers would take her life - but still we remember the words she wrote - and the key to healing Shine… 

 “In the long run, the most powerful weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit.”

-- Anne Frank
 Saturday, July 15, 1944


Ed. Note – Michael Johnson’s Healing Shine – A Spiritual Assignment was named “Best Audio Book” of the 2007 Hollywood Book Festival, and “First Runner-Up” at the 2007 New York Book Festival.  Read more of the author’s seven-year spiritual journey with the great – but severely troubled - roping horse called Shine at michaeljohnsonbooks.com


Michael's latest release, Reflections Of A Cowboy, is currently available in audio book form. The two volume set consists of articles, essays and excerpts from radio performances about good people and good horses in the life of an Oklahoma cowboy. Approximately 8 hours in length. Reflections Of A Cowboy in printed form is scheduled for release in the summer of 2005. Order from Michael's website.

Michael heading for the great Sonny Gould

Michael & Blue

Healing Shine


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