Spending time with horses can be the most rewarding experience in the world, but it can also be one of the most trying, especially if you do not know what you are doing. In the movies, it always looks so natural. After all, horses have been a part of the American landscape for centuries and it is easy to get caught up in the fantasy. For local horse whisperer, Gerry Coleman, his first impression was no different.
When a friend invited him on a pack trip into the wilderness, Gerry had no horse experience whatsoever. “I thought, ‘Oh, you just get on the horse, point and go. How tough can this be?’” he recalls. “Well, I found out later it’s not quite that way. I just happened to have a really nice horse.”
It was not until Gerry entered his retirement and needed an outlet to help him relax that he really started to take a second look at these majestic animals. “I let the horse teach me, and when I would do something, and the horse would just walk away, obviously that wasn’t the right thing to do. So, I would think about it and try something different. Eventually, I found what worked, and I began to learn their communication,” he explains.
Surprisingly, this knowledge did not come from working with his own horses. Gerry has never even owned one. Instead, he volunteers his free time to help other people and their horses . When I ask if he follows a particular school of thought on working with horses, he says he pulls from a variety of resources. “You need a toolbox of experiences to help you know what tool to grab that will work in each situation.” It is true, because a flathead screwdriver is not going to work when you need a Phillips head.
On any given day, you can find Gerry at Sherman Valley Ranch, a local horse boarding facility near Capital Forest. He might be cleaning stalls, checking water troughs or just hanging out and observing the different horses in their herds. In fact, he is kind of the resident welcome wagon, ready to help new horses and people settle in.
On the afternoon we moved our own horses to the ranch, he was more than eager to grab his lunch, pull up a chair in the pasture and just spend some time getting to know our two Thoroughbreds. “The more that you can observe these guys, the more you’re going to learn. And the more you’re going to be able to effectively communicate with them. One of the very first things you have to get them to understand is that you’re the leader and you’re the source of comfort and security.”
I will be the first to say I wondered, “Who is this guy?” upon introduction, but I quickly realized Gerry has a gift – one he is willing to share. In just a short time, he had formed a connection with my horses similar to the bond I have worked for years to create. “It’s not hard to learn their language, and once you do it makes your interactions with the horse so much easier.”
Of course, Gerry makes it look so easy. “You get to the point where you start understanding what they are thinking, and you can anticipate what they’re going to do. And they can anticipate what you’re going to do and it just sort of meshes together. It takes a long time to get there, but when you do it’s really special.”
Gerry explains that all horses speak the same language, it is just a matter of learning and putting it to use. You have to communicate to them like they talk to each other. I have struggled with my own horses, but recently, through Gerry, I have found it was as if they were speaking Spanish, and I was trying to tell them what to do in English. “The subtleties of how they communicate are fascinating because it can be something so small. It can be a look, the ears, the head position, the way their muscles tense up. Ninety-five per cent of their communication is body language, and when you understand that it goes a long way to helping you interact with the horse. And they’re always talking,” Gerry says with a smile.
So often I have been guilty of simply wanting to get in the saddle and go for a ride, but I have learned there is much more to building a relationship with a horse before your feet ever leave the ground. “You want to always do what’s in the best interest of the horse. It may not be easy for you, but it’s what’s best for them and that should be the goal,” Gerry explains as we take Cilantro, one of the resident horses, for a walk.
It is obvious that Cilantro and Gerry share a special bond. That is something I hope to one day create with my own horses, but it is going to take work. Lucky for me, Gerry will be there to help. Even on this windy, rainy, cold day he is still at the ranch, because there is always more to be done. “I’m still learning and I’m going to be learning until the day that I die. They still have plenty to teach me.”