Talking to Horses | People & Places | Smithsonian

Talking to Horses

Stanford Addison uses intuition, compassion and persistence to "break" wild horses

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In the movie The Horse Whisperer, the mere sight of Robert Redford squatting thoughtfully in a meadow was enough to get a problem horse to shed its bad habits.

Stanford Addison gets horses to shed their bad habits all the time. But he doesn’t squat. He’s paralyzed. And though Addison is leery of being called a horse whisperer—a term "that’s been used so much it’s starting to sound phony," he says—he has a growing reputation as just that. Because he can’t work the horses himself, he works through his students—his young Native American neighbors, and outsiders who come to him for instruction.

"Stan Addison has something special," says Mari Carlin Dart, a lifelong horsewoman who was a runner-up in the "pleasure driving" category of the 1981 Quarter Horse World Championship. "It’s very organic and it comes from a very spiritual place, and that’s something you don’t see in the industry." His method, she says, is safer and more humane than traditional breaking—and it produces a happier horse.

On a hot, windy day in August, seven of us drove 7 hours from Boulder, Colorado, to Addison’s place on central Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, which is home to the Northern Arapaho—Addison’s tribe—as well as the Eastern Shoshone. Some members of our group planned to train horses under Addison’s tutelage. The horses wouldn’t emerge fully broken from the four-day clinic, but they would be "started"—introduced to saddle, bridle and rider.

We pulled up next to a corral by his house, a weathered, blue prefab three-bedroom surrounded by undulating plains of sagebrush, purple alfalfa and milkweed. Addison, 44, greeted us in an electric wheelchair, clad only in black socks and black nylon shorts. His limbs were slack and tanned. A black braid hung behind his upturned head. In a corral, a clutch of young, slender horses milled in the dust. They had spent their lives running free on the range. Until yesterday, that is. They moved restively, as flighty and fine-boned as caged birds.

Addison and his eight siblings grew up with horses. Like the white ranchers nearby, his father and grandfather broke horses brutally, letting them buck themselves to exhaustion, starving them or hobbling them—tying two legs together to hamper mobility and tire the animal. "It worked, but the hardest part was getting the horse to trust you again," says Addison.

Twenty-four years ago, Addison’s life changed. A truck he was riding in ran into a group of horses on a reservation road. The truck rolled three times. When the police arrived, Addison was pinned underneath. The rescuers jacked up the truck, but it slipped, severing Addison’s spinal cord. He was 20.

He spent two years in hospitals in Wyoming and Seattle. When he finally got home, he would wheel his chair up to the meanest, biggest guys he could find and antagonize them. "I wanted someone to murder me," he says. But his would-be killers wouldn’t oblige. Instead, they tended to burst into tears and tell him their problems. "Something," he says in retrospect, "was up."

Addison and his brothers continued to break horses the old way. Then a quarter horse he was particularly fond of had an accident. "A cowboy tied one hind leg to the horse’s neck, and the horse started throwing a tantrum. The other hind leg slipped on the mud, and the horse cracked its pelvis and couldn’t get up," he says. "So we had to put it down. After that I tried a better way, to see what was lacking. And what was lacking was communication."

Addison saw that when a horse puts its ears forward or drops its head or licks its lips, it is open to communication from humans. He saw that a person who approaches a horse head-on frightens it more easily than someone who approaches from the side, with head down. He saw that the best horsepeople are neither aggressive nor submissive.

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