Talking to Horses

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

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.

"If you’re selfish, you disconnect, and if you give too much, you disconnect," he says. "If you’re good to yourself and the horse, that’s communication."

On the first morning of our clinic, Addison sat in a square of shade outside a round corral. We were joined by a half-dozen or so young Native Americans who regularly come to Addison’s to learn about horses and to be in his stabilizing presence. (As an example, Addison, divorced in 2001, is raising his ex-wife’s two sons, 18 and 16, and an adopted daughter, 7.) He manages to tell jokes, field calls on a cordless phone and train horses all at the same time.

Paula McCaslin stood in the ring with a light gray Arabian mare who had led her Arapaho pursuers on a 30-mile chase two days before. Today, the mare kept trying to crawl under the corral fence. Addison spoke to McCaslin in short, repetitive sentences.

"Make her run," Addison said.

"Yah!" McCaslin hollered. "Yah!" The mare broke into a trot. Eventually, she stopped and, ears pricked forward, looked at McCaslin. "That’s the kind of look you want," said Addison. "When she’s ready to communicate, she’ll drop her head." Sure enough, that’s what the mare did. But as McCaslin approached, she turned away.

"OK, make her run," said Addison.

As the horse trotted past, he explained, "I’m making it so the horse can rest only when she’s paying attention to Paula." He was satisfied with how it was going. "She’s seeing that Paula’s not in there to hurt her or threaten her," he said. "And she’s a smart horse too; she’s in there thinking."

Within an hour, McCaslin was stroking the wild mare. Next, she haltered the horse and clipped her to a "hang line," a rope threaded through a ring firmly attached to a cable strung tight about 12 feet above the corral.

This is the centerpiece of Addison’s technique. The mare was tied just tightly enough that she could stand comfortably only when directly below the ring. If she stood off to the side—or reared, or otherwise resisted—the line pulled her head uncomfortably. The hang line had the added benefit of being far enough from the fence that she wouldn’t hurt herself if she made a fuss. After some wrangling, she stood as alert and relaxed as a show horse.

Then McCaslin stroked her with a strip of tarp attached to a long pole. Addison explained that "tarping" prepares the horse for any human-caused movement—flapping raincoats and the like. The mare twitched at first, but soon got used to it. That done, McCaslin petted, leaned against, hugged and draped herself over the mare. Within three hours of picking the untamed mare out of the group in the holding corral, she was riding the horse.

I was so transfixed by the process, by how quickly that mare started to trust McCaslin, that I decided to train a horse too. I went into the corral, Addison rolling alongside me. Remembering that he’s also a spiritual leader whose twice-weekly sweat lodges attract people from around the world, I was half expecting some shamanistic insight on which horse to choose. But he said only, "Which one do you want?" I pointed to a compact black stallion.

I picked him because he was beautiful. I also picked him because he was—as stallions go—small. I was scared. When I was 7, my mother bought a pony for me and my older sister. His name was Bobby. He had the body build of a big ball and the soul of a mercenary. Bobby had an affinity for a holly tree into which he deposited me with enough regularity that I still dream about it. We sold him when I was 9. Since then, I had ridden only half a dozen times—always on the oldest, slowest horse I could find. The black stallion read my past perfectly and proceeded to treat me with total disrespect.

"Make him run," said Addison, dragging on a cigarette from one of the two packs of Kool Filter Kings he smoked that day.

But the stallion ignored my "yahs," my claps and my attempts to slap him on the butt with the lead rope. He stopped. He turned his butt to me. He whinnied to his friends. I looked to Addison, but he was silent. Some 15 people watched. The stallion walked, stopped and occasionally broke into a desultory trot. I waved my arms at the horse and wished the ground would open up and swallow me whole.

"You’re too accommodating," Addison called. "He’s training you to run."

"I’m terrified," I called back. But Addison wasn’t letting me off the hook.

"You’ll do OK," he said.

At the side of the corral sat a rangy, silver-haired woman named Jeannie Ash, who had moved to Boulder after a car accident brought to a halt a 30-year career training ranch horses, show horses and riding horses in Nevada. She stood up gravely. "Yeah, let Jeannie give it a try," said Addison.

Ash climbed through the fence, drew herself to her full 5-foot-11 height, and slapped the ground with the lead rope as if she were Zeus and the rope a lightning bolt. All of us, including the stallion, snapped to. I faded to the side of the corral. Ash whacked the horse on the butt with the rope, and he started to run. Within a few minutes—his ears pricked forward with anticipation—he was looking at Ash while she stroked his nose.

"Your turn," said Addison.

I walked over. The stallion regarded me with considerably less enthusiasm than he had Ash, but he let me rub his nose. Miraculously, I put the halter on him without incident.

We broke for the night.

The next day, things progressed more smoothly, and soon I was mounting the horse. Addison’s directions took on the repetitive nature of a chant. "Do it again," he said every time the stallion flinched or spun. "Get back on," he said every time I got off.

The horse had to learn to accept me and that I wouldn’t hurt him. I had already learned that nothing would dissuade Addison. The heat and the repetition bled away my internal arguments.

Let me say right here that only one of the 90 or so people Addison has talked through his process has suffered more than a rope burn, a bump on the rear end or a nip on the arm. That person was 14-year-old Annelise Bianchini of Boulder, who visited in the fall of 2002, got bucked off and sailed ten feet through the air before landing and briefly blacking out. ("I was scared," she said later, "and the horse got that.") Her mother, Sharon, watched as Addison sat with Annelise after the accident. Would she let her daughter do it again? "Oh yes," says Sharon. "No question."

Horsewoman Mari Carlin Dart is "incredibly impressed" by Addison’s safety record. Still, "it’s a dramatic-looking process," she says. "It’s scary. Eleven hundred pounds goes straight up in the air when a horse gets scared."

Indeed. Back in the corral, I mounted the stallion and all hell broke loose. He reared up and was starting to fall over backward when I jumped off and landed on my feet. I said, "I’m not afraid of him anymore." At least that’s what Ash said I said. I don’t remember that, but I do remember what came next. Addison said, "Get back on him." And I did. A few minutes later, I rode the stallion for half a turn around the ring. It had taken me, all told, six hours to ride a wild horse.

I let him go in the corral, went to my tent and collapsed. Soon, Addison rolled up and said, "Your horse needs to be petted around and reassured some."

At the corral, the stallion’s head hung. His eyes stared dully. Only then did I realize how exhausted he was, how terrified he’d been. I brushed him and hugged him and petted him.

As I stroked the little stallion back to life, I fell completely in love. We had been to hell and back together, without getting hurt. Later, I told Addison that if I could apply that level of faith and persistence to my human relationships, I’d have it made. He laughed. "Everybody is afraid to face their fears," he says. "And this puts you right in there where you have to use all the gifts that the Creator blessed you with. You get a better understanding of yourself."

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