There was a time in the West when horses were absolutely essential . The same was true throughout this country, even in the cities. Horses were the backbone – the primary source of transportation and agricultural power. Horses are still an important part of the culture of the West. In fact, in some areas horses are critical to management of the herds that provide prime western beef to this nation. I am a product of that horse culture, and the cowboy logic that goes with it.
Back in what now seem like the good ol’ days to me, not all that long ago, when I was spending more time raising, training and riding horses, and less time practicing law and scratching my head about what is happening in this country, several articles in the Western Horseman magazine about the Babbitt Ranch horse program really piqued my interest. I was especially interested in those articles because we were raising and riding the same kinds of horses that Babbitts were, and I had the opportunity to get to know Vic Howell and some of his cowboys personally.
In one article Vic talked about how they had started bringing in outside horsemen and clinicians to help teach their cowboys new methods of horsemanship. He talked about how the old style had been a pretty darn heavy-handed, fear-based approach, and really caused problems because in his words (according to my recollection of the article), it had built-up resentment in the horses that lasted the rest of their lives and they could never seem to get over. Consequently, even once the horses were much more mature and seasoned, and should have been more reliable, they were a lot harder than they should have been to get along with, and you never knew when one might catch you in a tight spot and decide to blow-up, buck you off, and leave you stranded or possibly seriously injured or even dead. Part of his point was that, because of the heavy-handed way those horses had been treated and handled, and the accompanying attitudes and resentment that handling and treatment instilled in them, some of them might spend the rest of their lives looking for opportunities to settle the score.
So Vic Howell started bringing in horsemen who were very conversant in newer, gentler methods of starting horses, based on an entirely different philosophy that now seem to be virtually universally accepted as much more effective, focusing on what is often described as “pressure and release,” – not focusing so much on fear and punishing a horse for doing the wrong thing, but always providing positive reinforcement and quickly rewarding a horse for doing the right thing. Under these methods, as soon as a horse did anything that was even close to right, the pressure would be released and the horse would be rewarded for doing the right thing, rather than punished for doing the wrong thing.
We were already trying to implement those same methods with our own horses, but after reading the article, Vic’s reasoning and the way he explained things, it didn’t take me all that long to start thinking about how it applied to human beings as well. It didn’t take all that long to consider how that same reasoning applied to me. I realized that I was one of those young horses that might have been pretty headstrong, etc., and had been started , handled and “broke” using pretty darn heavy- handed methods, and I could clearly see what it had done to me.
My dad started out as a old-style ranch cowboy. The early years of my life were spent on the Redd Ranches. My earliest memories are from the sprawling ranch environment of the Redd Ranches in Paradox, LaSal, and the Uncompaghre Plateau. Unfortunately, by the time my siblings and I came along, and were really old enough to misbehave, the short-fused Scottish blood had not been diluted quite enough to keep things in check. He was plenty heavy handed with both kids and horses. He was a firm believer in corporal punishment, and whole-heartedly subscribed to the philosophy that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. Although I had an older sister, because I was the oldest son, and a lot of responsibility and attendant mistakes, etc., started falling to me at a very young age, there were plenty of opportunities for correction. By the time I was 11-13 I had developed an immense amount of resentment, which was only exacerbated when, if I even looked at my dad wrong (with any degree of indolence or defiance), he would back-hand me across the room, leaving me bruised, bloodied, and licking my deepening emotional wounds.
By the time I was 14-15, I had grown enough both physically, mentally and emotionally that I had determined that if he ever laid a hand on me again, I would die if necessary doing everything in my power to clean his clock. Literally, at that point in time I would have gladly died giving every last once of energy I possessed trying to right what I considered to be years of injustice, rather than continue to be subjected to any continued abuse.
The amazing thing is, my dad must have been smart enough to figure that out because he never touched me again. And believe me, there were plenty of reasons to. When I was 15-16, over the course of less than a year I wrecked at least two vehicles, and wreaked all sorts of havoc. Looking back, I may have been on the prod, just looking for a chance to settle the score. But it never happened. And fortunately, since then I’ve been able to forgive my dad and hopefully get over it to some degree.
Now here’s my question: when is the federal government going to pull its head out of its hind parts, and figure out what it is doing? When is it going to figure out that its heavy-handed, fear-based, bureaucratic approach is only instilling a level and degree of resentment that will only build to the point that eventually it is going to come back to bite a lot of people? When will elected federal officials admit that appointed regulatory bureaucrats are forcing unconstitutional demands on our Western citizens? When is the federal government going to acknowledge that it has often done this same thing all over the world, and now it is very actively doing it right here at home, in the West? With all due respect to my good dad (who has done much to try to repent from some of his previous actions), he may not be the smartest person in the world (just like I am not), but even he was able to figure it out and realize that he was only making matters worse. A lot worse. When is the federal government going to pull its head of its ass and figure out that it and its bureaucrats are only making matters worse? A lot worse.
There are plenty of movies, including entire franchises, built on this whole theme. But sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
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