This article is excerpted from David Stoecklein's book The Western Horse. For more information about world renowned western photographer David Stoecklein's work, visit Stoecklein Publishing. Reprinted with permission, Stoecklein Publishing and author. © 1998 Suzanne Drnec
I was raised around traditional California bridle horses in California's Central Valley where my Dad farmed and ranched. I was an inquisitive kid and got the kind of horseman's education you couldn't buy, then or today. My dad, Norman, hired on with several ranches after the war and I can remember watching him with the other cowboys as they worked in the corrals and feed lots. I'd hide and watch them, because they had no time for a kid. It was like a secret club they were all in, and I knew from the first moment that their work with the horses and the cattle was what I wanted.
It's natural that I ended up riding because my Dad and my Grandpa were horsemen, and I always admired them, worshipped them almost. I fell in love with western horses watching John La Mothe, a cowboy and horse trainer who worked with Dad. John's horses were so soft, so confident in their work. I still remember how tall and proud he rode, and I knew that I was seeing my destiny.
I can remember my Grandpa Chet, who was a real old-timey horse trader who handled most of his work from his office, which was the local saloon. He'd get to trading with some of the other guys, and holler out for one of the kids- usually my Dad- to get one of the horses and bring it around. They did a lot of trading sight unseen, too- like a blind horse for a runaway team, that kind of real horse trading that was helped along by drinking and ego. But they really were knowledgeable about horses- it was in their blood, and mine too.
My Grandma, who lived to be over 100 years old despite Grandpa, used to tell us stories about the days when Grandpa was into harness racing in Ohio. They lived in the tack room at the track, and Grandpa was obsessed with his horses. He had a world's champion pacer too- a horse called Chet Volo. Grandpa gave me a bottle of liniment that he said would cure anything- he claimed it would even dissolve ring-bone. I've never had the nerve to use it, especially since it's been fermenting all those years, but it sure worked for Grandpa. He was one of the real horse whisperers.
My first horse was a mare called Sweetheart, one of those patient horses that forgive and forget. We got her when I was five, then when I was about ten, Dad bought California Honey Girl. She was a finished bridle horse, and just like a kid hot-rods around when they're learning to drive a car, I about wore that poor mare out. We'd gallop up and down the canal banks and I'd stop her hard a hundred times a day. She'd keep stopping but get a little worse each time, then my dad would take her back and get her repaired again. Every horseman with an honest bone in their body will tell you they wrecked a lot of horses before they ever made one, and California Honey Girl was the first one I ruined.
All the kids around rode and dreamed of rodeos. We knew about the important events, like Salinas and Monterey and the Cow Palace. Some of those places had rodeos and horse shows together, and I didn't realize until much later that I was literally born in the lap of classical California horsemanship. We'd get all dressed up and go watch, and see horse after horse that were bridled in the classic way, showing straight up in the spade bit. Most of the riders were cowboys from the ranches, not guys whose names we remember now, but they were very skilled hands. We took it for granted that there'd be a dozen or fifteen bridle horses in the open stock horse class that were each capable of winning. I grew up watching the greats, horsemen in every sense of the word.
So I got a little older and decided to strike it rich at the rodeos. I rode bareback broncs mostly, and won the California State Championship two years. About that time, my wife, Corolyn, was riding in shows and made it look like easy money so I started showing and suddenly gained a lot of respect for her riding skills. We were young and broke and having a wonderful time.
About then, we noticed a couple of very good horses at the shows that had "Chex" in their name, and found out they were sired by a horse from Oregon called King Fritz. One evening, we saw a breeding ad for King Fritz and decided to give his owner, Fritz Watkins, a call. I said "I want to buy your horse" and he said "Good. I just decided to sell him an hour ago." Corolyn and I had saved up $1,000 for fencing at our place, so I sent that up as earnest money for King Fritz and a group of brood mares. We had a month to come up with the other $69,000 for the horses we'd bought sight unseen over the phone. Somehow, I convinced a banker to loan us the money, and we were in the breeding business.
King Fritz was a phenomenal sire. When people found out we owned him, they started sending me some of his older colts to ride and they were so talented I'd load up three horses and go to a show and win first, second, and third. This was in the 70's, in the glory days of the cow horse Snaffle Bit Futurities. We worked hard, but with those horses, winning came easy. I thought I was a great horse trainer, and that all those old guys I used to watch when I was a kid sure had lost their touch. My youthful ignorance was such that I didn't realize it was the horses, not me, that were great.
We paid off our debts and were at the top of the heap of the show horse world, but God was watching my arrogance. King Fritz died, all my pregnant mares aborted, and I got divorced in about 6 months' time. It was back to square one and without all the Chex horses, I had to learn to ride and train horses from scratch almost. Having King Fritz early in my career was both a blessing and a curse, and most days I'm still not sure which was most important.
I gained a classical education with those Chex horses because they taught me what it's like to win big, the feeling of doing something really well. In my life, I've chased a lot of thrills but nothing compares to going down the fence on a great cow horse. Running wide open at thirty or thirty-five miles an hour, hearing yourself breathe and feeling your horse's heart beat between your legs and knowing your horse is going to gather, stop, turn the cow, and be galloping in the opposite direction in three seconds flat is an unparalleled rush.
In a way, I'm a passenger on this ride, and in another way, I make it all happen. Once you ride a cow horse, you're hooked forever trying to recapture that feeling of speed suspended, of time stopped for an instant then resumed fast-forward.
It took some time to find my roots as a horseman after King Fritz, but I kept at it and had more champions along the way. By now it was the late 80's and the cow horse world had lost some of its glitter, and suddenly there was this giant thing called reining. I was riding a great horse at the time called Chex A Nic, and decided to go to a reining and show those split-rein boys a thing or two. It was a very humbling experience. I discovered that there was a world of difference between the cow horse dry work and the way the reiners were showing their horses at that time. A good horse is a good horse, but the reiners had so much precision, so much more finesse, that it was almost like watching a different sport. Unlike the old-time cow horse guys, though, the reiners were friendly and helpful. I hooked up with some of them like Bob Loomis and figured out how to present a reiner, and the next time out I didn't feel like a hick from the sticks.
In 1992, I took Chex A Nic to the Quarter horse World show and he won both the senior reining and the senior working cow horse, the first time the same horse had won both events in one year. It justified my training methods and also proved that a horse can work cattle and rein, that competing in both classes doesn't confuse the horse. Nowadays, a lot of those reiners are getting interested in cow horses, so where I borrowed from them now I'm getting a chance to return the favor a little bit. Western performance horses- cutters, reiners, ropers, cow horses- are all evolving quickly right now towards an ideal western horse that's light, responsive, balanced, athletic, and fun to ride. The horses and the methods are changing, yet I see more horsemen rediscovering value in some of the traditional training and tools.
My Dad started making silver bits and spurs in the 60's, and I eventually bought the company. I also designed protective leg boots for horses and have invented quite a few things to solve horse training problems that crop up. I've always collected horse equipment like women buy earrings, but just like training methods, it's not so much the equipment as the application that gets results. Nowadays, I've sold some of the businesses and concentrate on teaching clinics. From all my years riding, I give clinics to share my experience and to save people some of the mistakes and detours I took. Clinics are fun- even though I teach about thirty of them each year- because I get to travel and meet interesting people who I think sometimes teach me more than I teach them!
Teaching makes me ride better too. We used to think there was only one correct way to do things with horses, and now, the more I see the less I know. There's not such a gap between cow horses and jumpers or between reining and dressage- the horses don't care what they do. If we can teach a horse to go anywhere at any speed, with no apparent effort on the part of the rider and no more resistance from the horse than it takes to snap a single hair from his mane, we've achieved an ideal of horsemanship that I saw every day in the cowboys and horses that worked the California ranches. It made me shiver when I watched the Lippizanners in Vienna a few years ago and realized I was seeing the same harmony between horse and rider that I'd seen at brandings when I was a little boy.
I still ride for fun, but it's great to not have to ride a barn full of horses every day. Of course, there's always one special horse at any point in your life, and right now, I'm roping on Tux N Tails, my own horse. Tux has won a lot of reinings and is a multiple world champion cow horse, and all that education doesn't hurt him one bit as a heel horse. He and I just go play together now. If Tux felt just right, or if I found a young horse that was exciting, I might show again but right now I'm enjoying having a real life, not just a show schedule. There's a lot you miss by being at a show every weekend.
Tux is special because he's actually mine, not a client's horse, and because he's that proverbial 'gift horse' with a special story. In the early 80's I was riding a great mare called Commander Tucker, but she eventually went home to be a brood mare. I really liked her, and missed her when she left. Later that year, at the Red Bluff Maturity in June, my life-long friend Skip Brown invited me over to his ranch after the show. I found my way to his place, and was surprised to see a lot of people there that I knew. Then Skip blindfolded me, and I was pretty sure he was going to spin me into the swimming pool for a prank, because somebody'd discovered it was my birthday.
Instead, Skippy lead me out back and took off the blindfold, and there stood Tux N Tails, a skinny brown 2 year-old full brother to Commander Tucker with a red bow around his neck and a tag that said "Happy Birthday." I didn't know what to say- the thought was so great, that my friends had gone out and found me a special horse, but Tux sure didn't look like a show horse standing there. That old saying about looking gift horses in the mouth sure went through my mind, but I figured I'd just take the colt home and see what happened as he developed into a three year-old.
Well, not much happened- Tux was adequate at best. I really liked him as a person, but as a show horse, he just didn't have it. While I enjoyed riding him, I sure had better horses in the barn. Off we went to the Futurity that next year, and Tux was pretty good in the herd work, but when I schooled him at midnight for the dry work, he was awful. He wouldn't stop, leaped in the air, and was just obnoxious. I wasn't sure I'd get him shown, but Tux's always been a clown, kind of like Trickster in Indian stories, and the next day he was really good in his dry work for the judges.
Tux ended up placing in that Futurity, and we never looked back. He got brighter and brighter, and better and better. His next show was the Idaho Snaffle Bit futurity, which he won, and then the next year Tux won the Hackamore Maturity at the futurity and won a six-horse trailer. Tux was World Champion Hackamore horse that year, and then, because I cared about him so much and had the time, I took two years to bridle him. He's been phenomenal- winning the Cow Palace and most of the major shows as both a reiner and a cow horse, and now being a strong heel horse. Thanks, Skip!
Tux is such a personality, and now he's my back yard horse too- I feed him horse cookies and he's completely spoiled. It's good to remember that having a horse is different than a dog or another pet, though- something makes us put so much more into a horse, but one like Tux gives it all back, with interest. I've had the highest highs with horses, and the lowest lows, but I wouldn't change a thing.
After almost 40 years working with horses, I've figured out a few things. Mostly, I've learned that horses aren't so different than people. They can frustrate us, deceive us, and disappoint us, but they should never make us mad. As with humans, every interaction with a horse is a negotiation, and if you learn to negotiate, you'll get more done with less effort- I can't make a horse or person do anything, but I can sure make them wish they had! And, like people, horses do best what they do easiest. Life is much more pleasant when I remember that horses and people are after the same things- good food, good times, a meaningful job, and comfortable companions.