Guest column: Creating a program that honors horses and Navajo horsemen
By George Hardeen
Part two of two
The great horseman Ray Hunt used to say, "Horses live what they learn and learn what they live."
Not long ago on a ride from LeChee to Tuba City, we noticed a cloud of dust rise a couple miles in the distance several times a day. Zeroing in, we might see some manes and tails as a band of horses disappeared over a hill. These horses were aware of us long before we were aware of them. Even from miles away, they wanted nothing to do with us.
Most likely, some time in their lives these horses were chased. They learned what a human on horseback or ATV looks like and were obeying their factory-installed impulse to put distance between them and us as fast as they could.
A horse is a prey animal. Its entire psychology is built around that fact. Unlike other prey animals, a horse has no claws, no fangs, no horns, no armament to protect itself from predators that want to eat it. A horse's primary means of defense is to flee. That's what it's built for.
As herd animals, horses are extremely social. Whether tame in a corral or wild on the range, within a band one horse is always on guard and ready to hit the panic button. When he or she runs, they all run.
Although this equine behavior is obvious, it does not explain why newspapers and social media are reporting stories and publishing photos of horses being run to exhaustion, driven into barb wire fences, foals and young colts being trampled, older horses and pregnant mares struggling in the heat as they are subject to tribal and chapter roundups. Regardless how nature has evolved horses through eons to run for their lives, they are no match over many miles for the fast and mechanized techniques that physically wear them down in order to round them up.
People are angry. A friend recently said he can't sleep and is losing weight because of what he is being told about these roundups. Livestock defines Navajos, now as in the past. The feeling Diné have for their animals is not unlike their feelings for their children, which explains the outrage and concern being expressed.
Navajos and their medicine people have songs and prayers for the horse. One teaching is that what you have songs and prayers for should be handled with care. To many, rounding up horses by chasing them in the heat with ATVs and dragging them into trailers with ropes around their necks is not the Navajo way to do it.
If it is necessary to reduce the growing numbers of feral horses to prevent their deaths from thirst and starvation and to conserve the Navajo rangeland, perhaps there's a better way.
The Navajo Nation could create a permanent program, hire and train dozens of young Navajo wranglers in both modern horsemanship methods and traditional Navajo teachings of the horse. Roundups could be slower, gentler and designed around the horses rather than a schedule.
The best of the unclaimed horses could be selected for colt starting and foundation training at facilities like the Espil Ranch, Big Boquillas or fairgrounds around the Nation. A new market for a new product could be created; the distinct Navajo horse that has been gentled and started under saddle by Navajo horsemen and horsewomen.
The Nation already has thousands of young men and women who live to ride and ranch. They may not desire to go to college right now but still need employment and a purpose to be with their horses every day. The Nation has many experienced horsemen to teach them. These are Navajos who already conduct their own horsemanship clinics or have been part of events like the Extreme Mustang Makeover. They know what they're doing.
Such a program would need support crews to drive to a location, set up a camp, kitchen, sleep tents and other facilities for a week or longer stay on site. Large catch corrals would need to be delivered and assembled along with hay and water to "chum" horses to the area, acclimating and desensitizing them to overcome what they have already learned to fear.
As a gather begins, rather than spook horses into a panic-stricken gallop over uneven ground with machines, a dozen or more coordinated riders communicating with radios could cautiously expose a feral band to their presence, slowly taper a perimeter around them, and gradually funnel the group toward a familiar catchment area.
On some ranches the saying is, "The fastest way to move cows is slow." That's not criticism, it's a standing order. By design, this process is the opposite of the wild horse race at the fair. It's gentler, more efficient and is better for animals, especially horses destined to be saddled, ridden and sold to caring new owners in three to six months, to say nothing of their foals and yearlings who "learn what they live."
Meanwhile, at one of the ranch or fairground facilities, colt starters under the tutelage of experienced horsemen who specialize in this could begin gentling, ground schooling and colt starting. This, too, would be a slower, sequential, systematic process that takes the horse into consideration, not an outdated method that employs force, fear and intimidation.
Horses are born soft, light and willing, not hard, heavy and obstinate. It's humans who take the softness out of them. Done correctly, a good colt starter can teach a horse to follow the feel of a lead rope as easily as a balloon tied to a string.
A horse can and should learn to carry a rider without ever resorting to bucking or bolting. In a short time, horses can learn to walk over, under and through obstacles, be exposed to scary things like swinging ropes, tarps and rain slickers hanging over saddles. They will load themselves into trailers with just a suggestion and a loose lariat from 30-40 feet away or back through a gate from the same distance. Significantly, they will learn to do what they earlier learned they should never do - trust a human.
Within weeks, most horses can learn the basics of all the necessary maneuvers they will need for the rest of their lives, from standing still to be saddled and mounted, moving off softly from the feel of a rider's leg, stopping softly with the tip of a rider's weight, transition easily up and down through walk, trot and canter, and be introduced to cattle to employ these newly developing skills with more speed and confidence.
Miraculously at work that allows a previously-unhandled three-year-old colt to accept a rope around its neck, a saddle tightened around its belly and a rider on its back - all without fear - is the same adaptability that teaches a week-old foal that it doesn't need to fear a bird fluttering in a bush.
At each step of the way, Navajo elders can share their knowledge and prayers of the horse. They can explain all of its parts from the arrowheads under its feet, the feathers on its legs, the rain clouds in its mane, what all of this means to a Navajo, and much more.
When one of these unique Navajo horses is sold, a buyer would receive a report of everything it has learned and been exposed to and meet the young Navajo person who trained it, learn about its temperament from him or her, and gain knowledge of Navajo teachings about this incredible creature, as well. To many, that would be worth the price of the horse.
In time, the reputation of the Navajo Acothley Program might grow in prestige, akin to the Navajo Scouts being known as the best among Hotshot fire fighter crews. That might draw other young Navajos to want to join their ranks. These young wranglers would gain skills and knowledge to allow them to start their own horse-related businesses or, at the very least, share what they learn with others.
Meanwhile, herds of feral horses across Navajoland could be gradually and safely reduced in a way that is considerably more acceptable to the public. Needed employment could be provided to deserving young people who share specific ideals. The Navajo tradition of stockmanship and horsemanship could be promoted and enhanced, and Navajo teachings about the horse could be perpetuated.
Best of all, the world may come to appreciate that the Navajo Nation is saving and preserving its own genetically distinct horse with bloodlines that go back hundreds of years, and which carries a reputation for intelligence, gentleness, stamina and hardiness.
Done right, there may not be enough horses on the Navajo range for all the people who may come to want one.