Squatch thought he could push people around. He hadn’t been taught manners. He would bite, and sometimes kick. Squatch is a year-old colt, by the way.
“I was just throwing my hands up, he was wild,” says Peter Beesley. Beesley owns Hoofin’ It Feed & Tack in Globe. He also owns Squatch. There is still a mark on his arm from where Squatch bit him four months ago.
But within the last three months, Squatch’s behavior has greatly improved. His “bites” are now small nibbles, thanks to Fred Wesley. Wesley graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in animal sciences, and most recently, he is offering his services as a local horse whisperer. He works with horses like Squatch on a daily basis in hour-long training sessions.
Wesley grew up on a ranch in Bylas around his older brothers, who were rodeo competitors. Wesley watched his oldest brother train his own horses for the competitions. Growing up, well-trained horses were all Wesley knew.
“I didn’t know the difference until I became a member of the cattle association,” he remembers. “I started [working] horses that took a half a mile to stop.”
By that time, Wesley had also competed in rodeos. He also got serious about training horses, taking cues from his brother.
The key element to training a horse is training it to respect space, he explains. There should be a respectful distance between the horse and a person, and that distance should only be crossed when the person initiates it.
“He doesn’t approach me, I approach him,” Wesley says.
When people first have a colt on their hands, they often treat them like human infants and “baby them.” This causes a lot of problems, he explains.
“A lot of people make that mistake. Then the horse starts disrespecting you. He wants to bite and kick,” Wesley says. “He can knock me into next week with his feet,” he adds, motioning to Squatch.
At one point, Wesley turns his back and Squatch bears his teeth. But Wesley is ready for him. Instead of nipping Wesley, Squatch’s head runs right into his elbow.
“Like any teenage kid, they need a knock on the head sometimes,” he laughs.
Though Wesley is stern, he is gentle.
“You don’t have to beat on ‘em, but act like a boss,” he says.
After another try, Wesley is able to pick up Squatch’s hoof with his back turned. Squatch doesn’t try to nip at him this time.
“If they’re willing to give you their feet, they’re willing to give you their mind,” he says.
Wesley works with horses at their level of energy. A colt’s attention span is like a child, so Wesley constantly switches tasks during training. He won’t lunge a horse more than four revolutions. What many people don’t know, he adds, is that when you work with a horse, you are actually working with two—the right side and the left side. That is why he lunges horses in both directions.
Training sessions with Wesley require little gear, aside from a thin halter and lead rope Wesley made out of yachting rope tied into knots. It is soft yet strong, probably five times stronger than anything store-bought, and the horses can’t lean into it.
“The most expensive equipment we have is a plastic bag,” he says.
He ties the bag to the end of a “carrot stick,” which acts as an extension of his arm. He uses it as a signal for Squatch to change directions during lunges.
In between lunging, he “gentles” Squatch, getting him accustomed to being handled in certain ways. He practices throwing the rope over Squatch’s head. Squatch doesn’t react. He teaches Squatch to move his hindquarters by barely touching them with his fingertips. This way Squatch won’t buck whenever he feels the poke of spurs. He trains Squatch to drop his head, so that it is easier to put a bridle on. He gets Squatch to move to his other side without taking a single step toward him. And, every so often, he stops and gives him a short break to catch his breath.
There is a rhythm to all of this.
“They learn from rhythm. Rhythm of the loop, of the feet,” he explains.
“I want to get to a point where he does everything smoothly with no hesitation, and no intrusion into my bubble,” Wesley says. But, he adds, “They never quit learning.”
By the end of the training session, Squatch is at a halt, and Wesley calmly removes his halter. Squatch stands still and keeps his head dropped, and Wesley exits. “I’m the one that walks away,” he says.
Wesley will have a free training clinic for horse owners at the Peridot arena, sponsored by the University of Arizona extension office, on Oct. 27 from 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, you can call San Carlos’ University of Arizona extension agent Dr. Sabrina Tuttle at: 928-475-2350.