The Thinking Horse's Trainer
Steve Barlow believes in letting horses make up their own minds.
Thursday, July 20, 2000
As the crowds at the California Rodeo in Salinas cheer on the bronco busters this weekend, a very different sort of horse/human interaction is taking place a few miles away at a horse barn in the rolling hills northeast of Castroville.
Farrier and horse trainer Steve Barlow opens a paddock gate and puts a halter on a gleaming chestnut colt. Barlow bought the 4-year-old Thoroughbred, whom he calls Rabbit, at the racetrack. "I named him that because he was hopping around like a rabbit when I first put the saddle on him five weeks ago."
Although Barlow has been getting remarkable results with horses other local trainers have given up on, the wiry, slightly bow-legged Australian insists there''s no mystery to his methods. "A lot of people think I''m a little crazy. I don''t try any magical ''horse whisperer'' things, I just let it happen." Starting--or "breaking in"--a horse just requires keeping an open mind, he says. Barlow describes it in terms of a budding friendship. "You wait for it to happen, you can''t force it along...If everybody had a teacher who had an open mind, everybody would be able to be a Rhodes scholar."
Rabbit certainly seems like a candidate for higher equine education. He appears relaxed but attentive; the very picture of a horse ready for school. Barlow saddles him and leads him into the round pen for some ground work. Rabbit responds to Barlow''s cues and body language with willingness and interest.
The key to keeping the all-important open mind is to involve the horse in the training process; instead of foisting the experience on the horse, Barlow makes sure the animal understands thoroughly what is being asked of him. "If the horse can feel that you''re trying to communicate with it, it''s so much better for the horse," he says.
Barlow grew up on a ranch in Australia, where he and his siblings worked the stock from horseback. Although horses were an indispensable part of his life, it wasn''t until he was 13 and began playing polocrosse, that he discovered riding could be fun, not just work.
In Bay Area horse country from Carmel Valley to Castro Valley, horse owners turn to clinics, seminars and trainers with guru-like reputations to help them solve their equine problems. There are as many ways to train a horse, it seems, as there are horses. So why are there so many wayward horses and frustrated owners?
Barlow tries to put it as tactfully as he can, but there''s only one way to say it: usually the problem isn''t with the horse--it''s with the rider. "You can only go to so many clinics; after that you''ve got to start looking at the horse. You''ve got to be able to read horses, adapt your methods and change to try to make it easier for the horse to learn--you''re the only one who makes mistakes; the horse doesn''t make mistakes."
He doesn''t let owners just dump their recalcitrant horses on him but stipulates that horse and owner learn together. "No good in just one person going to a marriage counselor," he says.
The analogy of a troubled marriage seems apt; not only do people project their own fear and anxiety onto their horses, they often lack confidence in their own abilities--all recipes for an explosive, and even dangerous dynamic between horse and rider. But Barlow isn''t easily persuaded of hopeless cases. And he''s never met anyone, he says, who couldn''t learn to ride.
"If I thought there was somebody that couldn''t learn to ride, that would be like me saying there''s a horse that can''t be trained. There''s plenty of horses that have been messed up so much that it''s too damn dangerous to try and work with them, but if you got to that horse before it was messed up it would have been fine. All the problems are just human problems."
The gadgetry found on the shelves of any tack shop speaks volumes about the breakdown in communication between horse and human. Besides lip twitches, whips and spurs, there are bits which, used incorrectly, can inflict enormous pain on a horse. Yet when Barlow starts a horse he uses only halter and a rope. Control, he says, has little to do with a bit and everything to do with the horse and how the rider is communicating with the horse.
With that, Barlow goes and catches another horse which, he says, "could have been in the Salinas rodeo." A lively bay with a dark dorsal stripe, 4-year-old Tempest was started a year ago by someone who, Barlow says, "didn''t want to adapt to the horse." During that traumatic first training session, Tempest bucked so hard he flipped over backward and broke a couple of ribs. No one went near him until Barlow began working with the horse last week, starting from scratch.
Their first day together, Tempest exploded like a stick of dynamite.
"When I put the saddle on him he put his head between his legs and bucked like crazy," Barlow says. The next time, after half an hour of ground work in the round pen, Barlow hopped on him and waited until the horse was ready.
Today, six days later, Tempest is vigilant. As Barlow tacks him up, the horse takes a step forward, trying to shoulder the man out of the way, but Barlow gently but firmly finishes saddling him. Then, slowly, the trainer mounts Tempest and relaxes into the saddle. "I wait and let him think about it," he says. "Giving the horse a chance to think about what''s going on, that''s what it''s all about-so there''s two minds here instead of one."
Barlow waits. Tempest waits. Standing against the wall of the round pen, I and a rather nervous photographer wait. You can almost see the horse running through his options. He looks thoughtful. Then horse and rider start off around the pen at an energetic walk, Tempest''s ears twitching ominously. "You can see he''s a little antsy," calls Barlow, "and his heart''s going a thousand beats a minute."
In the saddle, Barlow gives the impression of supreme lightness. He possesses that quality coveted by equestriennes: "good hands."
"Even if you''re nervous," he says now, "just sit there and relax like you''re sitting in the lounge room watching TV." The two trot around the pen, stop, trot again, canter. No bucking. And no bit or bridle; Barlow communicates his wishes through a rope tied to Tempest''s halter. Fifteen minutes later, the horse that was considered unridable is leaning his head companionably against me in the center of the ring. The tempest has passed.
If there''s any secret to Steve Barlow''s methods it''s something he said as a casual afterthought: "Like anything, the slower you go, the quicker you go. It''s so easy and so simple...If you just sit up here calmly you can have the horse trained in no time."
Ian Gallacher is one of Steve Barlow''s riding students. Gallacher has been riding for only a year and a half, but he has a bad case of horse fever; he owns seven horses here and has two in New Zealand.
"I found when I started working with Steve, there was so much more freedom between me and the horse," Gallacher says. "I''ve learned 90 percent of my riding in the last six months." Gallacher calls Barlow''s approach "common sense riding."
Barlow has a refreshingly egalitarian vision of equestrianism: "Horses should be for all people...[here] only the rich people get to ride horses, which I don''t think is a good thing at all. I think everybody should have access to horses. If I had the money, I would have a place and I''d have every kid and his dog and everybody come and ride."
Barlow himself owns a modest two horses right now: The aforementioned Rabbit and--what''s the other one named? He shakes his head and laughs ruefully. "You don''t want to know--it''s Nightmare."