City, AZ 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, and 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
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 told about these roundups.
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.
Perhaps there's a better way.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
Miraculously a previously-unhandled three-year-old colt accepts
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.
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 theÊNavajo Acothley ProgramÊmight
grow in prestige, akin to the Navajo Scouts being known as the best
among Hotshot fire fighter crews.
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
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.
Done right, there may not be enough horses on the Navajo range
for all the people who may come to want one.
(Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series. The
first part, "Saving
the indigenous Navajo horse," is also published here.)