A Meeting of the Minds
by Fran Devereux Smith
Life on the road as an equine clinician, competitor and judge is seldom easy, especially with three young sons who take precedence over even the best of horses. After family, however, riding goals always have been a strong focus for horseman Kerry Kuhn, headquarted on the JJ Ranch near Coats, Kansas.
"My grandfather was my whole world when I was a kid. Everything he did was from the back of a horse, and he was known as a good horseman. A good horseman back then and one today look a little different," Kuhn explains, "but I always admired my granddad for what he could do with a horse."
Kuhn started his first colt at 12, then had a life-changing experience in high school. The home-ec teacher, Charlene Larson, a horsewoman for whom Kuhn had worked, told him to watch a videotape and issued a pass for him to leave class and watch the tape. It was a colt-starting demonstration by clinician Sam Powell.
"What I saw him do with a 2-year-old in the tape blew me away," Kuhn says. "The approach was geared so much more to building a willing frame of mind in that horse versus teaching one to submit and making him do it, which was all Granddad knew to do at the time.
"From then on, I constantly watched his horses to see if he was getting into his horses' minds the way Sam had with that 2-year-old. I started to see that although Granddad's horses did what he wanted, the one thing those horses never could do was relax. I wanted what my granddad had, but I wanted to add this other approach because what his horses lacked was the one thing I thought I might need most."
Kuhn realized that improving his horsemanship was just a matter of learning. He got to know Sam Powell and never missed an opportunity to see Ray Hunt and watch his tapes. Whenever a clinician ventured within several hundred miles, Kuhn attended clinics and studied their methods.
He also shared everything he learned with his grandfather. "Even though he didn't do things that way, he never told me not to," Kuhn says. "I think Granddad was excited to see my desire to learn about horses was so strong."
It was only a matter of time before Kuhn began conducting clinics and joined Purina Mills' Equine Influentials program although he initially struggled with the short amount of time such presentations impose on starting colts. "My wife, Misti, helped me with that," he says. "She helped me see this: Whatever I could do with a horse in that short time helped people learn they could come at the horse in a way he could understand and accomplish an enormous amount—without forcing the horse."
As a result, Kuhn's attitude changed. Finding another approach was key for him, as well as the horses. "Those guys I learned from were masters at that. When a horse got a little bothered, before it became a big deal, those guys changed their approach. They just flowed in another direction. None of us have much time. If we find ourselves stuck with a horse, we have to change something and find another approach."
Later, after Kuhn's grandmother passed away, his grandfather's health deteriorated. Nonetheless, the older man watched his grandson work horses daily. At the time, Kuhn was playing around with, but hadn't yet saddled the last 2-year-old Paint Horse colt his grandfather had raised.
"All I want to do," his grandfather said, "is ride this horse."
All Kuhn could think was, "How am I going to get that done without my mom finding out?
"But I told my granddad, 'We're going to do this, but let's try it in a way you've never done it before and get this colt ready for you to ride.'"
Kuhn wanted the colt to be his grandfather's willing partner, rather than be forced into submission. So the clinician prepared the colt for his first ride and an old horseman's last. Kuhn also planned the first ride on the day his mother was least likely to come to the barn.
A week later, his grandfather, near tears, rode the bridleless 2-year-old around the pen—just as his daughter drove up to the barn. "Mom never said a word," Kuhn commented. "She realized how important riding that colt was to my granddad.
"Not too long after that he passed away. I had wanted to give my granddad one opportunity to step on a willing colt like that before he died. I'm glad it worked out."
Read Kerry Kuhn's tips for making smooth transitions in the September 2011 issue of Western Horseman magazine. Visit KerryKuhn.com.