Rodeo champ turned holistic horseman Larry Mahan says horses are like books— the outside can be anything from beautiful to downright ugly, but until he reads a few pages, he’ll never know what’s inside.
HORSEMANSHIP SEEMS BOTH SIMPLE AND COMPLICATED as Larry Mahan explains concepts on the subject that he has developed over a lifetime. In the 30-plus years since the six-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association all-around champ retired from competition, he’s devoted vast amounts of time to answering his own questions about how horses think, feel and respond.
Simple phrases such as, “Horses know more about being horses than we do,” pepper his commentary. But, it’s obvious to even a casual observer that countless hours of thought and practical observation stand ready to support that statement. As Larry continues, he talks about such training aspects as communication, providing direction and establishing intentions.
What does any of that have to do with training a horse for the cutting pen, or developing a good team-roping mount? In Larry’s mind, these comprise the foundation that must be established with every horse, regardless of the discipline toward which the animal is directed.
As his monologue continues, Larry challenges some common theories and clichés. Take, for instance, the statement, “The horse is always right.”
Larry takes no issue with the concept, apart from the fact it’s often followed with, “Make the wrong things difficult and the right things easy.”
“How can I make the wrong thing difficult if the horse is always right?” Larry questions. “What I might think is the wrong thing isn’t the wrong thing in the horse’s mind. The horse is only doing what his natural instincts tell him to do.”
Larry compares a horse to a good book. Whether he likes the artwork on the cover or not isn’t relevant when he’s evaluating the book’s contents.
“I didn’t write these books,” he says, “so I have to open them and read them to figure them out. Every time I turn the page, there’s something new to read and learn. There is absolutely no way to know what’s inside that book until you open it.”
As is the case in any endeavor, Larry believes establishing intentions is a great place to start in training horses. Setting goals creates a way to measure progress and provides a source of inspiration as those goals are met one by one.
“This is the start of what I’d like to see happen down the road,” Larry explains. “I have to establish a goal and then sit down and figure out what it’s going to take to get there. When I spend some real time on this, I always think of things that I overlooked at first.”
Larry offers the example of winning an all-around cowboy championship. That’s the goal. What does it take to get there? Entering rodeos, traveling across the country, and competing and winning are obvious steps. But less obvious, yet equally important tasks belong on the list, such as: joining the rodeo association, putting together travel funds and acquiring the equipment necessary to compete.
“From that original intention, I like to get a real picture of the goal in my mind,” Larry says, “and then I can start taking it from the mental side to physically doing the things I need to do to achieve my goal.”
Getting back to Larry’s book analogy, he believes the best way to “read” a horse is through groundwork—hours and hours of it.
“Even if I’ve developed the ability to ride a horse that bucks, the law of averages says I’m going to get thrown eventually,” he says. “And nobody knows that better than old bronc and bull riders. If I get thrown, there’s a good chance I’m going to get hurt. So I think it’s best to do everything I can to reduce the chance of my horse bucking his way down the pasture and leaving me for dead somewhere along the way.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes and probably messed up some nice young horses in the process. But it’s through those mistakes that I acquired more knowledge. The key is being able to recognize and admit my mistakes—instead of just blaming it all on the horse.”
Regardless of which discipline a rider is involved with, training for it all comes back to the horse. This simple realization dawned on Larry only after he began studying a variety of equestrian events while filming the 1990s television program Horse World.
“I started breaking things down,” he recalls. “I wanted to break down riding into every little detail I possibly could. Just like riding a bucking horse or a bull, riding in any discipline requires taking control of every body part—every muscle, every tissue. Doing that time after time is what competing in any sport is all about. In equine sports, I’m doing this to open up a line of communication so that the horse can become a reflection of my energy level.”
Because horses don’t cover up their true feelings, nor set out to manipulate or con their human counterparts, Larry says that a lack of results in the training pen normally means a lack of adequate communication.
“When I send energy down a leg or a hand, I should have already predetermined in my mind what I want the horse’s response to be,” Larry explains. “It’s the old rule: for every action, there’s a reaction. If I don’t get the response I was expecting, then there’s a miscommunication there somewhere.