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.
“When my horse does something I wasn’t expecting, I need to ask myself why,” he continues. “There might be a whole list of possible reasons running through my head, and it’s my job to observe my horse and communicate with him until I narrow down the possible problems we’re having.”
Some riders might try to force a horse to perform a particular task, but Larry prefers to “sway the horse’s thinking.” He sees horse-rider communication as a two-way street.
“I can make a horse do a lot of things that he might not want to do,” Larry admits. “But shame on me if I do that. For it to be a real relationship, I have to take into account what the horse is feeling and work along those lines. Then it’s going to be a much happier relationship for both of us.”
Having learned about horsemanship from Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, among others, Larry goes back to Dorrance’s advice on connecting with horses and building that relationship. In his book True Unity, Dorrance relayed that he immediately connects with a horse when entering the animal’s stall or pen.
“I’ve found that to be so true,” Larry says. “If I go out there with my mind wandering in 20 different directions, then things are probably going to be difficult that day. We have to realize that horses are always in the moment. So I have to be in the moment to direct their thoughts and feelings. I can’t be worried about yesterday or tomorrow. Those are completely foreign concepts to the horse.”
First exposed to Hunt in the late 1980s, Mahan couldn’t shake the feeling that he needed to meet this Dorrance fellow who Hunt kept mentioning. So, he went to a Dorrance clinic held in Arizona in the mid-1990s. The two became friends, and Larry still sees Tom’s widow, Margaret, at an occasional event.
“Even at that first clinic, I could tell he was reading every little thought and feel that was going on, and then he could verbalize it as a masterpiece,” Larry recalls. “His clinics always seemed to be one beautiful moment after another.
“I also got to spend a day with him for the Horse World program. It was so special just to observe his calmness, and his intense ability to focus and observe everything that was going on.”
With what he learned from Dorrance in mind, Larry emphasizes that a rider should avoid emotional outbursts when a horse doesn’t seem to follow directions. A calmer head prevails.
“If I see a wreck about to happen while I’m in a car, then I’m going to do everything I can to avoid that wreck,” Larry says. “I might not make the right decision—I might slam on the brakes on an icy road—but at least I tried to do something. Riders who see problems on the horizon should calmly try to help themselves and their horses avoid those problems.
“Sometimes, we have to realize we don’t know it all. More often than not, I have to realize the horse is the teacher and I’m just his student.”
Larry now offers group and individual training sessions at his two ranches—Saddle Soar North in Guffey, Colorado, west of Colorado Springs, and Saddle Soar South in Sunset, Texas, north of Fort Worth.
“I’m burned out on the road,” he admits. “I’ve become kind of a homebody, but I still enjoy working with people and their horses. But in most cases they’re going to have to come to me for help. I won’t be going out on the Larry Mahan Rock-N-Roll Horse Clinic Tour anytime soon.”
Finding a Place
One of Larry’s biggest influences in his early days of studying the horse was Jimmy Williams—an English jumper who appeared on the first episode of Horse World. Williams had a simple way of explaining difficult concepts, such as, “We’re either training or untraining.”
That’s a concept Larry has taken to heart in his everyday walk among the 100 or so horses roaming his ranches in Colorado and Texas. Little things, such as saddling a veteran horse for a ranch guest, become training sessions for both horse and rider. Larry sees to it that he does his best to communicate with both.
“Just like humans, horses need three things to survive: air, food and water,” Larry says. “Now that I’ve taken them out of their natural environments, I can add unconditional love to that list. But that’s a complicated thing for a human to present to a horse. After all, how many people understand unconditional love?”
Regardless of a horse’s strengths or weaknesses, Larry believes there is a place for every horse in this world. Some might not be as athletic as others—able to do that distinctive dance with a cow or make a hard stop or quick spin—but there’s still a role for them to fill.
“There are so many different types of people in so many different disciplines these days,” Larry says. “If I really love horses, then it’s my place to help them find that place where they fit in—where they can communicate with a rider and hopefully experience unconditional love on a daily basis.”