I don’t recall when I started riding exactly, but I’d imagine it was somewhere around 6 years old. As to when I became useful on the back of a horse, some may say that’s still up for debate, but I had my first “outside horse” in high school, getting a horse ready for the Bad River Suicide Ride for our neighbor’s dad.
Our family has raised quarter horses since well before I was born, so I’ve always been exposed to good horses. So good in fact, that I never developed the ability to ride a troubled horse more than a few jumps, until I started riding horses for the public. I think that speaks volumes for the caliber of horses my dad raised.
By sheer happenstance, we stumbled on to what we feel is a better way. We’d always done things at a pace that was somewhat comfortable for the horses; no tying a leg up, and riding the buck out of them. Then, as now, we’d just as soon never see a horse feel bothered enough to buck, but we were pretty sure we were doing as good as we could by and with our horses.
That perspective started to change one year in the mid-90’s when a friend from college, who was a vet student at the University of Minnesota, came out to spend the summer — J.C. Theike (Ol’ Doc Theike now). One rainy day he brought a Ray Hunt video back from the neighbor’s place for us to watch. Much of that afternoon was spent scoffing, trying to find the “gimmick”. One day that same neighbor, Nub Long, asked about using our barn to come over and “start a few colts”. To me that entailed sacking the colts out, driving them, tying their head around, and maybe finally carefully and slowly, getting on over the course of a couple weeks. A few days later Nub and his son Dave, a damn good young hand in his own right, had brought a couple of their own horses, and a few folks, Scott Walters, Billy Jandreau, and the Bartlett’s from the VE Ranch had horses there as well. Nub said, “hell, you might as well get one of yours in Zach, we’ll see if we can get him rode today.” I said something about how he wasn’t even halter-broke yet. Nub replied, “well now’s as good a time as any.”
In pretty short order about 7 two year old colts had gotten their first ride in the 35 ft. round pen, all at one time, with no halters on — and then outside, in a calm productive manner, with no wrecks to be had. I was hooked. That day horsemanship on the Ducheneaux Ranch began to evolve.
I read everything I could get my hands on, watched every video I could, and practiced all the things that I’d read about or heard, on almost every horse on the place. Over the years I’ve had the chance to ride with, and learn a lot more from Ol’ Nub and Dave Long. They’ve even got me packing a 60 ft. rope.
I started taking a few outside horses to help keep food on the table when the cattle market fell apart in the ‘90’s and came across some videos and literature by Buck Brannaman. I call this my period of “enlightenment”. After watching a video of Buck Brannaman start a bunch of “spoiled” colts, and never lose his cool, or cuss the horse’s behavior, while hearing him tell his audience a horse can only do one thing — that’s try to survive, and every moment that is all he’s trying to do. The horse is NEVER wrong, he’s trying to tell you he doesn’t understand what you’re offering. If he knew what you wanted, he’d do it.
Up until then, I had used many of the same techniques I employ today, but I ascribed human qualities to the horses. This one pouted when he didn’t get his way, this one was lazy and didn’t want to move out, this one was spooky, and another ran pretty hot and needed a martingale. I was doing it, and it was working to a degree, and I was even improving, but once I really believed it, that the horse is only doing what he thinks he has to at that moment in order to survive, and that what he’s doing is never wrong in his world, that was what I call enlightenment, it’s allowed this way of horsemanship to change my approach to everything in life.