Horse Sense

Robert Redford may be everyone’s image of a horse whisperer these days, but Del Rio native Ernesto Rojas Serna is the real thing.

THE BRONC-BUSTING COWBOY MYSTIQUE has been undergoing some revisions lately—witness Robert Redford’s turn as the sensitive wrangler in the recently released movie The Horse Whisperer. Redford’s character, a Montana loner who has a magical way with horses, would no sooner spur a bucking bronco than toss a beer can into a trout stream. The film was based on the novel by British writer Nicholas Evans, who researched the book around the West, seeking role models for his kinder and gentler cowboy.

If Evans had been more interested in accuracy than in a movie deal, he might have come up with a different title. Of course, he probably wouldn’t have hit the best-seller list and caught Redford’s fancy had the novel been called, say, “The Horse Whinnyer.” But in fact, what the so-called gentle-style horse trainers do these days is a lot closer to whinnying than whispering—something I learned from a Texas trainer named Ernesto Rojas Serna. “What I do when I work with horses,” Rojas told me, “is become half horse.”

I first heard about Rojas from a flyer posted on a bulletin board in a Hill Country barbecue joint last year. Rojas was advertising a method of training that he calls “gentle touch.” Although he now says that he regrets trying to capitalize on the “horse whisperer” phenomenon, he was billing himself at the time as “Texas’ horse whisperer.”

Rojas had become something of a sensation in Central Texas horse circles after an appearance at the Austin—Travis County Livestock Show and Rodeo two years ago, when he used his gentle method to tame a previously unbroken Andalusian stallion in the same arena where bronc riders had just demonstrated a less harmonious bond between horse and human. It took Rojas thirty minutes to accomplish his feat—an eternity for a bronc buster but superb time for a horse gentler.

The 33-year-old Rojas, who was born in Del Rio, is one of the new breed of Western horse trainers—the soft-spoken and gentle-handed types who inspired Evans and Redford and who have also inspired a quiet revolution in the way horses are handled. Often, like the hero in The Horse Whisperer, they’re the trainers of last resort, who are willing to take on troublesome horses. These trainers hold clinics around the West and have different ways of describing their techniques. Colorado’s Pat Parelli talks about “Natural Horse-Man-Ship” while California’s Tom Dorrance, a pioneer in the field, shies away from a label. Buck Brannaman, the Wyoming cowboy whom Evans followed while doing his research and Redford hired as a consultant on his film, describes his work with horses as “dancing.” Rojas, who also refers to his technique as amansando en union (“taming in union”), says he was influenced by his father, a vaquero who ran the remuda (string of horses) for a ranch south of Del Rio, among others.

What the gentle-method trainers all appear to have in common is an ability to communicate to horses exactly what they want them to do in a clear, simple way. The language they claim to speak is a vernacular peculiar to horses. (And it doesn’t involve whispering sweet nothings into twitching ears. For one thing, that would likely elicit the equine equivalent of “Say what?”) What they mean by horse language is more a system of equine body language and social behavior than actual sounds—although Rojas says he has identified at least eleven horse vocalizations. Monty Roberts, the California trainer who had a surprise best-seller last year with his autobiography, The Man Who Listens to Horses, refers to horse language as Equus.

While the old-fashioned cowboy method of training horses focused on breaking down the will of the horse, sometimes by force—hence the term “breaking” a horse—the gentler method allows the animal to choose willingly to obey the trainer’s commands. “I think it’s an easier way—a kinder way,” says rancher Tom Hickey of Dripping Springs, who has become an admirer of Rojas’ technique.

Although fewer trainers are using the most extreme of the old-fashioned methods, which involve tying a horse to a fence post and hobbling it, Rojas says that he has often encountered unenlightened methods of training over the years. His decision to become an amansador (“horse tamer”) grew out of a terrible incident he witnessed as a young child in Mexico, when he saw a cowboy whip a horse to death. As the horse lay dying, he recalls, he felt that the animal spoke to him, and he vowed that one day he would help people understand horses.

But it would be decades before Rojas would be able to devote his life to horses. His father, who had retired as a vaquero while Rojas was still a boy, told him that the time for horses was over. After stints in the Army and as a railroad engineer, Rojas found work as a trail guide in Colorado and then as a wrangler at several ranches in the West. He got fired more than once, he says, for criticizing the way the horses were treated. It was in Colorado that Rojas had what he calls “a vision of the divine connection between humans and horses.” The vision, he says, came partly from working with horses and partly from his religious faith—two elements in his life that remain strongly connected.

Wanting to be closer to his family, he decided to return to Texas, where he struggled for a number of years. He gradually began to build his reputation as a trainer, and last year he held his first public clinic, demonstrating his method using a horse whose life he wanted to save. The horse was unridable, and its owner had planned to send it to a rendering plant. The clinic was a success, and after more training, the animal became the prized trail horse of a woman who lives near Buda.

Although you might think the notion of sweet-talking a horse would be about as welcome in Texas as a burr under the saddle, the gentle method has already found plenty of converts here. Nevertheless,

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