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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.

By June 1998Comments

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, says Rojas, many horse owners don’t appear to have gotten the word. And when they see him work for the first time, the experience can be unexpectedly emotional.

I first saw Rojas work with a problem horse last winter, surrounded by an audience of veteran horse owners on the grounds of the Travis County Exposition Center in Austin. It was like a cross between a magic show, performance art, and group therapy. But Rojas rejects any suggestion that what he does is magic or New Age. “I might make things look easy out there,” he says, “but a lot of the history of the amansador is written in blood.” When he was twelve, he recalls, the first horse he trained dragged him through the mesquite brush and left him with a cracked sternum.

Like most new-method trainers, Rojas uses a round pen, or parada, for his training. “The round pen is my canvas,” he says. “And this is my paintbrush”—he holds up a long quirt (riding whip) with a horsehair extension. He doesn’t use it to hit the horse but simply to establish touch when the horse won’t let him get close. Rojas also uses a shorter quirt, with a horsetail extension, to imitate the swishing sound made by a horse’s tail. He wears a cordless microphone to explain to the audience what’s happening, translating the horse’s behavior as well as his own actions.

That afternoon in Austin, Rojas was working with a wild-eyed paint named Puddin’ Head Dude, nicknamed P.H. His owners, Terry and Karen Akins, didn’t know what to do with him. Once their homebred pride and joy, the horse had lately become their nightmare. They had lent him to friends for several months, and he had come back a basket case, unridable and dangerous.

When P.H. came trotting into the ring, flinging his head suspiciously, he definitely looked like trouble. To get his attention and respect, Rojas imitated the sounds and movements of a dominant horse, sending P.H. running around the ring by flinging a lariat at his hindquarters, snorting aggressively, flicking the quirt like a horse tail, and kicking up dust. “I’m becoming top horse,” he explained. P.H. was moving at a nervous canter, threatening to charge or kick, until Rojas—continuing to use body language aided by the quirt, then moving on to clicks and clucks—was able to get him to change directions on cue.

 “I think he’s ready for human language,” Rojas said. And then came the moment that separates the new trainers from the old ways—and often moves observers to tears. “Whoa,” said Rojas quietly, turning his back to P.H., and the horse stopped instantly. Rojas walked into the center of the ring, and the horse came up behind him and followed him like a shadow, his head almost touching Rojas’ shoulder.

“What you just saw was union,” Rojas said. And within moments, as the horse stood quietly, he had put on a halter and then a saddle. When he climbed into the saddle, P.H. was as still as a statue, his ears perked eagerly, as though waiting to hear what Rojas wanted next. Behind me, Terry Akins was amazed. “I can’t believe it’s the same horse,” he said. Another horse owner, who was sitting next to me, was almost too choked up to speak.

These moments of union, as Rojas calls them, are so dramatic that he and other trainers using similar methods are sometimes regarded with a combination of awe and suspicion. Monty Roberts has had people faint during his clinics. “People want magic in their lives,” says Rojas. “But there’s no magic involved in this. For me, it’s about communication.” And indeed, there are no quick fixes for horses who have learned bad habits; that afternoon marked only the beginning of P.H.’s rehabilitation. Rojas always ends his demonstrations with a larger message, telling his listeners, “All creatures need a gentle touch.” What he’d like people to learn, he says, is “how to communicate with everybody who’s different than they are.”

It’s a message he fears could get lost in all the hype about horse whispering. Although you might think he’d welcome the chance to spread his method, he says he’s trying to resist the temptation to make hay, as it were, from all the publicity surrounding the film.

For now, he’s running a stable for problem horses in Houston and doing some work for the railroad. He’s lobbying to improve conditions for horses, and he’s planning to put out a video demonstrating his method and to publish a newsletter called “The Gentle Spirit,” the proceeds from both of which he’ll donate to various wild horse refuges. And he’s been talking with Austin public-speaking coach Lynn Segall, who saw his first clinic last year and was so impressed that he decided Rojas could be spreading his message to a wider audience—say, to corporate types who have trouble communicating with their employees. “I can see Ernesto using his skills for corporate retreats,” Segall says, “or any situation where you want to inspire a group and bring them together.”

For gifted horse trainers like Rojas, there’s little point in ruing the irony that their methods have come so late in our relationship with horses. They simply have to adapt their message to a world in which getting along with horses is a gift rather than a necessity. Teaching CEOs about kinder and gentler methods of communicating may not be exactly the romantic vocation Redford and company had in mind. But the message of the horse whisperers may not be too late, after all, if the meaning finds its way beyond the world of horses.

Carol Flake Chapman wrote about criminal-tracking software in the December 1997 issue of Texas Monthly.

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