The barn door slams open and a big pinto steps inside, then balks, wrenching its head up again and again, yanking hard at its heavy nylon lead. Donna Ewing holds on tight with both hands and slowly pulls the horse past an audience of 40 or 50 people and into a fenced-off arena, where she unsnaps the lead from its halter. The horse canters toward the far end of the barn, then turns and charges back, stopping short at the seven-foot fence. It rears slightly and lets out a long, piercing neigh.
Six months ago volunteers from the Hooved Animal Humane Society in Woodstock took the horse from a family that had beaten and starved it till its bones jabbed at its skin and all its hair fell out. It’s now filled out again, and its coat–sorrel with white splotches–has grown back, except on a blaze of pink flesh along its nose. For a long time after it was brought to the shelter no one could catch it. When someone finally managed to get on its back, it wouldn’t stop jerking its head up and down. Yet Ewing, founder and executive director of HAHS, thinks the 20-year-old horse must have had a lot of training at some point in its life.
Carolyn Resnick is standing outside the fence quietly watching the mare, whose name is Lady. Ewing has invited Resnick, who’s been training horses since she was a child, to give a clinic on working problem horses “at liberty,” without ropes or other tack.
Lady bolts around the 120-by-60-foot arena several more times, kicking up dust and neighing at the horses in the stalls behind the audience. Then she stands at the fence, head lifted, eyes wide enough to show the whites, scraping her throat back and forth along the top bar.
Resnick, who has never seen this horse before, slips through the gate and begins walking slowly around the arena, not looking at Lady, who quickly lines herself up with the fence and watches Resnick with one eye. After a minute or so Resnick approaches the horse’s head. At five feet four inches tall, Resnick can’t even see over the horse’s back. Lady weighs about 1,200 pounds, Resnick about a tenth of that. “Believe me,” she says later, “horses can’t smell fear, because I have plenty of fear of horses.”
Resnick gently stretches her hand out toward Lady’s nose. Lady snaps her head back to one side, but she doesn’t run off, doesn’t even move her feet. Resnick immediately draws her hand back, pauses, and stretches it out again. Lady yanks her head back again. Resnick offers her hand several more times, but Lady keeps jerking her head away.
Resnick is still for a moment, then moves around to stand next to Lady’s shoulder. With an almost imperceptible dip of her body, Resnick steps forward and Lady, holding her head unnaturally high, goes with her. Resnick straightens her body slightly and stops, and Lady stops. Resnick turns, and Lady turns. They walk around the arena two or three times, shoulder close to shoulder.
Resnick halts, moves away from Lady, and approaches her head straight on again, stretching out her hand. Lady pulls her head back twice, but then she lets Resnick touch the tip of her nose.
The kerosene heater in the far corner flares on and Lady jumps, the skin along her belly quivering.
Resnick moves back to Lady’s shoulder, and together they walk around the arena a couple more times. Lady’s head relaxes and slowly falls. Resnick stops and again approaches from the front. She holds out her palm, and Lady lets her touch her muzzle. Resnick tries to touch higher up on her face, but Lady pulls her head away. Resnick draws her hand back, extends it, and brushes the end of the horse’s nose.
Resnick stands at Lady’s shoulder again and they walk up to the fence, where Resnick picks up the microphone that’s dangling over the gate. She can’t have been in the arena much more than five minutes, and most of us in the audience are staring stunned at her and the horse.
I should say right off that I don’t know much about horses, though I grew up on a farm and my older sisters had several. By the time I was eight we still had two, neither of which would allow itself to be ridden by anyone but my mother or my oldest sister. A boy from down the road had tried to ride Duke, who made straight for the apple tree at the end of the pig run and swiped him off. I tried to impress a friend by clambering onto Dolly, who took off up the lane, my hands clutching her mane. When she reached the barn she reared and I slid straight onto the manure pile. A year later Dolly got out on the road and was hit by a car. Her leg was broken and she had to be put down. Duke was miserable alone, and we sold him to our milkman. A couple years later we moved away, and we never had horses again.
But I was captivated by the idea of horses, and even more so when I read the books–Black Beauty, White Mane, National Velvet. Riding was the first thing I signed up for at camp, the center of my best vacations. Yet I was never happy being just the latest awkward child on an indifferent school horse. As I grew older I was willing to stand for hours in the rain watching show jumpers, but I no longer wanted to ride horses I didn’t know. And I liked going to friends’ houses to see the horses they’d bought, but was uncomfortable watching them trudge around pastures trying to catch the horses and kicking them repeatedly from the saddle to move them away from the barn.
“The more you know about horses, the more you’ll get out of the clinic,” Resnick had told me on the phone before leaving Sonoma, California, where she lives. “The consummate horseman gets excited because he thought he knew what a horse could do.” I had to tell her I knew almost nothing about horses. But I had watched them enough to know they don’t ordinarily walk without a lead next to their owners, much less a total stranger.
“First we’re going to learn to talk horse,” says Resnick on this Friday morning in early November as she paces slowly along the fence, microphone in hand. She has the quiet alertness of a cat, her motions spare, almost languid. She’s wearing a turtleneck, a heavy sweater, and a black knit hat, and her thick blond hair curls down her back in a ponytail. She has a gold horseshoe ring with a diamond on one of her manicured, red-nailed hands, and hiking boots, not riding boots, on her feet–she rides in sneakers.
Resnick, who has trained hundreds of horses, many of which have won national and international prizes, outlines her seven-step program, which is based on the way horses communicate in a herd. Each step is done with the trainer on the ground and no restraints on the horse. “The idea of the seven steps is that once somebody can perform them accurately he should have enough knowledge to realize how to train his horse to do anything else.” Resnick also points out that if you have a horse you’re a trainer, whether you think you are or not.
The first step is a territory check. “We need to instill in the horse the idea that we’re on the same planet,” says Resnick. That brings a burst of laughter from the people in the audience, who are sitting in heavy coats and hats and mittens on rows of hay bales and lawn chairs. At least two-thirds of them are women.
Six horses have been enrolled in this weekend clinic, which Resnick titles “Dances With Horses.” Each in its turn is led into the arena and taken through as many of Resnick’s seven steps as it seems able to handle. The third horse out is Mecca, a jittery 12-year-old, 950-pound Arabian-mix gelding, white with dark eyes. His owner, Kim Broy, a speech therapist who lives in Lake Villa, bought him a year ago from a woman who used him as a school horse; she’d bought him from a man who had apparently picked him up cheap hoping to train him quickly and sell him at a profit. “He became a handful and was rebellious and wouldn’t allow himself to be trained,” says Broy, who started riding only two years ago but had dreamed of having her own horse since she was a child. “So the trainer sold him to the slaughterhouse, and he was literally just hours from boarding the truck.” She says the woman who saved him was sure he’d been abused at some point. “He was very head-shy and tended not to like men, which could indicate previous beatings.”
The woman wanted to sell Mecca because he was nervous having different riders, yet by the time Broy got him he had fallen into school-horse routines. “He was used to going around the ring three times and then ‘Let’s go to the middle.’ He never really needed to listen. He just did what the horse in front of him did. But part of the problem he was having was I just didn’t know how to communicate to him.”
Resnick watches Mecca, who’s standing in a corner of the arena with only a halter on. “I like this horse, because he’s really got a lot of energy,” she says. She ambles around the arena, shaking the fence, peering into the water bucket, pushing aside the hay that’s piled by the gate–doing, she says, what any horse in a new place would do. “Walk like you’re planning to stay here and don’t look at your horse. You’re not interested in him, only in the territory.”
She has a soft, almost girlish voice that she never raises, so she has to keep coming back to the fence to use the microphone to explain what she’s doing. “If I didn’t explain,” she says later, “I think people would be scared by what the horse is doing. They’d think it’s magic. And I don’t appreciate it when people try to make what I do magic. There’s nothing going on but common sense.” Laurin Parker, who raises and trains miniature horses and who’s been Resnick’s manager since last April, doesn’t think she comes back to the fence often enough and frequently waves at her and points to the mike. Several times over the weekend Parker hooks her up to a remote mike, but somehow it always seems to come undone or get turned off.
After exploring the territory comes step two: greeting the horse. “Now that we’re sharing the same territory,” says Resnick, “we’ll say hello, face to face, like two horses will do.” She walks straight up to Mecca, who’s watching her closely, and quickly brushes his head with her hand, from above his eyes to the end of his nose, the complete version of what she did with Lady. Later she explains why she chose this motion. “Right there is a very vulnerable place on a horse–he’s very protective of his head. So if he’ll let you come up and stroke it then he says, ‘Oh, nothing happened to me, so that means I’m pretty safe.’ The longer the distance I can come straight at a horse, the more I know he trusts me.”
Having brushed Mecca’s head Resnick immediately turns and walks away. “What do horses do after the first time they meet?” she asks the audience.
“Squeal and kick,” says one woman.
“Squeal and kick. And we don’t want to stay around for that.” A chuckle rolls under her words.
Now she moves on to the third step, taking a horse’s territory, which is what the lead mare in a herd does with new or unruly horses. “Now that we’re friends, the question is who’s going to be boss? We have to establish dominance. But how horses understand that is not through strength but through territory.” The territory a horse owns, she explains, is the ground it’s standing still on, and a person can take it away only by approaching the horse unseen from behind. Generally Resnick does this by moving up behind the horse, staying well out of kicking range, and snapping the whip she generally trails after her so that it cracks hard several yards from the horse’s tail. The horse runs off, and Resnick steps into the space where it stood. “I don’t look at or chase the horse, because I don’t want him to think I’m angry with him. I just want the territory.” She adds that it’s important to know when to stop with this step. “If a horse runs off quickly, then it’s not a problem. If a horse fights for the spot, then you need to capture and keep it.”
Resnick’s long whip, which she usually carries under her arm, angled down, the cord dragging in the dirt, is used only for the sound it makes, not as a threat or punishment. Horses instinctively move away from loud noises, so the whip becomes a way to control their movement. Later it becomes a more sophisticated tool, keeping a horse’s timing right and indicating which direction the horse is to move by which side of her body it’s on. “My horses when they get finished training only know that whip as something that talks to them.”
Mecca won’t stop watching Resnick, so she can’t take his territory. She moves on to the fourth step, which she calls hazing, another way the lead mare establishes dominance over a horse that’s new or out of line. “When horses are left to their own devices and meet for the first time, the lead mare will move the new horse around until every place she puts him is OK–she worries him until he proves he’s part of the family.” Resnick moves up behind the horse but off to one side where it can still see her, then throws her open hands out from the center of her body or lightly snaps her whip. She keeps moving, driving the horse ahead of her until it turns completely around, both eyes meeting hers. When she angles toward Mecca’s left side and snaps her whip, he canters off into the center of the arena, tail high and mane flapping; then he turns hard, runs back to the fence, and stops, his eyes fixed on her. Satisfied, she walks up and says hello again, one soft stroke down his nose. “It never hurts to say hello.”
The fifth step is getting the horse to pay attention, to keep his eyes on you, something the lead mare demands of the horses in a herd all day long. “Perhaps you’ve seen a mare suddenly walk over and kick another horse and you can’t see why? The horse wasn’t doing what it should have been, it wasn’t looking at her. If a horse is doing things right but not clean enough, I will work on eye contact. I want his full attention.”
Mecca is already paying careful attention to Resnick, so she steps beside him and asks him to take a walk, the sixth step. “This is the lead mare saying we have to go and this is where we’re going. It’s always the lead mare that decides. The lead stallion is in the rear to protect the herd from what they’re running from.” Shoulder to shoulder Resnick and Mecca walk around the arena. She cues a turn by moving her outside foot back a little and slightly twisting her near shoulder away from him. “Think of it in terms of dancing,” she says.
Something spooks him and he jumps, spinning away from her. She moves in the opposite direction and then back to his shoulder. She dips her body to signal him to move forward–imitating a horse dipping its head–and they walk together again. She lifts and straightens her body–again like a horse–and they halt. Then she strokes his chest and tells him he’s good.
The seventh and last step is to ask the horse to respond at a distance, to “go trot and come up,” one more thing the lead mare demands of the members of a herd. Resnick approaches Mecca’s side as if to haze him, but then claps her hands together, telling him to “go trot.” Mecca canters away from her, circles, then retreats into the corner where the fence and the barn wall meet, tail against the wall. Resnick stands several yards from his head, making a clucking sound in her cheek and beckoning with her hand, her fingers curling quickly in succession toward her open palm, asking him to “come up.” He moves a few steps toward her and stops. Perhaps sensing he’s starting to resist, she goes over to him, and together they walk up to the fence, his head almost hanging over her shoulder.
“What if a horse doesn’t want to do a step?” someone asks.
“I can’t find the ‘don’t want’ in a horse. I find the ‘want.’ If a horse won’t do what I want, then I review the steps. If your horse doesn’t let you approach him, go back to the second step. If he doesn’t pay attention, go back to the fifth.”
“How long does it take to train a horse?”
“It depends on the horse. You may work on one step for a week. At first work perhaps three times a day for five minutes. Don’t work a horse more than five minutes, because if you make a mistake you’re just driving it in. Do only a little bit at a time and see what you get.”
A man in a cowboy hat says he thinks a horse would rather bond with another horse than with Resnick. She ponders that for a moment and then says, “The bonding relationship a horse has with me is even stronger than the one he has with his best friend. A horse likes to perform, and when a human asks him to perform it makes him feel good.”
“But you’re making the horse do what he doesn’t want to do,” the man insists.
She shakes her head. “The horse is doing what he likes to do.” She claps her hands and sends Mecca cantering and then walks with him back to the fence.
But the man persists. “It’s working because you’re not distracting him. But an outside force would make it fly apart.”
Resnick pauses. “At first you don’t distract the horse, you don’t set yourself up for failure. But this horse is coming because he wants to be with someone. If he had any other option, he’d still choose me.”
A few minutes later Resnick gets a chance to prove her point. Broy has led Mecca back to his stall and her 10-year-old daughter Jessica has brought out Mecca’s stablemate, Polly, a 14-year-old, 800-pound black Welsh pony. Broy bought Polly, another school horse with her own routines, only a month after Mecca; the pony instantly adored the younger horse, and followed him everywhere. At first he ignored her, then the two refused to be separated. Today when she first took Mecca into the arena by himself, Broy had been worried because he wouldn’t stop jerking his head up and down and screaming for Polly.
Resnick works Polly through several of the seven steps, then walks back to the fence. “Here you see two horses that are bonded together,” she says, “yet I can control each of them separately.” Someone in the audience picks up the challenge of the man in the cowboy hat and suggests she put them both in the arena together. She pauses and then laughs. “Do you think I should put them together?” she asks the audience.
“Yeah,” several people shout.
Broy leads Mecca back out of his stall and into the arena. He immediately runs up to Polly and circles around her. The two stand side by side, their tails against the wall, Mecca’s ears flicking back and forth and then flattening. Laurin Parker, Resnick’s manager, is pacing up and down the fence.
Resnick approaches the horses and stops. She laughs and throws up her hands. “I don’t know. This isn’t what I normally do. We’re just having fun.” She tips her head toward Mecca. “He hopes I’ll go away.” Then she walks up to Polly and smiles. “She likes me.”
Resnick turns and stands at Polly’s shoulder. She steps forward and Polly walks with her. They head across the arena, Mecca trailing behind. Several people in the audience gasp, then everyone breaks into applause.
Resnick moves away from Polly and approaches Mecca. He flicks his ears, clearly hesitating, then steps forward with her. Suddenly Polly pushes between them and jealously stands next to Resnick as if looking for direction. “She didn’t want me asking him to do something for me,” Resnick explains when she comes back to the fence. “She wanted to do it.”
Parker is smiling. “I guess that answers that guy!”
But the man in the cowboy hat, who owns an Arabian, doesn’t seem to mind. He comes again on Saturday and in the afternoon asks Parker how many people with horses he’d have to get together to persuade Resnick to come back through Chicago to give him a private lesson. He says he’s watched lots of trainers and has never been terribly impressed. “But this really works.”
When Resnick was in kindergarten the teacher told her mother that her daughter was extremely bright and suggested she think about sending her to a better school. What made her think Carolyn was so bright? her mother asked. The teacher replied that she could mimic a horse perfectly, which proved she had a great imagination. Resnick is still amused by her mother’s response, which she repeats theatrically: “Ah, but my daughter thinks she is a horse, and that’s a different matter entirely.”
Resnick’s great grandfather and grandfather on her mother’s side were horse trainers, and her grandfather on her father’s side was one of the top trainers of workhorse teams in the country, teaching them, among other things, to put up the poles for the Barnum & Bailey tents. Resnick’s father also worked as a trainer and blacksmith, but “by the time I was five years old he never looked at a horse anymore,” she says. “It was all mine. They were through with horses by then.”
She grew up in Indio, a small desert town in southern California, and had a childhood straight out of a book. When she was seven her father gave her a horse, Mustang, that had been captured from a wild herd in the nearby San Jacinto Mountains. “He was broke to ride and very angry about it. My father bought him for, I think, $250. He and I then developed a relationship to where–I knew he was wild. He’d been caught and broke. But I wanted to get him back to his natural environment as soon as possible. So as soon as I thought he understood where home was I didn’t lock him up anymore.” Mustang had his own paddock and corral but the gates were open. He could go back to the mountains if he wanted to, Resnick says. “But he preferred me.”
When she was nine the family moved to a ranch outside town, where they raised corn, beans, and grapefruit. Her parents both worked in town and came home late, and she had no brothers or sisters. So she was on her own much of the day and would ride for a couple hours before going to school and all afternoon when she came home. She went to a series of schools and managed to persuade the teachers and principals at each one to let her go home early every day, and she didn’t go to school at all when she had a horse show. “What can I say? My education was horses, and they considered that schooling.” This was the late 1940s and early 50s, when horses were still important in rural America. She says she didn’t know how to fit in very well at school. “Communicating with people was hard. But I found I could communicate with horses.”
By the time she was ten she’d set up her own business training horses that bucked. “I did it for practically nothing–just to be with horses.” People admired the rapport she had. “They said I talked to horses and would ask me what they said. I loved the attention, but I knew I didn’t really talk to horses. That’s why I went to the mountains–so I could look someone in the eye and say ‘Yes, it’s true I talk to horses.'”
Resnick went into the San Jacinto Mountains to study the herd that Mustang had been taken from. “I was in love with my horse and I wanted to know where he had been so that I could understand him better.” She rode him until they found the herd, and then took him back to the ranch and left him there while she returned to the mountains. “It was a very hard decision for me to make because I’d never been away from him. But I felt that for me to learn what I needed to learn I needed to be by myself.”
She says the herd was owned by a film studio that had rounded up the horses to use in its westerns but had never broken them to ride and finally just let them run wild over several thousand acres. Her parents asked studio officials to let her study the horses over the summer, and they agreed, on condition that she someday help corral the herd.
That summer, when she was still ten, she stayed in the family’s cabin in the mountains and spent every day tracking the horses. At first they wouldn’t let her anywhere near them. “They knew they didn’t want to be rounded up. I spent at least a month following them at a distance of seven miles. I didn’t know where I was going with this at first. I wanted to be part of the gang. I wanted to have a relationship with horses like people had in the books–Black Beauty. I wanted a horse that would fetch the doctor for me if I was hurt.”
The horses finally decided she wasn’t a threat, and the second summer she got close enough to watch how they interacted. She discovered that the lead mare organizes the herd and makes most of its decisions, enforcing her dominance through taking territory, hazing, and insisting that the other horses pay attention. “In our society dominance is considered a negative. For horses it’s positive. The lead mare knows where the hay is, where the water hole is–it’s protective. The lead mare isn’t a mean mare. A mean mare doesn’t put the herd’s interests first.” She saw that horses, being vulnerable only to swift predators such as cougars, move instinctively away from things coming toward them. They also move instinctively toward things moving away from them, such as the lead mare when she wants to move the herd out of danger. Resnick also saw that when a colt stays in an area close to its mother’s shoulder, what she calls the “heart area,” the two seem almost tied to each other. Later she would discover that as long as she was in that area a horse would try to stay close to her.
The third summer, when she was 12, Resnick made herself part of the herd. When the horses came to the water hole, she was the last to drink, the lowest creature in their hierarchy. “I always acted afraid of the horses, and soon they all started telling me what to do. They pushed me around.” She eventually used a stick to chase the lowest horse in the hierarchy away from the water hole before he could drink, and then chased the next lowest horse. Slowly she worked her way up through 60 horses to the top of the herd. This wasn’t very horselike behavior; horses, unlike many pack and herd animals, have a stable hierarchy that’s generally passed on to the colts according to their mother’s position. But it worked, and by the end of the summer Resnick was able, albeit reluctantly, to keep her part of the bargain with the film studio: she led the horses down out of the mountains and into the studio corral. But she knows some of them escaped again because a herd still runs in the mountains.
For a while she went on training horses, but she was increasingly uncomfortable doing it. “I said, ‘Why should I make this horse do what I want? I have no right.’ And I stopped training for years.” Her father, who had given up training when she was small, also discouraged her. “He said, ‘You’ll never make a good trainer.’ I think what he was trying to say was ‘You’ll never get anybody to believe you.’ He knew I was always gifted, but my father never felt I could play in the big time. I fought that for a long time. If I hadn’t had that childhood experience with horses I might not have gone back.” She and her father never talked much about what she was doing with horses, even after it became her only work. She had a big breeding operation with more than 30 horses before he died in 1976, but they never discussed it. And she never showed him what she had taught her horses to do.
When she was 15 she sold Mustang and began to apprentice herself to several top trainers. Later she also worked for her mother in a gift shop, as a nanny, and as a model. She also designed store windows and was a fashion buyer.
She continued to ride and show horses, but was still reluctant to train them as a profession. Then finally, when she was about 21, she said to herself, “Now wait a minute. If I can get this horse to do this without putting a rope on him, then nobody can get in my way and say he didn’t want to do it.” She bought a horse and trained it at liberty in a 5,000-acre paddock–she thinks it’s important for horses to feel they can safely run away from her if they want. When she felt the horse was ready she took it to a hill overlooking the arena where the local weekly barrel-racing competition was held, and the two of them sat and watched. The following week she walked the horse through the standard cloverleaf pattern around three barrels. The third week they trotted through it, the fourth week cantered. She put on a bridle but never used it–all directions were given with her legs. On race days they would sit on the hill watching. The fifth week she entered the horse in the race and let it run as fast as it wanted. They won. She still lets new horses watch her work her trained horses. “By the time I get to the new horse he’ll be trained.” She also finds that wild horses, having already learned “horse language” in the herd, are easier for her to train than horses born in captivity.
Training that horse and winning that barrel race gave Resnick the confidence to begin training professionally again, and she’s been doing it ever since. She decided that in getting a horse to perform without tack she was building a relationship that would mean more to the horse than its right to be left alone. “I believe that animals want to be with human beings desperately. And I really believe horses want to serve man–I believe that they love human beings. Every person born on the face of the earth gets to relate to various things in life. Mine is horses. Whether the animal’s rights exist or don’t exist, it doesn’t take away the fact that I am important to him.”
She says it is cruel to take horses away from their herds, their “families.” “There’s one thing we feel the same–we suffer loneliness the same. I try to fill that for them. So I become a horse’s family, and I live family scenarios–walk, go trot, and come up are all scenarios he’s familiar with. If I can perform an act that reminds him of his lead mare, his brother, his sister, then he wants to be with me–I’m his whole world.”
And what does she give a horse that other horses can’t? She laughs. “Oh, probably the biggest party he ever thought of having. Other horses are like friends we have. In other words, they have their own agendas, they’re not really thinking of your wants and needs–a lot of stuff is going on. There’s jealousy, right? OK. I go up to my horse and say, ‘You’re a big shot.’ Who doesn’t want to be a big shot? ‘I think you’re the greatest thing in the world. You’re the most important thing in my life. There isn’t anything in this life that’s more important than my feeling for you.’ Would you turn that down? And when I’m there for him at that capacity, he’s there for me. That’s what’s so wonderful about horses. You can be there for your best friend–and see what it gets you. You can be there for your parents–and see what it gets you.”
She also believes horses have an innate curiosity, a desire to learn and perform that people usually squash just as they squash it in children. “Training makes a horse’s life bigger, better, more wonderful.” And what’s in it for her? “To me training is a spiritual experience. It’s not because I want this horse to serve me.” She laughs. “I want to find the meaning of life. Actually I was born attached to horses. I never got over the love affair. People would love to have a relationship with their horse like the people in those books had. It’s taken me years and years to believe in the fairy tale myself–I think I’ve been the most cautious about this. But the story is real and true. I almost believe that if something happened to me my horse would go and get the doctor.”
Sara Davis leads Sabik, a seven-year-old, 850-pound Arabian gelding, into the arena. Davis lives on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and has bred and trained horses for years, including the 1983 midwest endurance champion. She raised Sabik from a colt and had hoped to race him. In 1988 she sent him to a trainer in Indiana. “He was very egotistical, and he only wanted to get a horse to the track as fast as he could.” The man ran Sabik so hard he was landing on his fetlocks–the backs of his legs, just above the hooves–and rubbed them raw. Davis guesses the horse was also whipped. He refused to run on the track and would try to throw his riders by stopping dead, veering sharply into the infield, or running backwards, which he can do remarkably fast. Before he went to this trainer, Davis says, “he was very responsive, very willing. He’d do anything you wanted him to do.” After he came back she only had to raise her voice and he’d take off. Hoping a new trainer would help him, she sent him to a man in Illinois, who starved him trying to control him. In two months he lost 100 pounds.
Davis worked Sabik gently until she could ride him again, but occasionally he would do something weird, like run sideways off the trail. Two years ago she rode him on a morning when the frost was thick on the ground, and he suddenly took off and refused to stop. She was afraid he’d fall, so she turned him uphill. He fell anyway. She cracked a couple ribs. He hit his head hard but got up and ran home. “He looked pretty good running up the road with his tail straight up in the air,” she says dryly. “Since then I’ve been a little bit concerned about riding him. In fact, you might say I’ve been a little scared of him, because he’s an extremely powerful horse. I’ve had two other people work him, and they get so far and then he blows up or does something stupid.” She’s been thinking about selling him.
Resnick steps into the arena and Sabik, who has just a halter on, watches her intently. She briefly checks the territory, says hello, and then moves straight to step six, asking him to walk with her. He immediately does, turning and stopping cleaner than any of the other horses have. Later Davis says, “She went out there and moved him around a little bit, and he said, ‘Oh, I get this.’ It was instantaneous. To me it was like there was a rubber band between them. I was just flabbergasted.”
Suddenly Resnick brings Sabik back to the fence and says, “I did a really bad thing. Did anyone see what it was?”
“You put yourself in a corner,” someone says.
“Right. I could have been trapped. We don’t ever want to do that.” She walks with Sabik again, taking him over to the hay pile. He isn’t interested, not even when she picks up a handful and offers it to him.
“This horse already knows horse language and he’s bonded, so we’ll put more pressure on him and see what he does.” She claps her hands, which sends him into a graceful canter. He’s a beautiful horse–dappled gray shading to charcoal on his legs and ears with large dark eyes and a slender sculptured nose–and his motions are light and precise. Resnick says Arabians usually appear to be more responsive because they have more “go,” but a horse’s bearing doesn’t predict its intelligence or willingness to perform. In another clinic she had a big lumbering horse with small eyes set far over on the sides of its head so that it couldn’t see well, but it quickly learned to bow, count, and roll over.
Resnick asks Davis, who’s no taller than she is, to walk and turn with her carrying a bucket of water on a broomstick between them–Resnick acting as the trainer, Davis as the horse–an exercise intended to make clear how much can be communicated through body language alone. They crisscross the arena, Resnick fluid, Davis stiff. Sabik, with no one asking, follows, lifting his feet neatly and keeping his head squarely between their shoulders. On Saturday Resnick will ask Davis to walk with the pole and bucket again. “Am I supposed to watch you?” Davis asks. Resnick answers, “Forget intellect. Listen to your body.”
It’s almost five o’clock when Resnick says that tomorrow all the owners of the horses in the clinic may ride. Everything you teach a horse from the ground, she explains, translates into better control once you’re on its back. She asks Davis if she wants to ride. Davis pulls her head back and stares at her, but then nods.
“He’s a smart horse,” says Resnick. “He’d be great without a bridle.”
Davis claps her hand to her heart and laughs. “You can ride him without a bridle.”
It’s bitter cold outside and cold inside, despite two big kerosene heaters, yet most of the spectators are still here. Some of them now crowd around Resnick asking questions. Some cluster around Parker, buying the video Resnick has done on the seven steps or one of the whips she uses, bursting into laughter when they figure out how to make it snap.
On Saturday morning Resnick begins by running through the seven steps again. Half of the 60-odd people in the audience weren’t here yesterday. Some people who were have come back with video cameras.
“What do you do with a horse that charges?” someone asks.
“If you think a horse is going to charge, run at it as fast as possible. The idea is timing–the horse either runs or he stands his ground. If you’re far, he’ll run. People usually back up if a horse charges, but that only makes them angrier.”
When it’s Mecca’s turn in the arena he balks outside his stall. For at least two minutes Kim Broy holds his head tight as he yanks backward and rears. Finally she manages to pull him into the aisle, and he suddenly agrees to go with her. Later she says he’s never done anything like that before.
“We want to try to get some elements of lightness and calmness in this horse–and a desire to be out here rather than back at the barn,” says Resnick. “So I want to change the shape of his body–make him lower his head, turn his head toward me.” She walks with him and stops, then puts one hand on the top of his head and gently pushes down. His head slowly drops, and Resnick draws her hand back. She does this over and over as they circle the arena until finally he lowers his head on his own when they halt. Bending a horse’s head, she explains later, relaxes him and encourages him to give under pressure, to be submissive.
Resnick holds Mecca’s slack lead while Broy uses a hay bale to get on his bare back. She reaches automatically for the reins, but Resnick tells her to drop them, to use them only as a last resort. The ideal horse has “impulsion”–it eagerly moves forward on its own without being repeatedly pushed by heels, spurs, or a whip. Reins, like a lot of tack, check that desire.
Broy and Mecca walk across the arena, her long legs dangling straight down his sides, her feet well below his belly. Resnick still holds the lead, but all her commands are given with her body. She shows Broy how to use body language to control Mecca from his back, turning him left by dropping her seat on the left while pushing slightly with her right leg, getting him to stop by straightening and lifting herself so that her seat is no longer following his movements. If he doesn’t halt immediately, Resnick says, Broy can give him a verbal command. “The body is the request. The voice is the correction.” If that doesn’t work, she may pick up one rein. Resnick wants all the owners of the clinic horses to concentrate on their movements first so they’re aware of how much they tell a horse–and how much they can confuse a horse. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, now my body isn’t saying anything.’ Your body is speaking every moment you’re out there.”
Mecca doesn’t seem to want to halt, continuing several steps past the command. But instead of telling Broy to pick up the rein, Resnick unsnaps the lead and then continues to ask him to halt only with her body while Broy asks from his back. Resnick also starts bending his head down again after they stop. “This horse’s attitude isn’t right,” she says, stepping away to let Broy try to control him on her own. He’s still reluctant to halt, and finally Broy resorts to the rein.
Polly, also wearing a bridle, comes back into the arena, and Broy cups her hands and helps her daughter onto the pony’s bare back. Polly too ignores the command to stop, and Jessica pulls hard on both reins. Resnick tells her to pull gently on only one. Polly’s head bends toward the rein, and because a horse follows its nose she starts turning in a tight circle. Resnick says, “We’ll just wait until she decides to stop.” Which she finally does. “Now release,” Resnick says. “And pet her. And go forward. And halt.” Again Polly doesn’t stop, and again Jessica pulls her in a circle. “She has to be submissive and stop. She can get that rein released if she just halts.” Resnick turns to the audience. “I don’t care how long she goes around in a circle. Why force a horse?”
Jessica dismounts and then walks and trots next to Polly, who now halts exactly when she does. Parker puts a jazz-medley CD on a boom box, and Resnick explains that she often works her horses to music. “It’s fun,” she maintains. “It also teaches you economy of movement–it teaches you to take fewer steps. The fewer the steps, the more the horse can read your body language.” Polly and Jessica run together in figure eights, Jessica laughing. She says the pony never even followed her before the clinic.
At home Resnick can take her time getting to know a horse before she starts training it. “It’s very little like in the clinic. I go out and talk to the horse. I say, ‘Hi. How are you?’ I listen to him a long time to see who he is, watch him move around. It’s very spontaneous. I approach every horse differently.”
Yet she keeps a distance between herself and a horse well into its training. “When I first start to train a horse it isn’t important that he and I are best friends, because it’s a very formal thing. How he’ll feel about me at one month is different from how he’ll feel about me at two months or six months or ten years. Once he respects me, then he wants to please me, he wants a relationship with me. I say, ‘Maybe we’ll be friends.’ We become friends the more we learn to contract together, and when the friendship grows it becomes very deep. But I do not go to him. He comes to me.”
In the end her horses may not look much different from those schooled by other liberty trainers, of whom there aren’t many, or by classical trainers, but the methods she uses to get her horses to that point are quite different. Other liberty trainers may, for instance, use a whip to trap a horse along a wall or fence to force it to perform. The methods of classical trainers are even further removed, though Resnick often uses the same cues. “Classical principles don’t incorporate the horse having to be an intelligent actor and performer. And if a horse can’t figure out what he’s doing and only does what he’s told to do, then he isn’t happy.” She says the worst way to abuse a horse isn’t by giving it pain. “It’s treating the horse like something that doesn’t have any feelings, thoughts–something that has no ability to communicate. I want a horse that has something to say. I let a horse join me. He learns, ‘If I do this, I’ll get that.’ He thinks it’s his choice. In competition, the horse that will win is the one that thought it was his idea. I want to develop the passion in a horse, and I try to work the passion in a horse.”
She says people often think horses are stupid, probably because horses don’t fit their assumptions. Someone at the San Diego Zoo once told her that horses clearly weren’t as smart as dogs and offered as proof an experiment in which a mare was led through an open gate, into a paddock, and up to the fence. Someone showed her a bucket of oats, which horses love, then walked back through the gate around to the other side of the fence, setting the bucket down directly opposite the horse. She simply stood there looking through the fence, unable to figure out how to get to the oats. The same experiment was done with a dog and a bowl of food; as soon as the bowl was put down on the other side of the fence, the dog raced to the gate and around to the bowl.
Resnick was dismayed when she heard this story, but she thought about it awhile and began to wonder if the premise was faulty. Dogs, being carnivores, have always had to track their food. Horses, being vegetarians, never have to do more than look down. Resnick set up her own experiment, changing the object of interest. She led a mare to the fence, put its colt on the other side, then pretended to attack the colt. The mare immediately flew through the open gate and around to the colt. Then Resnick did the same thing with a dog and its puppy. “And guess what? The dog tried to sieve itself through the fence.”
One classical method for teaching a horse to stand still when it’s tied is to put it in a strong halter, tie it up, and let it pull until it realizes it can’t get away. “I never teach a horse that he can’t pull away. He’s already learned to stand still because I said ‘Whoa’ when he was at liberty. So I put a halter on him, put a rope on him, tie him to something, and I say ‘Whoa.’ Maybe he starts to say, ‘Hey, I don’t know if I like being tied up,’ and I say, ‘No. Whoa. Nothing’s going to happen to you.’ And he says, ‘Oh. I shouldn’t be pulling at this halter because she told me to stand.’ And that’s the end of that lesson.” If he still pulls, she unties him and goes back to teaching him to stand at liberty. All the basics–stopping, turning, gaits–are taught from the ground at liberty before they’re requested from the horse’s back. Resnick also breaks down tasks so that she’s never asking a horse to concentrate on more than one thing at a time.
When a horse is first taught to accept a bit in its mouth, it often leans on it, pulling against the reins to help it balance itself with the extra load of the rider. This makes the horse “heavy” in the rider’s hands, so many trainers move to bits that are increasingly uncomfortable–up to twisted wire–till the horse stops pulling. Resnick teaches the horse to balance itself correctly before she uses a bit–if she uses one at all. She does keep a bit in her barn, but it’s the lightest one sold, a snaffle, two smooth bars with an eye joint between them. It’s the only piece of tack she uses, though she says she isn’t antitack and has watched many trainers use it well.
As soon as a horse does the new thing Resnick wants it to, she praises it and moves on to something else. “Once a horse has the idea, stop. Don’t drill him or he’ll get confused. If he sleeps on it, the next day he’ll have it.” Classical trainers usually depend on what’s called “muscle response,” asking a horse to make a motion in reaction to a cue given over and over in the same way, and they often deliberately demand a move until the horse is so tired it stops resisting. Resnick sees no reason to force a horse to do something. “If you push him you’re not going to get what you’ll get if the horse gets it on his own and can be excited about it. You want a horse to stay delighted. It’s just like a child. You may push him to mow the lawn, right? But if he develops lawn mowing on his own, which kid do you think is going to have more fun at it?” She once spent six months trying to teach a horse to change its leading foot in the middle of a canter, a difficult maneuver. Resnick used all the classical cues, starting with cantering, then walking, then cantering again with the opposite foot leading. “I never insisted he obey me, just ‘Do you think you can do this?’ He didn’t get it. He was good with the liberty stuff and we were working as a team, so I wasn’t explaining it right or something.” She went on to other things, and one day when he was cantering he simply changed leads on his own.
Some trainers might say they don’t have time to wait for a horse to figure something out; Resnick replies that she may start very slowly with her horses but they soon catch up. At six months they’ll do things that classically trained horses won’t do for a year. “You can take a horse that doesn’t like to be trained and make him really good, but his heart’s not going to be in it. He can be trained, he can be made to do it. But he’ll always say, ‘One day I’m gonna get loose.'”
Some trainers also use fear and pain as motivators–a crack of a pole against a horse’s hind legs as it clears a jump so it will carry its feet higher, the sting of a whip on its haunch so it will tuck its back end under. Resnick says she doesn’t need to punish a horse. “I see his embarrassment when he does something wrong. He doesn’t want to be wrong. Sometimes it may look like there’s hostile activity between me and my horse, but it’s only display. We can get mad, but we quarrel as family.” Once she was training a palomino that had been a rogue; he made a mistake, the sort of thing for which another trainer might have punished him. “But when he realized what he’d done he came up and stood next to me–he shook he was so afraid. I just asked him to do it again, and he did it fine.” She adds quietly, “Professional trainers who do horses for a living sometimes lose sight of what they’re doing and get involved with the pressures of business. They lose the art of the sport.”
Asked for the main difference between Resnick and other top trainers she’s seen, Laurin Parker says, “The thing I see with the animals she works is a really healthy ego. They really have confidence in themselves, and they have confidence in her. They sure as heck aren’t afraid of her. I know the horses I’ve sent up there have been a whole lot happier with her than anywhere else.” She laughs. “Including home.”
Parker first met Resnick last spring when she and two friends took 12 horses to her ranch on a lark. “I wasn’t going up there with the thought in my mind, ‘I’m going to find something that’s going to turn my life around.’ At the end of two days we came back with 12 totally different horses.” She had saved her white stallion for last. “He’s like a slug,” she told Resnick. “She turned him loose and inside of five minutes that thing is just trotting up to her, snakin’ his neck. And she says, ‘This is the superstar of the whole group.’ Yeah, right. But he was just hot. He took one look at her and you could see his eyes change. It was, ‘My God, someone’s talking my language.’ It was totally unbelievable.”
Resnick says the hardest horse to train is a lazy one. “You have nothing to work with–you can’t build energy in a horse.” She’s most attracted to “crazy” or difficult horses. “All my best horses were the most difficult in the beginning. A difficult horse likes to work.” She laughs. “I like a horse with spirit because I know it’s just a matter of time before he’s mine.”
She admits there are horses she wouldn’t take on. “I don’t like all horses. I don’t take ones that don’t have a certain eye. If I’ve got to train horses all day long I surely want to look into eyes that like me.” And are there horses she couldn’t train? She laughs. “Sure there’re horses I can’t train. I think I own one.”
That would be Bud, pronounced with a dropping drawl. “He’s probably the most difficult horse I’ve run across in a long time,” Resnick says, laughing. “He’s one of the best-moving horses I’ve ever seen, but he’s scared of his own shadow. I’m sure glad I got him when he was two, not four. I have got to get inside this horse and change him, make him feel secure. I’m not going to do a lot of training. I’m going to do a lot of grooming. And when it comes to training, that horse will be there for me.”
Resnick planned to work on the seventh step with Sabik after lunch on Saturday, but she’s noticed that he’s whip-shy, so she walks him around the arena a few times, repeatedly dropping her whip and circling back to pick it up. When she comes back to the fence she tells his owner, Sara Davis, “You should pick it up after you’ve made him do what you want and make him come to you with it in your hand, so it builds up his courage.”
When Sabik comes back out later in the afternoon he has his saddle and bridle on. Resnick frowns. “One of the reasons you’re having problems is he doesn’t like this bit.” She turns to the audience. “If we’re not going to ride liberty, at least get them into snaffle bits. And you never need a chain under the jaw. Especially a horse this smart.” She unhooks the small chain that runs under his chin and squeezes the bit against his tongue when the reins are pulled. “Now that feels better already, doesn’t it?” she says, stroking his nose.
Resnick lets the stirrups on Sabik’s saddle down and slips a single coil of heavy nylon rope over his head. It slides down to rest against his chest so that Davis can tug on it to reinforce her halt cues. Davis climbs onto his back, and he immediately starts grinding at the bit. “This is why he runs backward,” says Resnick.
Davis, who’s been afraid to ride Sabik, looks tense, but she doesn’t reach for the reins when Resnick, holding the lead slack, asks him to walk. Davis lifts herself to ask him to stop while barely pulling on the neck coil with two fingers. Later she says she was stunned that he immediately stopped. Resnick says one should always give the lightest cues possible. “Just remember, when a fly lands on a horse, he knows it.”
Resnick started doing clinics 12 or 13 years ago, when liberty events were added to Arabian competitions and the people who entered them found they couldn’t control their horses. “They’d turn their horses loose and get them running around, and then when they went to catch them they couldn’t. The ones that started winning were the ones that started doing things like playing and running alongside their owners. Well the problem with that is that most horses on a given day don’t really want to do that, though they will on occasion. But I was playing with my horses on the ground and they were doing that all the time.”
She now wants to do as many clinics as she can. “My whole desire in life is to get people closer to understanding the animal kingdom and to stop animal abuse.” Demand is building, though she’d never done any promotion until Parker came along–it was all word of mouth. She’s doing a couple of clinics a month and has plans to do two cross-country tours this year. Donna Ewing hopes to bring her back to Woodstock this spring.
Resnick likes watching the relationship between a horse and its owner change during a clinic. She remembers telling one woman who was having trouble with her horse that she ought to sleep in the stall with it. The woman started to cry. “She said, ‘I always wanted to sleep with my horse, but I thought people would think I was crazy. And now you’re telling me to and I don’t have to be crazy.’ She slept with her horse that night, and the next day in the clinic she and the horse were absolutely bonded. Incredible. It worked. That doesn’t mean that sleeping with a horse will bond you, but I knew at that moment it would.” How did she know? “I don’t know how it comes out of me. It just happens. I don’t know.”
Most of the people by far who come to the clinics are women. Resnick says that although most professional trainers are men and men dominate in rodeo and at the racetrack, nearly everything else–jumping, driving, dressage, endurance competition, pleasure riding–belongs to women. Donna Ewing says the Hooved Animal Humane Society has 150 volunteers, but only about 15 of them are men. Why? Resnick laughs. “What does a woman do the best? Relationships. I don’t think a woman has enough relationships in her life, and it’s a way she can have one without feeling that who she’s relating to wants something from her. The kid wants something, the husband wants something, her relatives want something. And guess what her horse wants? Just to see her face. It’s ‘Hi! Boy, am I glad to see you!’ And it’s getting something that is much bigger and stronger than you to do something. Especially when she isn’t able to get her husband to do exactly what she wants, she can run down to the barn and think, ‘This 1,500-pound horse will.'” Later Resnick adds, “I feel that all animals represent a certain link, a door to the spiritual world. I think what horses do is give us our missing heart. And I think that’s why women are around horses–they have more desire to touch that side of themselves, that side of life.”
She thinks men and women approach horses very differently. “A woman has to have a horse and then figure out the purpose. A woman will say, ‘I want a horse.’ Then she thinks, ‘Oh, gosh, I’ve got to ride him, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that.’ Where a man says, “I want to go riding. Oh, God, I’ll have to get a horse.’ You see? He’s got the sport in mind and then the horse. The woman has the horse in mind and then the sport.” She says men who try riding often quickly drop out. “A man is used to using his muscle to get what he wants. He tries it with a horse and it doesn’t work. And he says, ‘Hey, this is not instant reward. I’m out of here.'” Nevertheless, Resnick prefers to work with men, perhaps for the same reasons she prefers troublesome horses.
Yet at the Woodstock clinic she seems most fond of the children, listening carefully to what they say, speaking especially gently to them, easily accepting their mistakes and awkwardness. “Most people don’t understand the importance of working with children,” she says. “But if you can impact that child’s awe, it’s forever.”
On Sunday morning five little girls from the Hooved Animal Humane Society Pony Club are sitting on the hay bales in the front row, watching and listening attentively. Resnick walks up to them and says, “What would you really like to do?” They freeze. She says softly, “Would you like to walk with a horse?” They all smile, their eyes widening. Resnick asks if one of the people in the clinic would like to volunteer her horse, and Jessica offers. “That’s very sweet, Jessica,” she says.
When Polly comes out Resnick works her a little with Jessica and then invites one of the girls into the arena. Parker turns on the boom box, and Resnick puts the girl between her shoulder and Polly’s. The three set off together, Resnick holding her hand against Polly’s shoulder for a moment, then stepping away and letting the girl walk alone with the pony.
One after another the girls walk and trot with Polly. Resnick reminds them to lift themselves when they stop. They do, and Polly stops with them. One little girl gets out ahead, but she stops and clucks, and Polly catches up. “See, kids have an attitude that adults don’t,” says Resnick. “They believe they can get a horse back without a rope–because they believe those stories.”
That afternoon Resnick tells Kim Broy she wants her to do “trot work” from the ground and tells her to start with left turns so Mecca will be turning toward her. “Otherwise you’re going to lose your horse.” Broy jogs next to him down the arena and back, and he sticks to her as well as he has to Resnick. Parker starts the boom box again, and Broy and Mecca’s feet fall in time with the music. When she gets to the far end of the arena, Broy kicks her heels out and throws her head back laughing.
“What I like about this horse is how far he’s come,” says Resnick. “He’s starting to think this is fun.”
Broy watches as Resnick claps her hands to send him trotting by himself. He circles, she beckons, and he walks straight back to her. She stands with him for a moment before sending him off again. “You have to stay with a horse a little after he comes up or he’ll get into the habit of running off after he comes.” She chuckles. “And don’t send him off from the same place or he’ll think something’s wrong with that place.”
She sets him trotting a few more times, then hazes him a little. “He’s walking, not trotting, when he comes up,” she says at the fence. “He’s still got a little hostility in him.”
The last time they’re in the arena Polly and Mecca are together. Broy helps Jessica onto the pony, then uses an overturned bucket to mount Mecca. He doesn’t have a saddle or a bridle, only the coil of rope around his neck. Broy rides down the arena, turns left, and stops, lifting herself and pulling lightly on the coil.
“Absolutely wonderful,” says Resnick. “He’s really good today. You must have done really well with him last night.”
Broy nods her head and smiles. Last night and Friday night after everyone had gone and the horses were fed, she and Jessica had come back to the arena to try out what they’d learned.
Now it’s Jessica and Polly’s turn. While they walk up and down in front of him, Mecca hardly moves. When it’s his turn again, Broy barely touches his flanks and he almost bounds into a trot.
“You’re swinging your arms faster than you’re aware,” says Resnick. “That’s why he’s moving so fast.”
Broy lays her hands on her thighs, and Mecca slows his trot. The two circle Polly and Jessica, Broy lifting herself to get him to halt, though still reinforcing the cue with a slight pull on the neck coil and a sharp little “Whoa.”
Over the next three months Broy and Jessica work the two horses from the ground at their stable. In late January Broy says Polly seems more comfortable with Jessica and Mecca has made even more progress, perhaps because he had farther to go. “He’s happy to see me, he’s excited to get started. He starts nickering as I’m coming down the aisle to his stall. It’s as if we’ve become closer.” She laughs. “This sounds like baloney, but I think I’ve learned how to enter his world instead of forcing him to enter mine.”
Resnick uses Sabik to demonstrate the seven steps for the new people in the Sunday crowd of 40 or 50, but he makes it difficult because he follows her wherever she moves. Some noise in the audience finally distracts him, and she swiftly comes up behind him and snaps the whip so she can take his territory. He bolts off the spot, then whirls and charges back and forth in front of her, ducking his head and then throwing it back hard. She snaps the whip three or four times, and he suddenly stops and stands looking at her. She strokes his nose and walks him back to the fence.
“We don’t need to set up dominance with this horse because look how well he’s behaving. And look how much better he is with the whip. Yesterday he was very afraid of it.” She’s holding the whip under her arm on the side next to him, and he leans down and starts chewing it. She ignores him but doesn’t pull it away. Later she says, “In three days that horse got so I could carry a whip out there. A lot of people who were watching didn’t know what they were seeing, but that’s pretty spectacular.”
When Sara Davis takes Sabik out of his stall in the afternoon he refuses to come down the aisle. She has to lead him up and down in front of the stalls several times before he agrees to go. Once in the arena she starts walking with him, but he pulls ahead of her and she can’t keep up.
“Halt, halt, halt,” says Resnick. “This is a great game he’s set up with you–now he’s the head of the training program. How are you going to correct this?”
Davis isn’t sure.
“Haze him,” someone in the audience says.
“Right,” says Resnick. “He’s not obedient to you. Your horse knows everything he should do.”
Davis hazes him a little and then goes back to walking with him.
“Let me work him a little bit before he gets too sour,” Resnick says. She walks him forward and then gets him walking backward in neat little steps, but he suddenly pulls away. She immediately cracks the whip behind him, and he turns and comes back to where she’s standing. She strokes his head and they start again. He runs off a second time and she hazes him again. They walk and then trot, and he falls behind and then gets ahead. She brings him back to the fence. “He doesn’t want to trot at my side now, but I don’t think it’s a training problem. I think he’s just learned so much he needs a break.”
He comes back into the arena only once more, the last horse out. Resnick and Davis carry the bucket on the pole again, and he follows with his head between them. Then Davis walks with him alone, staying closer to him, her motions looser than yesterday. “Easy,” Resnick keeps telling her.
That night when Davis leads Sabik up to his trailer he walks right in. She says it’s the first time he’s done that since he went to the Indiana trainer who abused him.
Once home Davis set up an area to work Sabik at liberty through the seven steps in turn with her three other horses, Sabik’s brother and two sisters. “He came along really well,” she says, “and then the weather turned nasty.” She no longer wanted to sell him, and she had started to hope she could someday ride him in an endurance competition.
At the end of January she said she hadn’t been able to work him much, though twice she had a friend ride him while she walked at his shoulder, asking him to respond to cues she gave with her body. She says he stayed so tight on her shoulder that once when she tried to walk away he followed her into a shed. “A couple other times in the last week or two I went out and he followed me around super. So he’s got a good attitude again.” But she hasn’t ridden him. “I’d like to get on him,” she says, a catch in her voice. “But he’s come this far and I don’t want to mess up the groundwork that’s been laid.”
For the last 17 years Resnick has lived in a stone house on 14 acres in Sonoma. A mountain rises at the back of the narrow strip of land, and a stream cuts through it. She left the shrubs and big oak trees in her pastures and planted flowers all along the fence line.
She has had apprentices for years and one now works with her three days a week. “I wouldn’t want to do horses alone. I have to have people in my life. It gives me somebody I can have fun with–company. And it’s what I would have liked to have had when I was a child.”
Her family now includes horses, dogs, cats, and a cockatiel. Stony, an 18-year-old Arabian gelding, is retired, though he once worked several hours a day giving riding lessons, training for shows, carrying Resnick on evening rides. She says he knows how to do everything any horse has ever been trained to do, including jumps, tricks, dressage, Spanish-riding-school moves, airs above the ground, and a hesitating walk Resnick has never seen another horse do–all without tack and in response to voice commands. Most of the moves Resnick taught him, but some, including a series of eight jumps, he discovered himself.
Worried she might overwork him when she was training him for shows, Resnick used to throw his halter into the center of the arena, and when he’d had enough he’d pick up the halter and bring it to her. Parker was at the ranch last summer when some people came by to watch Resnick work. She led Stony, who hadn’t been worked in several months, into the arena and for about a half hour showed the people what he could do. She wanted to put him back in the barn, so she threw his halter into the arena and told him to get it. “I laughed until I thought I’d split,” says Parker. “He didn’t want to quit. He walks out there, stands next to the halter, and walks back to her. She says, ‘Stony, I said go get your halter.’ He goes walking out there, he looks at her, he picks it up, he walks halfway back, dumps it on the ground, and walks up to her. She says, ‘Stony, we’re gonna quit. Go get your halter.’ So he goes, picks the thing up, walks back to her, and dumps it at her feet. She says, ‘Stony, I said give it to me. You don’t just dump it.’ So he stands there for a few minutes and then leans over and picks the thing up and hands it to her like a little bad boy.”
“He worships the ground I walk on,” Resnick said last summer, sounding a little embarrassed. Her favorite horse then was Sam, her chestnut dressage horse. “Sam’s special,” she said. “Everything he does just fascinates the devil out of me.” But that was before Bud, her fancy-moving new gelding who doesn’t yet respond to anyone but her.
Resnick is now working on a book about horses and recently took up doing metal sculptures of them. She’s on the boards of the California Hooved Animal Humane Society and the Wild Horse Discovery Center in Monterey, and is a volunteer advocate for the wild horses on federal Bureau of Land Management lands. She still spends time with a herd of 60 wild mustangs who run near Monterey, and she stays in touch with a couple of people she knows who watch other wild herds. “To be good at something you have to watch without opinion. Just watch. You don’t go with a goal in mind or looking for proof of something you know.” She laughs. “That’s harder now than it used to be. Now I’m full of stuff. I think I know a lot.”
Does anything still mystify her about horses? She pauses for a long moment. “Probably their optimism. It’s really hard to break a horse’s spirit–it’s almost impossible. They’re optimistic, they’re fighters to the very end. The other thing I think is really wonderful about horses is that the forgiveness level in them is incredible. They forgive so easily. The wild mustangs–it’s amazing how quickly they bond. They may have been kicked around, shot, everything. And I go in there with them and behave like a horse, and immediately they forgive you.”
Resnick says she’s awed by the depth of loyalty and feeling horses can have for people. She once had a stallion she sold when he was three, and a dozen years later his owners called her. “He’d turned mean and wouldn’t let anybody in his paddock–would try to kill anybody that stepped in his paddock. And was this way for years. You know, if I had seen him after all those years and nobody had told me who he was, I don’t know if I would have recognized him. I mean he sure didn’t look like any horse I’d ever seen before–he had hair on him longer than I’d ever seen. But when I walked into his paddock, he looked at me with a soft eye and walked over. I put his halter on, and I led him out. He remembered me. Lord knows what they did–just stupidity. They didn’t abuse him. They just taught him to be mean because they didn’t know how to handle horses, and he was a tough colt. But the thing is, now there was a case where a horse remembered me. It wasn’t that I did anything right that day. He remembered me. He said, ‘Oh, you’re that nice lady.’ And I said, ‘That would be me.'”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.