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The Story of Pete

By Franklin Levinson

Famed Horseman visits GreeceWhen I first was invited to Colorado to work on a ranch I kept hearing the other cowboys talk about an "outlaw" horse that was there. They were full of stories about how dangerous and aggressive he was: he couldn’t be caught, wouldn’t be loaded, reared and split his owner’s head open, pulled back so hard when he was tied that he’d taken the shed with him, and dragged a guy who’d roped him all around a rocky field.

I heard the horse was going to be put down and sold for dog food because the owner didn't feel he was safe enough to sell to anybody. Since I know that a “mean horse” is often just a very scared horse, I was anxious to see this animal. So I immediately headed out the corral for a look.

Way over in a corner of the corral, I saw a really cute quarter horse, and I could tell by the way he was acting - nervously looking around, swishing his tail, twitching his ears and wide eyed - that he was terrified of everything and anything. My heart went out to him and I wanted to give him a chance. So I asked his owner if I could work with him a bit.

The owner said, "I take no responsibility for what this horse does to you, how badly he hurts you or your hospital bills. Fine with me if you want to get yourself banged up. But don't say I didn't warn ya."

The next day, I got up early and went on down to the round corral they had Pete confined in. I didn't really have a specific plan for the horse. But I knew I needed to somehow gain his trust that he would be safe with me and that I would never hurt him.

The first thing I did was nothing. I simply observed the horse. I observed him for about two hours watching how his movements were: whether quick and nervous, lazy, agitated, anything I could notice. And also his overall attitude; like if he showed any interest in anything and would move towards it or if he jumped away from little things he perceived as scary like noises or shadows.

What I believed I saw in this horse was the most fear I had seen in any horse I had come across in my life. The slightest movement near him would send him running around the round corral looking for escape. Any little noise prompted the same reaction. My heart went out to this fearful animal. I felt so much compassion for him that my heart became a lump my throat.

What could have happened to this horse to make him so afraid? I could only imagine, and then I wanted to stop imagining it.

That first day I only stayed by the corral gate on the outside. I left the corral feeling thoughtful and yet excited at the possibilities of somehow turning this great fear I was seeing into great trust. I had worked with a lot of horses in my life, but none so fearful as this one.

The next day, I got up early and went down to the corral gate. Pete (actually his name at the time was Pistol Pete, but I did not like the reference to a gun) saw me and was actually looking at me with a tiny bit of curiosity. As is my way, I remained very quiet and calm and went inside the enclosure. I did not focus any attention on the horse other than a polite initial, verbal greeting. I never really looked at the horse's face or head at all.

My intention was to have a completely neutral presence. Just being quiet in a small area with a horse can maybe prompt some interest or, at least a little curiosity. I walked around the corral and just looked at different areas, without putting any attention to Pete. Well, this went on for about 20 minutes and darned if that horse didn't start to follow me around the corral. He kept what he thought was a safe distance, but he sure did come along. After a bit of time doing that, I began to praise him when I stopped by saying, "good boy."

The following day, Pete was actually at the gate waiting for me and it was then that I could see that he was going to make it. I continued on with what I had done the previous day and Pete got closer and closer as he followed me around the corral. Eventually he would walk right with me and be quite close, and he would stop and go when I did. I continued speaking to him in a calm and reassuring voice.

Pete in ColoradoTowards the end of that second day, when Pete and I had stopped walking, I gave him a first little scratch on the withers and a "good boy." Just at that time Pete's owner happened to come by the corral to check things out. He saw this "outlaw" horse, which nobody could get near, standing about a foot to my right receiving quiet praise and a gentle scratch. And then he saw the horse following me around the corral, moving as I moved, changing directions and stopping when I did.

Well, the owner, who was a well-meaning fellow, said he couldn't believe his eyes. It was only a few days ago that he was considering putting Pete down because he was so dangerous to be near and he felt he would never be safe for anyone.

"Dang it! If that don't beat all! How'd you get that 'ol horse to do that?"

"Well, Sir," I said, "I just let him get used to me being around him without asking anything from him. I gave him bit of praise and space enough for him to not think I was going to try anything funny with him. I was patient and kind in my thoughts and actions. I knew he was just afraid and that all that dangerous behavior was the only way that he thought he could protect himself. He was like a little kid with a set of 6-shooters strapped to his hip. If you make him afraid he might just up and shoot you. So I made certain I did nothing that would make the horse think he needed to be afraid of me. If I had more time with him, I think he could turn out to be a pretty decent horse."

"Well, Franklin, I sure am liking what I have seen here with you and this horse. I never would have believed this horse would have settled down so fast with any human. Tell you what. I'll sell him to you for what he would have brought me if I had him put down at the killers."

So Pete became my horse and partner. He taught me even more about the importance of the roles of compassion and kindness, patience, calm and good leadership with horses. Pete took plenty of time to fully come around, but that was OK with me.

We still had our share of interesting challenges like when it came to trailer loading. I had managed to somehow load him up for the haul to the trailhead for a mountain ride. After the three hour ride and we got back to the trailhead I could not get him back into the trailer. I had to ride him the three additional hours it took to get back to the ranch, most of it along a busy roadway. I decided then and there that he needed to go to trailer loading school. It took me four long, hard hours to get him to trust that the trailer wasn’t going to swallow him whole and for him to walk in.

Now if he and I are near an open trailer door he wants to hop right in. Seems he has also developed a taste for adventure with me. We go off into the mountain wilderness together a lot. We have encountered bears, large herds of deer and elk and other wild animals. Pete - I now call him Sweet Pete - has never tried to dump me because he was so afraid of something or pull away from me out of fear. He may make a little jump if something startles him, but he never wants to leave my side. He watches my every move when I am anywhere he can see me. We share our emotions (horses are very empathetic) and we have a bond that will last all our lives.

These days Pete and I teach kids how to be kinder to animals and how to become a great leader for a horse in order to develop trust and respect with them. Because of the way I was able to help Pete, folks around the area began to ask me to help them with their problem horses. So 'Sweet Pete' and I have built a fine life together and we’re still carrying our message of trust and love to as many people as we can.

Mar 9, 2010 - I am pleased to report that Pete has found a wonderful new home and thanks to those who contacted me with offers to help.

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