By Laura Hill
When Kerstin Moltmann bought her horse, Marquis, she knew she had a problem on her hands.
The 3-year-old was barely broken to a halter and had a pronounced tendency to buck riders off his back “like ping-pong balls,” she recalls.
“He was totally green and very athletic,” says Moltmann, who trains dressage horses professionally and has ridden competitively for more than 20 years. “I didn’t want to take a chance on riding him.”
What to do with a bad-boy horse? Moltmann called Jack Lawrence, a bona fide horse whisperer who’s earned a national reputation over the past 25 years for turning tough equine customers into top-notch riding and working horses.
Rehabilitating Horses on Red Ranch
On his peaceful 15-acre Red Ranch in the rolling countryside south of Franklin, Lawrence practices an old, if unusual, method of training horses. It’s based on getting into a horse’s mind, earning his trust, building his confidence and rehabilitating him. Horse owners around the country bring their problem mounts to Red Ranch so Lawrence can work his magic.
“My job from the get-go is to set the horse and his owner up to succeed,” says Lawrence, 52, a man with youthful but wise blue eyes, whose ruddy face, under a well-worn straw cowboy hat, speaks of a life lived outdoors. He laughingly describes himself as “a horse screamer” but exudes the gentle, quiet confidence you’d expect of a man who can master a 1,100-pound equine miscreant.
“This is not rocket science,” Lawrence says of his methods. “This is all about fundamentals – structure and function. Horses are no different than children. They learn through repetition. Our job is to help them know they can do it.”
The biggest problem he faces with his horse-students?
“People,” he says bluntly. “There is so much disrespect for horses these days. They are too often under-rode, overfed and don’t have anything to do.”
“What we have to do is erase some things on a horse’s computer and replace them with other things,” says Lawrence, adding that he learned patience and forgiveness for animals and people from his mother, who taught kindergarten for 30 years.
“What we do here takes time. Nine out of 10 horses catch on, and they give 150 percent. But people come expecting that they can have a ‘fixed’ horse in a week, and that just doesn’t happen. You have to throw time out the window because every horse learns at a different pace.”
How He Does It
When a horse arrives at Red Ranch, Lawrence and his four assistants, including wife Sandy, first diagnose what’s behind its poor behavior. Any physical illnesses must first be cured. A slow campaign begins to gain the horse’s attention and then trust.
From there comes daily repetition of the behavior Lawrence wants the horse to learn, from standing still while it is groomed to trotting and stopping on command.
Gently (“These are children – wouldn’t you be gentle with a child?”), patiently, he builds the troubled animal’s confidence.
He breathes in rhythm with a horse, coaxes good behavior, lightly scolds unwanted moves, compliments the animal when it deserves praise and thanks it for obeying. Finally, after three to four months, Lawrence decides he has “made a horse.”
It doesn’t end there. The next step, just as vital, is training the horse’s owner, so the horse continues to thrive at home.
“I like to have at least four days with an owner here, because if they don’t continue at home with what we’ve done, everything can evaporate overnight.”
Kerstin Moltmann worked twice a week for three or four weeks with Lawrence before taking Marquis home. She’s glad she did.
“He works so intuitively with horses. You can see as you watch him how he feels his way into their minds – brilliant,” says Moltmann. “He really gets the criminals of the horse world, but he treats them so politely. If you take the time, you can get so much out of working with him.”
For Lawrence, that kind of success is more than just professionally rewarding.
“This is one of the best soul experiences on the face of the earth,” he says. “To make a horse.”
Top Horse Whisperers Compete in Murfreesboro
If Jack Lawrence’s techniques intrigue you, you might also be interested in Road to the Horse, a two-day event in March, featuring some of the finest horse trainers in the world at Tennessee Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro.
Like Lawrence, the featured trainers all practice “natural horsemanship,” a style that came to the attention of the general public with the best-selling novel and movie The Horse Whisperer.
For the Road to the Horse competition, each trainer is assigned to train a virtually untouched colt. In just three hours – spread over two days – each clinician will apply their own unique style of horsemanship to gentle, saddle, ride and guide their horses through an obstacle course without using force, fear or trauma.