The simple pleasure Roddy Strang derives from schooling a horse isn’t found in victories at the elite level of racing or medals earned at prestigious three-day event competitions. It is reflected in the countless hours of forging the link between man and horse.
On a crisp, sunny morning, a handsome yearling with a white blaze is being put through his paces at Strang’s Leap of Faith farm near Kirkwood, Pa. Make Me a Star is a chestnut with a coat like velvet that shimmers in the morning sun.
The colt has some issues: shying away from human contact to his head and balking at the initial training methods of his New Jersey trainer.
Lean and rock-hard from his daily training sessions, Strang practices an innate skill known best as “natural horsemanship.” The horse is the student. The covered ring is the classroom.
Strang doesn’t use force when instructing young horses and retraining damaged and difficult older ones. It’s sort of a mental tussle until the horse submits of his own free will.
Strang communicates using the position of his body, head, and eyes. Everything is done slowly, quietly, and carefully.
To show the horse he is not a threat, Strang takes a plastic bag tied on a stick and brushes the animal in vulnerable spots—the neck, flanks, and throat. Once trust is established, the trainer tosses on a blanket and tightens a saddle. Minutes later, he drapes himself off the side of the horse like a sack of potatoes as he accustoms the colt to human contact.
Strang loops a long lead line first around the colt’s girth, then later around his rear right hoof. Using gentle persuasion and communicating with kissing sounds he gets the horse to shadow him around the ring. He encourages Make Me a Star to walk toward him. The colt is rewarded with a vigorous rub over his cool, dark muzzle.
Shrinks would call it positive reinforcement. Strang leads his “pupils” with a kind but firm hand. He assumes the role of the dominant mare in the herd as he reads the look in a horse’s eye and position of his ears, so that at any given moment Strang’s response will be appropriate.
“I speak to them in a type of body language that they understand—the language they use to speak to each other in nature,” Strang says with a smile.
Strang was tutored by Joe Walters and Brian Neubert, disciples of Ray Hunt, who in turn trained under master western horseman Tom Dorrance.
On countless trips into the mountains, Dorrance became fascinated by the silent communication system of wild horses—their use of gestures and body language rather than sounds to avoid alerting predators to their location.
“Rather than forcing them to bend to his will, he created an environment in which horses could learn and respond to what he might ask of them,” Strang explains.
Strang grew up on a cattle ranch in Ashland, Kansas. When he was a kid there were no motorcycles, no mini bikes, just horses.
“If you wanted to go a mile over the hill, you’d jump on and ride bareback,” he remembers. “We’d swim across a good-size pond on the horse’s back. It scared me when I went back and looked at it as an adult. I’d never let my kid get near it.”
After graduating college, Strang turned up in Chester County where, initially, he worked cattle at the Hannums” family farm. Later he trained horses at the
Brandywine Polo Club. At age 23, Strang traveled to New Zealand, where he helped create polo ponies from former racehorses. Then he spent four years in England as a top-flight polo player and managed a polo club in West Wickham.
“In New Zealand, we’d be up at 5:30, take a load of green horses down to the beach near Christ Church and work our tails off,” Strang recalls. “I’d spend time back in the hills looking for horses. It’s a great way to see the country.
“I learned so much in polo. Nothing with horses matches that sport’s intensity. You learn how to read the horses. They tell you when they are tired, sore, or sour. You learn all the little details. It taught me so much about riding.”
These days when owners, trainers, or riders from Chester County have a problem, Strang’s phone rings.
Using a variety of repetitive exercises, Strang asks the horse to move in a certain direction by applying pressure to the halter. If the horse resists, the pressure continues, but as soon as the horse moves in the right direction, the pressure is released. The release is the horse’s reward. Then it’s on to the next step.
The transformation can take as little as 30 minutes to six or so one-hour sessions.
“Sometimes people don’t give the horse enough time to figure things out,” Strang notes. “They’re not bad horses, they just don’t understand what the trainer wants. For the horse, the wrong thing (to do) is difficult while the right thing is easy. For some trainers, that’s a tough concept to grasp.”
For more than 20 years, Heather Hunter has been bringing Thoroughbred foals into the world at her farm outside Unionville. Two years ago, she foaled Make Me a Star for longtime client Larry Ciletti of Pennsaucken, N.J. Hunter recommended sending the yearling to Strang last fall.
“Roddy works with the horse, doesn’t fight it,” Hunter says. “By fighting them, you put fear into them. He’s schooled so many of our young horses and they come back to us bright and happy, not fearful at all.
“Some teachers talk at kids. The better ones talk to them. That’s Roddy. And he’s so knowledgeable. He really gets involved, and from that involvement comes learning.”
What Strang does has been given plenty of labels, but really it is all about patience, understanding, and trust.
“When I was a kid, my Grandpa spent time teaching me about how a cattle ranch works,” Strang recalls. “When I did something right, I didn’t want a candy bar as a reward. I was looking for his hug and an ‘attaboy.” Horses feel the same way.”