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home : current news : current news January 16, 2018

1/2/2018 6:44:00 PM
Cowboy finds a more peaceable way with horses
Charley Snell knows what trouble feels like to a horse  and how to find a way around it. photo Eileen M. Chambers
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Charley Snell knows what trouble feels like to a horse and how to find a way around it. photo Eileen M. Chambers

By Eileen M. Chambers

It was hard to watch. Even to a novice, it was clear that the mare was in deep distress. Clouds of dust rising, she paced at the back of the corral, head flying high. In her eyes, humans were the monsters at the gate.

But that was yesterday - before Charley Snell, a wiry cowboy trained by renowned horseman Ray Hunt, began working with her. As a writer/filmmaker, I had gotten to know Charley while researching the American cowboy culture. Did that "your word is your bond," wild open range way of living exist anymore? The moment I shook Charley's hand, I knew. Here was the real deal. Hat, spurs and cowboy humor included.

"This little gal," Charley said as we walked into the corral, "if we had come in here two days ago, she would have fled."

Not now. That mare walked right up to Charley like two old hands getting ready to go work some cattle. Charley smiled. I laughed. The moment felt that good.

"Because I grew up with all sorts of trouble," Charley said more seriously, "I know what trouble feels like to the horse."

He wasn't kidding. Raised in Montana, Charley's ranching childhood was real tough. "Mom and Dad didn't get along. A lot of verbal abuse. Never any affirmation for anything. Some of that was eastern Montana mentality. The country was harsh, especially back then. You grew up keeping your mouth shut and taking care of business."

Charley's mentors "back then" were honest-to-goodness cowboys, "old-timers," who taught him the ropes. "They were not men of many words. If you wanted to learn something, you had better have the grit to hang in there. So, at a very young age, I developed the skill of observation. How they coiled their ropes. Saddled their horses. Worked a cow. So, having that skill, I see things in horses that other people don't."

In the 1970s, Charley took his first clinic with Ray Hunt, followed by many more with the legend. Ray had a life-changing influence, not only regarding horses, but with Charley finding peace himself, a journey that culminated on a deserted highway in the middle of a blizzard (another story).

"Ray had an understanding of the horse - of how the horse saw life and related to the human. Instead of just mechanically making the horse do something, Ray would fix things up so that the horse was relaxed, at peace and willing to whatever Ray wanted him to do."

As Charley told stories about what Bill and Tom Dorrance passed down to Ray and then what Ray passed down to young hotshots like Charley and his friend Buck Brannaman, it made you wish you were there.

"Most riders are unaware that their horse is not with them, mentally. So, when the horse doesn't do what they want or, even worse, bucks them off, the human gets mad, frustrated or injured, sometimes seriously.

"If a horse is troubled, he can't sense, feel or apprehend what you are asking because he is so concerned for himself. If would be like you and me trying to have a conversation while someone was about to pour hot coffee down your back. How relaxed would you be? But take away that source of anxiety and we would be free to talk.

"So, when I approach a horse, I am not particularly interested in what I can get done with the horse. I am interested in how the horse is feeling about the situation. How is it looking at things? Where is the trouble at? And what do I have to offer this animal to alleviate that trouble, so that he can be at peace? I am interested in that first and foremost because when a horse is at peace, then you can have that amiable conversation with him."

In our oft-times too impatient world, here was a different trail, a good way, altogether.

"What I do is bring humans and horses together for something lasting," Charley said. "I show riders how to help their horses let go of one thought and take up another. When you do that, you alleviate the horse's trouble and you are able, then, to have that amiable conversation. Training becomes moot because your horse will seek to do what you ask, even the first time you ask him."

As we stood silently, I was again amazed at those who call our Sisters "home." Like others in Sisters, here is a man who, without fanfare, hoopla or self-importance, is a master artisan in his field, at the top of his game, yet who lives out that life with simplicity, bringing peace to one troubled horse after another.

For more information, visit or call 541-705-7240.

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