Think Like a Horse: Lessons in Life, Leadership, and Empathy from an Unconventional Cowboy
June 03, 2022
For better or for worse, animals tend to be our favorite mirror of choice. In Grant Golliher's new book, our initially skeptical reviewer Bryan Rogers found it was, in the end, for the better.
Think Like a Horse: Lessons in Life, Leadership, and Empathy from an Unconventional Cowboy by Grant Golliher, G.P. Putnam's Sons
I’ll admit to having gone into this with a certain lack of optimism, and an almost determined sense of dispassion. As a former reader of books who now spends the vast majority of their waking life selling them, why I opted for some cowboy’s memoir still eludes me. I took it on as a work project, and as my self-imposed deadline drew closer, I found myself increasingly annoyed for having thoughtlessly raised my hand to the assignment. I mean, c’mon. Horses?! I don’t do horses. Human rights? Yeah. History? Let’s go. Horology? I even got time for that. But horses?!
By no means am I anti-horse, but I’m definitely not pro-horse either. And to top it off, the business self-help section (for all the help it must surely deliver) typically elicits from me some variation of skepticism, sarcasm, or plain disinterest. In other words, not a great start for my ride to the ranch. Little did I realize that the famed horse whisperer, Grant Golliher, author of Putnam’s forthcoming Think Like a Horse, had his training ropes primed for the likes of this skeptical reviewer. “Don’t try to win over the haters, you’re not a jackass whisperer.” While Brene Brown’s credentials are unquestionable, I think she’s wrong on this one. I don’t know if Golliher was trying to turn me, but he did. In spite of myself, I left the Diamond Cross Ranch a little less bitter, and, no doubt, the better for it.
Golliher opens with a brief scene from his adolescence in the foothills of western Colorado where his father raised mules on a peach farm. Right up front, we’re offered a glimpse of the powerful transformation to come. Tasked with “breaking” the mule colts, Grant’s father expected his son to rely on “force, fear, intimidation and repetition”—that all-too-common behavioral quartet that features in humanity’s catalog of worst songs. Western conventional wisdom though it was, “kick them in the belly to get their attention” didn’t sit quite right with the young Golliher, despite the overtures of his harsh, disaffectionate father. Instead, he listened to his gentler instincts to encourage the mules’ cooperation, leaning on tactics that might promote a deeper sense of collaboration. That experience would make an encore at a crucial stage of the horse trainer’s path towards the “unconventional.”
(The pervasive whiteness in the use of the word unconventional to describe a philosophy and methods that were entirely conventional and existentially grounding to many indigenous nations dating back millenia, and who were then genocided, displaced, and erased from our cultural memory due to the very-well documented and conventional tactics of white European colonizers does, I believe, merit a major mention here.)
At nineteen, journeying north along the Continental Divide on a mule named Kate, the budding cowboy found work on a ranch in Wyoming and began training horses for polo. Before too long, however, he’d grown dissatisfied and started to notice how the job brought out a kind of brutality in him, born of the simple necessities of doing business. Profit motives bred pressure to train horses quickly (which led to an over-reliance on coercive and forceful methods), and to sell them even more quickly, (which led to injured horses ruined by unfit but well-to-do riders). Disillusioned by the game and disappointed in himself, Golliher prayed for a more enlightened way forward.
Enter Ray Hunt, the renowned practitioner and advocate of natural horsemanship. Years prior, Gollier had had the foresight to read Hunt’s Think Harmony With Horses, but lacked the experience, environment, and mentorship to apply the wisdoms therein. The unconventional, made virtually invisible through indoctrination and wholly discouraged by the industry, was slowly materializing into something much more possible.
Under the guidance of Hunt and others (including the fabulously named Tink Elordi) Golliher enjoyed the space and opportunity to explore more nuanced, emotional, and mutually respectful relationships with the horses under his care. It is during this time that the tenets which ground his philosophy and practice come to a fuller expression: trust, patience, firmness, kindness, and respect. And to astonishingly consistent and positive effect on beings both equine and sapien:
In the decades I’ve been doing this work, I’ve seen over and over how it changes people—and always for the good. I’ve seen tough and insensitive people become softer and more empathetic. I’ve seen timid and fearful people become firmer and more confident. I’ve seen proud and arrogant people become firmer and more confident.
Golliher goes on to explain that the changes resulted not because he told people what was wrong with them, but rather “they simply saw themselves reflected in the mirror of the horse and started working on it.” The Diamond Cross Ranch has become a pilgrimage site attracting the likes of corporate heads and castaways for a profoundly simple reason that wasn’t clear to me until I’d finished the book, but that has everything to do with a poem the author recites in the introduction. Penned in 1919 by Edgar A. Guest, Sermons We See lyricalizes the maxim of how actions speak louder than words:
And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,
But I’d rather get my lessons by observing what you do;
For I might misunderstand you and the high advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.
The healing and transformation experienced by countless participants in Mr. Golliher’s workshops lend credence to the sermon he claims to abide by: the art of living an honest existence with oneself and one’s environment. Though each chapter title serves as an aphorism, short-handing the philosophy into memorable one-liners—“You Can’t Lie to a Horse”, “Clear Boundaries Make Happy Horses”, “Slow to Take and Quick to Give”, etc.—the journey through the book details the scope of his experience, the depth of his reflection, and the clear-hearted wisdoms they have produced. It becomes evident that Golliher lives honestly and humbly by the creeds he espouses.
Truth be told, I softened the moment I stepped into Think Like a Horse. Mr. Golliher comes across as immediately and disarmingly likable. Hell, give me a man in a mustache and double-chapped denim who revives the lives of the disposed and forgotten, and I’ll give you the benefit of all my cowboy doubts. So much so that by the end, I thought maybe I was a horse myself, in whose ear Grant had been whispering all long; a claustrophobe naturally seeking to jump the fences of my limitations. Despite all attempts to hide from ourselves and others, the horses at Diamond Cross Ranch see through us, while in them we see the possibility of being—maybe for the first time—truly and fully ourselves. Golliher uses the horse as a mirror through which we come to see ourselves more clearly. The increase in self-awareness then becomes the basis for building more actionable empathy.
Nobody fashions a mirror quite like us humans, and there is seemingly no surface or subject against which we won’t liken ourselves. For better or for worse, animals tend to be our favorite mirror of choice. A creative writing teacher once warned our high school class of the impropriety of anthropomorphization. But in addition to being an uncomfortable mouthful of syllables, the practice appears to be an inescapable ritual of human cognition (just last month in Turkey, archeologists unearthed a neolithic temple at Karahan Tepe and the figures with human heads and snake bodies strongly suggest we’ve been at this since long before we started farming).
I’ve heard it said that what distinguishes humanity from the rest of the natural world is our ability to not show up as ourselves. The horse can’t help being a horse any less than the mountain can avoid being a mountain, but we often deceive ourselves into multiple forms of madness. In a postindustrial Western society so thoroughly detached from the natural, we long to rediscover some lost essence of our humanity, to reacquaint ourselves with the wilderness inside. Through the training of horses, Grant Golliher helps humans untrain themselves from the self-denial of their own wholeness. We’d all be better off if such moments became much more conventional.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been so shocked to have enjoyed this as much as I did. After all, the subtitle did promise “lessons in life, leadership, and empathy from an unconventional cowboy.” As I completed my dismount, the famed horse whisperer delivered on every count.