May 14, 2005
Gary Woods helps horses with people problems.
Woods is a horse communicator who has spent the past two years healing horses traumatized by the cruelty and ignorance of humans.
"The horse has a bum deal," says Woods, 61, of Gilbert. "It’s a shame and a pity that most horse owners can’t appreciate their horses as thinking, rational beings."
Woods’ approach to horses is natural, a method that surfaced in the national consciousness with the release of Robert Redford’s 1998 film "The Horse Whisperer." The method requires patience, sensitivity and a certain degree of inner peace — characteristics that Woods says he didn’t always possess.
"I learned about horses backwards," says Woods. "They taught me to be a better person."
With his button-down shirts, Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots, Woods looks like the rough-and- tumble cowboy he used to be. The Texas native found natural horsemanship 10 years ago.
Those who seek him out are looking for something more than a manageable horse.
"They’re looking for a gentler way," says Wendy McCord, Woods’ wife of 10 years. "They come to Gary because they think he’s got that."
MORE THAN A RIDING LESSON
Woods is more selective than Harvard University when it comes to accepting students.
"These are students who can pull that passion out of themselves and transfer it to the horse," he says. Woods began giving riding lessons two years ago, although he cringes when you call it that. "This is not a riding lesson; it’s the furthest thing from it."
The arenas in Woods’ Gilbert back yard are his classroom. Students who don’t own horses go there for their weekly lesson.
"There’s just something very peaceful about being in this environment," says Faith McNaughton, whose daughter, Megan, 9, is one of Woods’ students.
Every Friday afternoon Megan has her time with Woods.
"She lives to get here after school," says McNaughton. "If the lesson is canceled for some reason, she cries."
Megan’s passion for horses persuaded Woods to take her on, but that wasn’t enough. She had to show Woods she could connect emotionally with the horse.
"That horse can throw me in the bushes anytime she wants to," Woods says of Emma Jet, the horse Megan is riding around the arena. "That’s the reason I only take special students. I’ve had students cry because they couldn’t get the horse to do what they wanted. You have to get clear, get focused and the horse will do exactly what you want. You become one with the horse and it’s the most amazing thing."
Woods’ horse, Magic, is the entrance exam. Every student’s first lesson is on the ground with Magic. Woods will make a decision to accept the student based on the horse’s body language.
Horses are emotional mirrors, says Woods, who focuses on teaching riders to be emotionally centered. "If you’re calm and happy, then the horse will be happy and calm. You’ve got to show horses that you’re emotionally available."
During the lesson, Woods never takes his eyes off Megan, who is having a hard time getting Emma to trot close to the fence. Woods wants her to use her energy to communicate with the horse. The horse won’t change, he says, if the human doesn’t change, too.
Megan stops to collect herself. She takes a deep breath and soon Emma is trotting so close to the fence Megan can touch each post as they pass.
"Go get that cattle, girl," Woods calls out. It’s the only time he raises his voice during the lesson.
"If you had seen this little girl when I got her, she was just scattered," Woods says of the horse. "Now she runs and walks like an athlete. She’s in harmony. Her body and her mind are working together."
All of Woods’ students are female.
"I don’t get many guys," says Woods. "Men have got too much macho crap going on."
Macho crap used to be a problem for Woods, who was born and raised in the Texas panhandle.
"He used to say to me, ‘I’m from Texas, and even when I’m wrong I’m right,’ " says his wife. "I asked him, ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ "
Raising cattle was the career of choice in 1940s Clarendon, Texas. Woods’ father was a cattleman who put his son on a horse at age 4. The boy’s first impressions about life and nurturing came from the saddle of a Mexican cutting horse.
Back then, rough-and-tumble cowboys drove cattle and transferred their attitudes about horses to their personal lives.
"Rough-and-tumble cowboys do not want to deal with emotions, and to deal with emotions is somewhat paramount to being a sissy," says Woods. "So dealing with horses meant dealing with an object rather than a creature. That is to say he is nothing more than a tractor or a plow, something to be used to move cattle."
Woods knew at an early age he wouldn’t drive cattle for a living. He was introduced to a crystal radio in the seventh grade and from that moment knew he’d do something with electronics.
But he couldn’t completely abandon ranching. Until he went to college, Woods spent summers and school breaks on his grandmother’s farm driving cattle and tractors and building fences. He says that time was the happiest of his life.
When the time came to go to college, Woods attended Oklahoma City University on a track scholarship. ("I am a sprinter, and so are my horses.") He majored in math and world religion. ("The idea that Buddhists, Hindus and others were going to hell because they weren’t immersed in the Lord didn’t make sense to me.")
After serving four years in the U.S. Air Force, Woods landed a job with Motorola and spent his entire career with the company. He traveled the world setting up factories and spent three out of every 13 weeks in a foreign country. His management style was a bit autocratic, and he was the same way with his family.
He went through a divorce, and he met his current wife, McCord, 10 years ago while on vacation in Yosemite National Park. Both had been married before, and their marriage might not have lasted, they say, had they not discovered natural horsemanship.
Facetta, a white Andalusian mare, started the couple on a journey to find a gentler way to train horses.
"She didn’t like people, and we couldn’t handle her," says McCord.
The breaking point came on a trail ride to Mormon Lake. Facetta refused to allow anyone to load her into a trailer. Members in the trail party tried, but Facetta bit and kicked. By the time it was done everyone, including Woods, was bleeding and McCord was in tears. They knew they had to do something about the horse, but McCord wasn’t going to let Woods use the rough-and-tumble methods he grew up with to train Facetta.
So the couple searched for the best and brightest trainers. They invested time and money, learning as much as they could from cowboys and cowgirls who had refined the technique, including Gary Neuberg and Lee Smith.
Emotion. Nurture. Tenderness. Those words aren’t part of the cowboy’s vocabulary, and Woods had trouble letting go of his old ways.
"It actually became a problem for us for a while," says McCord. "I couldn’t watch him be so hard (with the horses), although to his credit he was still better than 90 percent of the people out there."
PICKING YOUR OWN POISON
Woods had a lot of time on his hands after retiring in 1999. He joined a local horse group and began volunteering at Wildhorse Ranch Rescue in Gilbert.
"I was in awe of him," Julie Crismon says of her first meeting with Woods. "He walks through here and all the horses look at him. He’s so alpha."
Crismon, 36, adopted one of Wildhorse’s rescue horses in November. Star languished in a stall for 10 years because her former owners were illequipped to care for her.
"She was just so afraid of people," says Crismon, a single parent from Chandler. "She tried to kick you if you got near her."
The first time volunteers tried to take Star for a walk, every muscle in her body was shaking. Star was so stressed she had two bloody noses.
Star had forgotten how to be a horse, and it would be up to Woods to remind her.
"The whole idea behind natural horsemanship is to build respect," says Woods. "If I can give them a place to go that’s absolutely calm in a turbulent world, I’ll do that."
In many ways Star and Crismon are a perfect match. Both are learning to deal with their fears.
"I see this all the time," says Woods. "People always pick their worst poison. People will see in a particular horse what they’re so needing in their own personal life."
Woods met his perfect equine match seven years ago when he took in Emma Jet, a chestnut brown quarter horse bred for racing. The horse was out of control and the owners could no longer manage her.
"Emma was so dangerous, and he was so dangerous on her," says McCord, who once saw her husband ride a raging Emma into a fence.
McCord ordered her husband to take the horse to trainer Pat Parelli’s ranch and get control of both the horse and himself.
"Emma was very strong in her opinions of people, and at the same time she had a lot of fear from life and the world in general," says Woods. "This exactly mirrored my own internal struggle of being very strong on the outside but very fragile on the inside."
Woods spent a week with Parelli.
"It took years for me to be good enough to make her good enough," says Woods. "It wasn’t the other way around."
Crismon has taken her time with Woods to heart and transferred his lessons to her personal life.
"I don’t get as angry with my son as I used to," says Crismon. "I’m learning to be patient."
Woods says his journey is a continuing one. With every horse he learns something new.
"Maybe I’m really lucky, I don’t know," says Woods. "I’ve had some really crazy horses that were that way only out of fear. Once you find a way to talk to them, that fear comes out of their body and they just melt like soft butter."