Pony Express



Interview with Tom Moates


Tom Moates has written articles in Natural Horse and other magazines, and now his book, "Discovering Natural Horsemanship: A Beginner's Odyssey" is available. (See Book Bits in this issue.) We interviewed Tom about this unique new book, and his unique lifestyle. Enjoy.

NHM: Congratulations on the release of your book, "Discovering Natural Horsemanship", which is now available. In it you write of your personal experiences about getting - and getting to know - your first horse. Why did you decide to write about this?
Tom: There are two main reasons I decided to write the book.
First, I've been obsessed with writing ever since I was a kid. I actually started out in college as an international politics major and came out with a writing degree. Since then, I've worked hard to build a freelancing career, and while I had pretty good success over the years, none of the subjects I wrote about carried the same zing for me that the writing itself did... until horses entered my life. At thirty-five, I quite suddenly become smitten with horses and learning what I call the Better Way with them.
I began keeping a journal of my horse experiences as they unfolded, and from the very first essay I published about my beginner's journey starting later in life with horses, the feedback was exceptional! There were tons of books out there by the gurus (I bet I read every one of them), but none about the difficulties the beginner faces when trying to understand and implement the ways of natural horsemanship. So, I set out to put down all the gory details of my own beginnings on this Odyssey in an honest way. It's pretty embarrassing at times in the book telling some of the stuff I did, and everyone keeps telling me they laughed all the way through it, but I really wrote the book I wish I could have read when I started out. That's the second reason I wrote the book.

NHM: Now that you are able to look at other people and their horses from a little higher than a novice's view, which of the 'lessons from the horse' do you think is most applicable to them?

Tom: While this book is just coming out, my own journey has continued, and I'm already a few mileposts further along the way. The day after I finished writing the book, I left for the desert of Salome, Arizona to stay with clinician Harry Whitney for two weeks. It was poignant timing. I thought that I'd gotten a pretty good start on my horsemanship, but I really saw things differently after that trip. Harry has an exceptional way of really concentrating on how the horse feels about things inside, and presenting real choices to the horse. I don't have a particular problem to share in the sense of a specific physical action to look for in your horse, like head shaking, pawing, or such things. Rather, I'd like to ask people - in everything they do with their horses - to ask the question, "how is my horse feeling about things inside right now?"
The better you get to know the horses in your life on a personal level, the better you will be able to see how a particular horse tells you how he or she feels. The more we do to open our eyes in general about asking this question, the better we get at recognizing and solving "problems" with our horses.

NHM: What do you think are the advantages of not having known 'typical horsemanship' before getting your horses and learning the Better Way?
Tom: I think it was a real blessing for me to start as a blank slate in natural horsemanship. I was able to begin right away learning about interacting with horses in a gentle way that really considers the horse's perspective more than what we see in the mainstream. It most certainly would have been more difficult for me to be breaking old habits.

I might have been less open to these natural horsemanship ideas if I felt I knew the opposite to be true - that horses had to be dominated, intimidated, or worse to get along with humans. And, if I had come from a family tradition with its roots deeply embedded in the more traditional mainstream ways, I could have been a pretty tough nut to crack. Learning a way with horses that gets results, especially monetary results, could be another rut I might have found myself in. If I had a barn full of horses and was winning money each year and staying in business as a trainer with the world commending me for my great accomplishments, I bet it would have been harder yet again to consider ways that were different from what I had learned.

I interact with a lot of different horse people around the country since I write about horses each week, and I think about these things. It has been two, or perhaps we should say three, generations for this modern movement to take hold and get people to think differently about horses and how we should work with them. I think everyone agrees that Tom Dorrance really was central to putting into motion something so significant that it is, as Dr. Robert Miller and Rick Lamb call it in their recent book, a "Revolution in Horsemanship." Revolution is a really strong word, and I'm sure they spent some time considering its use, but I think it is accurate. I think some folks have tolerated quite a bit of difficulty to do what they know is right for the horses in our care, and it is starting to come around. I think we will see quite a bit of reform in how we do such things as judge competitions and view the capability of a trainer in the next generation. I also believe that people are improving as a result of it - I feel very good about that.

NHM: I understand your farm is environmentally friendly as well as horse friendly. What can you tell us about this?  
Tom: My wife Carol and I have always set out to keep our footprint on the environment small. We have lived with solar power ever since we bought this farm over a decade ago. We've incorporated many natural and recycled building materials into all the structures here. We've done almost all of the work on the place ourselves, including clearing some spots on the land, fencing, building our house, building sheds and barns, and putting in gardens and orchards. We were certified organic for a time, but now we just raise fruits and vegetables for the family, so we've let that go. Carol has studied with some of the more renowned herbalists in the world, and much of the health issues here, both animal and human animal, are tended by her and her herbal apothecary here at home. Even with our efforts to be environmentally conscious, we still are faced with the same problems as the culture at large, like dealing with the tons of packaging that accompanies the goods we buy and gassing up our vehicles to get around.

NHM: You have written articles on sustainable living options. Where can one learn more about living sustainably with horses?
Tom: What comes to mind with sustainable living and horses are the draft breeds. I've done an article on horse logging/restorative forestry, which is one great example. Of course horses and mules can be used for sustainable agriculture. I've got a big old horse mule here; her name is Cate. Cate came complete with plow, harness, and log pulling tack. The Draft Horse Journal is a good resource for looking into that kind of thing.

In the big picture, I think it is important for the consumer to seek out other folks already trying to make a living producing food and wood products in sustainable ways with horses. How we spend our money has the power to change the landscape, both economically and physically. Getting involved locally with others interested in co-ops or other means of pooling resources and creating opportunities for horses to be a part of a more sustainable future is the ticket. Feed stores, health food stores, and farmers markets are places to inquire about people already up and running. As far as books go, there are some classics that speak about sustainability that are main staples, like the Helen and Scott Nearing books, The One Straw Revolution by Fukuoka, and Bill Mollison's great works on Permaculture. Adding horses to the picture follows naturally. We should not forget the living example of horses being used for sustainability with the Amish communities as well.

NHM: You are a do-it-yourselfer, and you built your own horse shelter, from home materials, which you wrote about in NHM Vol 7 Issue 6, "Pole Barn Building". Are you and Carol currrently working on, or planning, any other farm projects?
Tom: Well, Carol and I need a sizable barn. We're planning one with some stalls, a center aisle, and hayloft. Otherwise, there's quite a bit of fencing to do, both new and improving of the old. As always, we are incorporating solar electricity into the scheme, with aspects like low voltage lighting and solar electric fence chargers. We choose to use locust posts harvested from the land here (which are a renewable resource... believe me!) rather than the more convenient metal or milled treated posts which must be manufactured and shipped, and purchased for that matter. Really, that's about it for now.

For more information, and to reach Tom Moates, visit www.tommoates.com.