The first thing you notice at Sweetwater Corral in Vaughn are 20 horses staring at you from their large, clean stalls in the shade of looming fir trees. Nearly all have been hurt, abused, or abandoned because they were violent, old, or otherwise undesirable. It says a lot about the owners of Sweetwater, Chuck and Ruth Kraft and their partner Char Bantula, that a stranger here feels immediately at ease among these animals, especially if that stranger is a troubled horse.
“We’re full up right now,” said Chuck Kraft, who has worked with horses all his life. “We get offered more every week. It’s painful,” he says, describing the effect the economy has had on already challenged horse owners who often come to him as a last resort. Kraft specializes in training problem horses, and their owners, with an approach based on communication and respect between horse and human called Parelli Natural Horsemanship, which he learned from its creator, Pat Parelli.
“Horses are smart, but they don’t reason,” he said. “They are prey animals, we are predators. Humans see something new, we want to figure out what it is. A horse sees something new, he runs. That’s how he survives.”
That simple recognition evolved into a straightforward training method that utilizes the horse’s perception instead of “correcting” it through coercion. Kraft’s school at Sweetwater, “Horsehandling”, has turned horses once destined for slaughter because of their behavior into role models.
“It’s like dancing,” says Kraft, describing natural horsemanship. “It’s all about imperceptible moves.” When Kraft and his students ride, they use Western saddles and simple rope halters. “Olympic riders should be bareback and bridle-less,” Kraft says with a laugh. “You should be able to communicate with your horse just by moving your body. But to do that you’ve got to understand what’s going through the horse’s mind, and you’ve got to be consistent. If you’re confused, the horse is confused.”
The rider shouldn’t dominate with force, Kraft adds: “We don’t want to break the horse’s spirit. We build the human’s confidence.”
“Horses are pattern animals,” explains Char Bantula. “They learn a pattern and they stick to it. But a lot of the time it’s the wrong pattern.”
She described the trauma of one horse and owner who came to Sweetwater for help. The owner had raised the horse from birth and was very attached to it but had unwittingly rewarded bad behavior for years, until the horse became uncontrollable.
“We had to dally [tie] him to a tree just to feed him,” says Bantula, “He was that aggressive. He’d come over the stall rail at you if he didn’t know you.” The owner eventually acknowledged the progress made with her horse by the Krafts and Bantula, but confessed she could not change herself enough to handle him. She gave him up.“It was very hard for her,” says Bantula. “This isn’t easy, what we do, but it works.”
Susie Saunders of Burley came to Sweetwater not for her horse, but for herself. During a trail ride almost a year earlier, Saunders suffered a fall she describes as “catastrophic.” After nine weeks recovering she was able to walk again, but was told her riding days were over.
Saunders did not give up: she sought instruction for anything she could do with her horse on the ground. Clinics in natural horsemanship, line handling, hoof care, and even games at Sweetwater helped. “In this arena, you guide your horse from behind with twelve foot lines. You guide them through obstacles, over a seesaw, you play kick ball with them, it’s fun. Horses love to play games.”
In the first week of August, Saunders took her first ride on the horse that threw her. “It was just in the ring,” she said, shyly, “but it’s a start.”