Talking To Horses In Their Own Language

David Lee Archer took it as a compliment when a dozen years ago people nicknamed him the “Tennessee Horse Whisperer.” When you watch Archer in a round pen working with Smoky Joe Junior, a young Andalusian stud, it’s readily apparent that he communicates well with horses but he doesn’t whisper. Archer’s mode of communication is not his voice. Archer uses subtle gestures and movements, body language, to convince a horse to cooperate.

David Lee Archer stops for a moment with Smoky Joe Junior, a young Andalusian stud he’s training. T-G Photo by Terence Corrigan

Archer establishes himself firmly in the leadership role but he doesn’t bully and he doesn’t yell.

Smoky Joe Junior moves with the over-the-top ebullience characteristic of a stud horse on a lunge line but he agrees instantly with Archer’s directions given only by pointing a finger with a slightly raised arm. Archer’s minimalist movements translate instantly into powerful dynamic changes in Smoky Joe Junior’s direction.


With just slight movements, Archer persuades Smoky Joe Junior to change directions. T-G Photo by Terence Corrigan

I work with their mind,” Archer said. “Unfortunately, what a lot of people do is wear the horse down and they think they’re working with their mind. But they’re not. They’re just tiring them out so the horse becomes submissive.”

Archer does not believe in broad gestures to control a horse. “You can change a horse’s demeanor just by relaxing your shoulders,” he said. “If you get uppity their energy level will go up.”

Archer incorporates natural equine behaviors in his training techniques. After observing how horses communicate with each other, he copied it. Archer noted that when one horse wanted another horse to move away from a pat of hay the first thing it would do is simply step toward it and the encroaching horse would invariably back up a little. If the invading horse moved back in, testing the boundary again, which is typical horse behavior, the horse with the hay would again emphasize its demand by opening its mouth, threatening to bite, and stepping at the offender, this time with a little more force. The third time, Archer said, the horse with the hay would take off after the invader and run them off 30 feet or so.

Archer observed this three-step dance over and over again.

Archer also noticed then once a horse has delivered its message to another one immediately the dance is over. “Once you get their feet moving you leave them alone,” Archer said. “People get carried away and keeping nagging at them.”

“When I ask a horse to do something, especially an aggressive horse, I say please, then pretty please, and, finally, pretty please with sugar on top.” The request, when it gets to the sugar on top involves action. “By the time I get to sugar I’ll get in there and do whatever it takes to get ’em to move, to back off.”

Archer offers his human students a simple memory aid: the three Ps. “Patience, Persistence and Purpose.”

Old timers

At age 63, Archer deems himself to be an old timer, and like many old timers he looks askance at new stuff including training techniques, although he’s careful and quick to point out that it’s not his job to judge people.

“The thing nowadays is some of these guys have the ladies lookin’ at the (horse’s) hip,” he said. “It’s what’s called disengage.” In this technique the handler uses one hand to hold the lead rope and with the other employs a squeeze and release action at the horse’s side, near the flank. “To me it (the squeeze and release action) looks ridiculous. What you’re doing if you really think about it is you’re taking away all the natural instincts away from the horse and they start looking for big cues instead of subtle cues.”

Another training technique, called join up, is a target of Archer’s scorn. “It’s a fallacy. It’s not true. It’s something a guy came up with to impress women.”

Out of trouble on a horse’s back

Archer was born in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1954 but he did most of his growing up in southern Illinois, or as he puts it “where I started from.” He got his first horse at age 6. “… when my father brought home in the back seat of our family Buick, a one-eyed, skinny, hairy stud pony named Dusty that cost $25,” he wrote.

His mom and grandmother, cried at what they viewed as exorbitant and wasteful spending but, Archer said, it was the best investment his father ever made because that pony kept him on horseback and out of trouble.

By the time he was 13, Archer was working as a trainer and showing horses. “I had earned a reputation that I could sit a horse,” he said. A local trainer hired him. “That was like winning the Lotto back then. I started showing a problem horse that would buck once in awhile. We did good in some shows, in others she would come uncorked. I loved every minute of it.”

“As a kid, horses were my comfort zone,” Archer said. “They’re honest.” Archer enjoyed his time in the show ring. “I liked the limelight, winning had nothing to do with it. Being a backwards kid, you get me in front of a crowd and I go on.”

True to his hat

The life of a horse trainer is not unlike that of a gypsy. “Somebody of my age group who trains horses, unfortunately, we move around a lot,” he said. “I call it being true to my hat.” Being true to his hat took Archer to live in Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Tennessee and California. “It takes me awhile to set root,” he said. “That goes with the hat.”

In California, Archer went to work at FalconRidge Equine Rescue near San Diego. His job was to rehab horses mentally and physically. “To get them back to where they should be,” is how described it. “Healthy, friendly and mentally back to where they should be. It was great for me.”

FalconRidge was founded in 2002, and after spending 13 years there, Archer and his fiance, Cindy, packed up their stock trailer and headed to Tennessee to their newly purchased 14-acre place near Columbia that they now call home.

Into their stock trailer they loaded five horses, a miniature donkey named Eeyore, 16 ducks, four turkeys, four chickens, two dogs and a parrot. Eeyore fit comfortably under the belly of one of the horses, a hefty Spotted Horse named Little One. Eeyore rode most of the 2,000-mile drive standing between Little One and another horse, Suka Wakan. (Suka Wakan is Lakota language meaning “Spirit Dog.” )

Rehab for horses

Archer has a soft spot for troubled horses. When he first got him, his Spotted Horse, Suka Wakan, “would go nuts” if Archer walked into the barn carrying a lunge whip. “Some old timer had someone on him whipping him on the butt to drive his hind end under him,” Archer said. “If he heard a rock move behind him he’d start bucking. He thought the world was coming to an end.”

“I’ve been rehabbing him. When I’m done with him he’ll be soft. I’ll be able to use my legs and butt and drop the reins and he’ll still gait. He’ll have a nice sliding stop. He’s mine now.”

Walking horse revival?

Archer is never shy of offering advice. He thinks that a change in the way Walking Horses are trained and ridden would result in a renaissance of interest in the breed.

“If the Walking Horse people would change their mindset they could get a truly soft horse. Stop worrying so much about the gait and start showcasing what a walking horse can truly do. Stop worrying so much about the gait and let them move out. When you want that gait you’ll have it. Get ’em right in the head and soft in the body.”

As the radio in his barn belted out Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Archer continued praising the Walking Horse. “Some of these Walking Horses would put a quarter horse slide to shame. They naturally get up under themselves. They’ll just sit down and go with it.”

Here is the great man himself at work.

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Talking To Horses In Their Own Language

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