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Clay Wright and the Art of the Aha

Is Clay Wright a horse clinician or a shaman?

His students describe him this way: A “leader to the horses.” “Horses listen to him [and] people want to follow him around, too.” He’s “a spiritual man,” a person with “purity of soul.” But Wright’s place in the high desert near Elmo, Utah, looks nothing like a sweat lodge, temple, or church. Its a hump in the desert, a brick house the color of alkali with a series of metal pens and corrals. The only pronounced colors are green patches of irrigated grass and a purple layer in the distant hills. Out back, an old F250 and a plain white gooseneck sit next to a former crop duster hanger with massive sliding doors.

From high above Wild Cattle Ridge, the wind on the leading edge of a front cuts down across the desert and against the hanger. Inside, the music of Enya plays softly. At the far end, the doors are parted and the gray light is streaming in, casting a horse, a woman, and a man in silhouette. The man is standing with his arms crossed, the tassel of a stampede string on his flat-top cinched tight under his chin. The hat nods as he says, “Very good” and nears the woman. Now the face has features, eyes as blue as ice cubes and a cayenne mustache that moves when he speaks. “There you go.”

He is responding to student Judy Harris, a willow of a woman with hair like corn silk. She stands in front of her gelding, Buck, holding both ends of the bit with her hands and concentrating as if her life depends on it. “Focus on the feel,” Wright says. “It’s like the feel of the horse holding your hand.” Judy and Buck have been at this routine for two days—for years, really—and Buck is continuing his tomfoolery. Intent on doing her best, Judy maintains her focus, believing that additional concentration, effort, and persistence will yield better results. So Wright keeps changing the exercise and conditions and hoping that Judy will improve her skills and—finally—grasp the most important lesson. The three student spectators already know what she must do.

Or Wright could tell her the problem, but he has learned the a-ha comes from within. He’s a master of the Socratic form of questioning that asks students to explain the concepts they are learning. Why doesn’t he simply tell her what she needs to hear? “People think you’re going to give them the answer,” he says, “[but] they have to find it themselves.” So Wright coaches Judy, asks questions, listens, and waits.

Sunshine breaks through the clouds, and the clinic moves into the outdoor arena. Like the weather and land, horses have taught patience to Wright, who settles in with Judy as if waiting for a change in seasons. He knows the moment of truth will come, that the person with the problem is often the last to know. He learned this fact the hard way.

Regarding his past, he shakes his head as if he can’t believe his stupidity, his emphasis on showmanship and results. As a young horse trainer, he would drive into a town, walk into a café, and sit down to sip coffee with stockmen. He’d offer to start any horse in three or fewer hours, and after deliberation the ranchers would settle on a particular colt, and snicker. Wright would ride that colt—and all the others. His demos inflated his reputation and increased his business. He was proud—but pride comes before a fall.

Training colts progressed to showing, an activity that rewarded his results-first methods. But sometimes life has to cold-cock a person to get his or her attention. That blow came in the form of an Appaloosa stallion, which Wright pulled over backward onto himself, snapping his lower leg and breaking his collarbone and several ribs. Two weeks in traction convinced him the win mentality had taken more than a physical toll. “I’d lost something,” Wright says. “My horses weren’t my friends anymore.”

He languished in the hospital for three months and then hobbled on a cast for nine, during which time he searched for answers. Then he met Ben Quinters, who took him to a Ray Hunt clinic. “They put me on the path I’m on now,” Wright says. He studied every horse author he could find—Tom Dorrance, Henry Wynmalen, Nuno Oliveira, and Philippe Karl—and attended clinics such as those by Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. He studied with masters such as dressage expert Ellen Eckstein, whom Wright credits as his most valuable mentor.

When Wright applied his new approach, the horses gave him less resistance and he felt more settled about himself and his work, but business decreased. Undeterred, he began to teach what he was learning. “I wanted to help people understand what I’d found,” he says.

Nowadays the ego and showmanship are behind him. He doesn’t own a fancy rig on which his name and portrait are pasted large as a billboard. There are no Clay Wright corporate sponsorships or Clay Wright Super Training Halters or Clay Wright Superior Feel Saddles. He doesn’t offer a $6,500 Clay Wright horse trainer certification program. He’s simply himself, a man working with horses and people like Buck and Judy.

Outside in the sunshine, the mood feels optimistic, and Judy bears down. “The horse doesn’t understand a method,” Wright says. “It understands feel.” Another exercise and another. The clouds re-envelope the desert, and Judy’s face tightens as if she has had a facelift. By quitting time, Buck is shaking his head and swishing his tail.

By morning, the clouds have settled over the land like a pall and the wind is gusting to 50 mph. The hangar is shaking. Spanish guitar music blares from the speakers. Wright works Judy and Buck for a couple of hours before stopping and escorting her to one of several laminated sheets of copy paper lining the walls. Each sign displays a quotation from one of Wright’s teachers. He points to one and asks Judy to explain it. When she finishes, he disappears and returns carrying a wood fence post that he drops onto the sand. Judy is to stand in front of Buck and use the bit to guide him lengthwise down the post, keeping it between his legs. Buck steps across, and Judy concentrates, trying again and again—at least a dozen times.

The wind is whistling around the corner of the building, and the tin is clattering as if it will peel away. Buck’s ears are pinned flat and he is shaking his head, but Judy is focused on the post. Suddenly Buck bites Judy’s arm. Her eyes widen as if they’re going to pop out of her head and her jaw drops. She flails the tail of the lead at Buck and chases him at rope length around the arena. Buck looks shocked and sprints in a circle as far as the rope allows. With Judy storming behind, they are whirling like a cyclone.

Wright is slapping his thighs and laughing, and the spectators applaud as if their team has just won the Super Bowl. But the reactions make no sense to Judy, who in her mind has lost control. She droops her shoulders, grabs her knees, and stands there heaving. When she understands, she lets out a sigh eleven years in the making and shakes her head as if she has just read a message an airplane has written in the sky: Horses Respect Leaders! She throws back her head and laughs, and Wright embraces her. Buck is standing at attention.

Before she retires for the night, Judy explains Wright’s teaching. “It’s about the horse,” she says. “But we end up, as a by-product, becoming a better person.” She knows she has passed a significant milestone.

Morning is slow in coming. At dawn, a wall of rain clouds has rolled down from Wasatch Plateau. In Judy’s window, the light switches on. Out in his pen, Buck pivots like a weathervane and tucks his hindquarters into the wind. The hanger stands empty and silent except for the pitter on the tin roof, but the words on the sheets of paper speak loudly. Even in Wright’s absence, his steady energy pervades the place and his words hang in the air like dew: “You don’t have to wear a mask. Be who you are.”

Wright’s students—especially Judy—are learning the physical and emotional concept of feel. They are improving their horsemanship and learning where to go to discover that life’s greatest lessons are "something that’s inside you and the horse.” Wright’s words echo across the desert, up through Price Canyon, to Soldier Summit and beyond. “You have to find it yourself. It’s your journey.”

Story Behind the Story...

Because I lived in the West and for a decade or so made my living a-horseback, I'm given numerous assignments to profile cowboys, rodeo competitors, horse whisperers, etc. Clay Wright had the most unique whispering philosophy I've ever encountered. Struggling to explain it with traditional who/what/when/where journalism, I decided to write the piece in the style of fiction, but still had no idea if I had accurately shown his work. Someone told me later that Clay had commented that no idea how I had so clearly depicted what he does in so few words. His was one of the finest compliments I've ever received as a writer. I respect him immensely and continue to root for him.


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