The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd by Joe Camp (with a forward by Monty Roberts) is essential reading for anyone who's interested in horses or who wants to communicate better with their equine companion. It's a fascinating personal journey of one man's quest to learn everything about what's really best for horses and how they can be as happy and healthy as possible. There have been many books written on horsemanship and horse care, but Camp's memoir is very different (and in some ways, much better) than any other horse book I've read in years.
Joe Camp is the writer, producer and director of the Benji movies and programs. Clearly he knows a lot about canine behavior, but he had never owned a horse until his wife, Kathleen, unexpectedly surprised him with the gift of one for his birthday. Rather than sending his new horse off to a facility to be cared for and managed by others, Camp and his wife starting finding out everything they could about horses. They spoke to veterinarians, farriers and horse trainers. They read horse books and magazines. The problem was that some of what they were hearing didn't make much sense and wasn't very logical. What Camp and his wife discovered is that people who own horses are often just doing what they've always been told by so-called experts, with no idea that they may be causing their horses emotional and physical stress and even shortening their horse's life.
I came across this same problem as a horse-crazy young girl working at a riding stable. I was interested in learning everything I could about horses and wanted to know why things were done a certain way, and the answer I usually got was, "That's the way we've always done it." I would encounter unhappy horses at show barns where people kept their horses in stalls all day long, only bringing them out for an hour or so for a brief daily workout. These horses were blanketed in the winter and often lived in air-conditioned barns in the summer. They were seldom let out with other horses because the fear was that one of the horses would get hurt. The owners and trainers of these horses probably thought they were giving them the best possible care. Certainly, they were paying a ton of money for the best care. The horses wore expensive shoes to protect their feet, and if they developed problems, corrective shoeing was often used. Why? Because that's the way it had always been done. Not once did anyone at these barns think there may be a better way for horses to live, a happier, healthier way.
In his studies, Joe Camp discovers Monty Roberts, known as "The Man Who Listens to Horses." Roberts has developed a revolutionary way of communicating with horses by using their natural body language. He uses trust rather than violence to train a horse. His training technique is called "Join-Up," where he can get a horse he's never met before (who's never been broken to saddle or bridle) to accept a saddle and a rider - all without any violence or stress to the horse. This process is often complete in as quickly as 30 minutes. Roberts teaches the horse trust, respect and choice, rather than submission, fear and aggression.
Camp uses Roberts' Join-Up technique to communicate with his horse Cash. He writes:
"The collar of my jacket was tickling the hairs on the back of my neck. And my heart was pounding. Then a puff a warm, moist air brushed my ear. My heart skipped a beat. He was really close. Then I felt his nose on my shoulder … the moment of Join-Up. I couldn't believe it. Tears came out of nowhere and streamed down my cheeks. I had spoken to him in his own language, and he had listened … and he had chosen to be with me. He had said, I trust you."
The Soul of a Horse alternates between Camp's story and the legends of wild horses brought to the New World hundred of years ago, the ancestors of today's modern horse. Camp's story is fascinating, but sometimes I found myself skipping ahead in the chapters and flipping back to others because the stories he tells aren't always linear. At other times, as much as I understood Camp's desire to teach others about his discoveries, certain chapters were repetitive. I remember thinking a few times, I totally agree with you, Joe, but I got your point a couple of chapters back. But the essence of Camp's story is unique. Camp is persistent in his search for the truth as he sifts through the facts and misconception about horses, often going against tough cowboys who have been working with horses all of their lives and who pretty much think they know everything.
Camp eventually models his horses' environment as it would be in nature. They are barefoot, moving freely in a herd, and living outside with shelter provided rather than being kept in a stall and wearing metal shoes. This may seem shocking and extreme to people who are used to keeping their horses in a barn year-round and whose horses are only barefoot if they're in retirement. But more and more evidence suggests a barefoot horse is a healthier horse when their hooves are cared for and trimmed by a natural hoof specialist.
The Soul of a Horse teaches you lessons about horses and people that you're not going to find in most horse books. It's a book to pass on to your friends and one that's sure to encourage a lot of discussion (and some healthy disagreement). I hope many more books by Joe Camp follow this one.