We always hear about riders who were on a horse before they could walk. But many people don’t learn to ride until adulthood ‒ and then there are those who had a negative experience as a child which instilled a lifelong fear of horses.
Graeme Bull of Maple Ridge, BC, was in this latter category until he made the decision to overcome his anxiety of horses. He’d had a traumatic experience as a child: when on a trail ride the horse he was riding, which was too big for him and the stirrups were too long, rode him under an old pine tree, where Bull remained for at least half an hour before being rescued. While working as a computer programmer for 20 years, Bull signed up for riding lessons.
“This long-standing memory was something I wanted to rid my brain of and empower myself to get past what was a literal childhood fear based on a lack of education and preparation,” Bull says. “I was determined to change that, and I did.
“I recall this defining day in my life of being asked if I wanted to go on a trail ride.” Bull said yes, despite that it meant leaving the safety the four walls of the arena provided, and the fear of something going wrong like it had when he was a child. But it proved to be the right decision.
“This time was different, and I was more prepared,” he explains. “I had proper training and understanding of the situation and felt more ready to have my horse listen to me. It certainly wasn’t that I wasn’t scared, because I was pretty nervous, but we did it.”
This initial two-hour trail ride into the mountains and across a stream was exhilarating to Bull. He was so inspired that he bought his first horse.
Fast-forward to today and Bull owns and operates Stable Horse Training, where he’s become something of a local celeb, having been the focus of a Global TV spot showcasing the work he has done with rescue horses. Bull also has a YouTube channel where he posts daily videos of his rescue horses as he works with them to overcome their anxieties and troubled pasts. Two of these are ‘wildies’ from the BC interior.
Horse-Canada had the chance to speak with Bull about his unusual journey towards becoming a self-taught horseman and trainer.
Horse Canada: What sort of training did you do to become a trainer yourself?
Graeme Bull: My main struggle when starting to learn how to teach horses was the lack of people available to teach me that I looked up to. My immediate surroundings were of people that simply saddled and rode. I watched a lot of abuse and vicious ways to treat horses, whether it was direct physical contact or through all kinds of gimmicks that made no sense to me.
Then I started to look online and came across Buck Brannaman’s story. There was a DVD set, so I bought it and watched it religiously for months and months. Everything I tried in there was beyond my capabilities, but I was determined to see how on earth somebody can get to a point where they literally think something and their horse does it.
I was mystified by this process and continued to try learn through these DVDs until finally I went to a few of his clinics. It sort of helped, but what got me the farthest was the trial-and-error of working with the horses to where I could finally see what I was doing was or wasn’t working.
I worked to immerse myself as far as I could and even bought a second horse to start from scratch, whom I still have to this day. From there it literally was a long slog of making mistakes and fixing them; working on myself and continuing to work past my own fears of being around a large animal. Most problems come from fear, in ourselves and our horses, and once that can be resolved it’s amazing where we can get to.
My last bit of training was relatively recently, when I went to Colorado to work with a very skilled mustang trainer and learned so much more about feral and wild horses.
HC: How many rescues have you taken in, retrained and rehomed since you began?
GB: My time rescuing horses has been from day one. I have rehomed zero because I just can’t let them go in the end! In my current herd of rescues, five out of six didn’t have a home to go, two of them are BC wildies and the rest are castaways from people that didn’t want them anymore.
HC: What challenges you most with the rehab horses?
GB: Rehabilitating horses is a mixed bag as we could be dealing with physical or mental issues, or both. The biggest challenge I have had is modifying the environment and care if the horse is owned by somebody else. Most horses have digestive issues due to improper horse husbandry of feeding and/or feet issues due to poor foot care. Changing those two things is hard for many horse owners due to cost or convenience and it’s tough to make headway sometimes. If a horse has excessive fear or anxiety, I find providing a solid presence for them and a healthy environment can go a really long way.
HC: Tell us about the wild horses of BC. What challenges do they face?
GB: The biggest issue for the BC wildies, as I understand it, is that the government wants them eradicated. Unlike our neighbors to the east, Alberta, there are no protections for our wild and feral horses on crown land. The reasons are no different than across our border to the south in that the cattle industry would like to take the crown land as their own for their cows. Horses get in the way of that. I have heard that all of the BC wildies are currently living on private land, so the government has ticked off one box in this regard it seems. But the reservations that the horses live on now are obviously limited in size and space and they have to be careful about how many there are. The ones that don’t fit have to either be adopted out or slaughtered. Those are the only two options at this time.
HC: What made you want to take in rescue horses in the first place?
GB: Well, the simple answer initially is that they are cheaper! That said though, I absolutely love working with the wildies as time has gone on. I had a mustang from the States here once and it was an absolutely fascinating process and incredibly rewarding when I finally earned the trust of an animal that innately feared me. Having them look at you with a “please don’t hurt me” look to finally a “please comfort me” look is amazingly heartwarming and empowering as we experience the power of peace and quiet instead of loud and brash.
This journey keeps me searching and endeavoring to be better and quicker to bring a horse peace and safety. This path for the rescue horses is very uncommon, unfortunately, as they have usually had a hard time with humans. My personal innate desire is to quench that fear and reintroduce them to what I believe is the amazing world of horse-and-human ‒ how it should be.
HC: Your YouTube channel has nearly 20K subscribers; what do you hope to provide viewers with your videos?
GB: When I started out making videos, I really just wanted to teach. I have a pattern of doing something new and then working on teaching all aspects of it so I can get better myself. You can’t teach something unless you really know it.
I really want more people to see the beauty of the horses and what they can bring. So many people have approached me either in person, in comments, emails and personal letters thanking me for the gift they feel I have given of empowerment through education. Knowledge is power in the end and to be empowered through that learning can take people far.
My goal now is to empower people as best as I can by being the example I always wanted while working from the beginning; showing the true beauty and tranquility of the horses and how we can work together to train and learn and ride. The methods I use are different than most and I hope to be able to move the needle a bit in the horse world away from overbearing tactics and fear-based methods to create better relationships that are stronger for both horse and human.
Now also I have a platform to continue championing a cause that I think is important of making sure these BC wildies do not go extinct through the slaughter pipeline. The province is richer for having them, I believe.
HC: Other than the rescues, what other sort of training do you offer?
GB: I don’t cover a particular discipline here, I try to teach concepts and introduce methods that may work. I liken it to being able to fill up tool belts with tools for people to use if they need them to get the things done that they want to do.
Mostly, though, we work on safety. Too many people are getting hurt on and around horses, so I feel it’s my job to teach horse behaviors as much as I can for people to be prepared and attentive to what their horse may do so they can stop it before it happens. Knowing how a horse thinks and responds to things is the most important skill to have so that we can be proactive to settle them and everybody, including the horse, stays safe.
HC: What are your plans for the future?
GB: I hope to continue to expand and help more horses, especially our BC wildies, get a much-needed education to be around humans. This of course involves teaching people through either in-person lessons, online lessons, or the hundreds of videos I put out each year for free on the channel. If I were to be successful enough, I believe a sanctuary of sorts may be in the cards, or at least a larger parcel of land to work on would be great to increase my capacity to help. We’ll see how it all goes, but it’s looking amazing so far!