Forget everything you know about training horses.
Jay Begaye, a Phoenix-based trainer, is challenging the way ranchers, riders and rodeo athletes interact with their horses. Known as the Navajo Horse Whisperer, Begaye rejects modern training strategies that rely on dominance and force, choosing instead to return to traditional practices.
“These days, trainers beat their horses, they get mad and whip their animals,” Begaye said. “I don’t call that horse training. That’s someone with anger taking it out on their horse. That’s someone just trying to make money off the animal.”
Begaye, 55, favors the opposite approach. A lifelong horseman, he learned his gentle ways from his mother, Glenabah Begaye, who herded sheep from horseback.
As a toddler, Begaye sat behind his mother as they rode through Steamboat Canyon, a V-shaped crevice near their home on the Navajo Nation. As they traveled, Glenabah sang softly in Navajo.
“I remember putting my arms around her waist with my ear pressed against her back,” Begaye said. “I could hear her songs, but more than that, I could feel them. It was so lovely.”
Half a century later, Begaye captures the same tenderness as he sings to his horses, coaxing them with traditional Navajo songs. Horses respond to the ancient, soothing sounds and quickly calm down.
“Singing is always the way we did this,” Begaye said. “The songs I sing are the same ones used 200 years ago. Horses are just like babies; they calm down and follow you when you sing.”
Sarah Lightfoot, of River Falls, Wisconsin, saw this first-hand in 2014 when she delivered her horse, Indigo, into Begaye’s corral. Lightfoot was about to embark on a cross-country horseback ride and Indigo was jittery.
Indigo entered the corral, whinnying and neighing, Lightfoot said. Then Begaye began to sing and within minutes, Indigo had settled down.
“My horse was jumping around and acting crazy,” Lightfoot said. “Then Jay sang to her and she just basically followed him around for the rest of the session. He sings to them and they listen. It’s like he’s speaking their language, a language I didn’t know existed.”
Begaye grew up in Ganado, Arizona, where he discovered a passion for art and music. He juggled careers as an art teacher and a pow wow singer, often traveling with his drum group as far north as Canada—where he picked up more horse wisdom and a bigger repertoire of songs.
Begaye was in his late 30s when he returned to horse training, or his “first calling,” he said. “I’d kept my mom’s lessons inside for so long, but I realized I needed to bring back the old style, the traditional ways of working with horses. Singing is the way we used to do it, not the whip.”
While these techniques are gaining popularity among horse lovers around the globe, they almost disappeared during the 1940s, said Boyd Brodie, a Navajo horse trainer from Gallup, New Mexico. Brodie works with Begaye in training clinics and horse demonstrations across the Southwest.
“After World War II, Western horsemanship really started up,” Brodie said. “People started to get away from the natural stuff. They saw shiny spurs and 200 kinds of bits, dozens of kinds of rope, and they wanted all of that.”
When Brodie and Jay Begaye host clinics, they begin by talking about the importance of horses in Native culture, their place in emergence stories (a horse embryo was among the gifts from the Holy People) and the symbolism of the horses’ bodies. They also apply colorful paint to the horses’ faces and flanks.
Then they demonstrate “natural horsemanship,” Brodie said. “In some ways this is the stereotypical Indian stuff—riding without a saddle, stopping on a dime without a bit—but it’s how we used to train, how we used to ride. Pretty much what we do is show that there’s a better way to handle horses.”
The secret is simple, Brodie said. A trainer who sings from the heart earns the horse’s trust and respect.
“Doing it slow and right beats fast and wrong,” he said. “It’s about building a relationship with the horse instead of conquering it.”