The Horse Sense of John Lyons

John Lyons, In Stride Horsemanship

I’ve just finished Moira C. Harris with Tammy Jo Lyons, Mastering the Art of Horsemanship: John Lyons’s Spiritual Journey (Irvine, California: Bowtie Press, 2003). The photographs by Charles F. Mann are alone worth the price of this biography of Lyons, a beautiful coffee-table book.

John Lyons (right) is a pioneer of gentler, caring methods of horse training who has been an inspiration to Dad and to Marvin (my brother-in-law). Marvin has never met Lyons in person, to my knowledge, but as a tribute to Lyons, I’ll intersperse photos of Marvin in what follows to represent this impact of Lyons’ ideas upon my family.

Lyons’ 1987 documentary, Round Pen Reasoning, was one of the industry’s first training videos. In countless clinics, symposiums, books, videos and even a long-running RFTD television series, Lyons has attempted to change the way people think about their relationships with their horses.

On Willis Creek Ranch, Marvin trains horses in a round pen. This has become common practice now in large part because of Lyons. Lyons explains (pp. 90-93 and following) that a round pen is safer for both the horse and the trainer. In a pen without corners, the horse is less likely to feel trapped or try to push through or go over the fence. A round pen allows a trainer and horse to interact in a non-violent manner. By keeping the horse moving, the trainer can establish a relationship with the horse before making any physical contact. Both the trainer and the horse attend to one another and learn each other’s cues. As the trainer interacts with the horse without causing pain, the horse gains trust and confidence in the trainer. Before the horse realizes it, he’s developing the habit of responding to the trainer’s wishes.

Sounds like a picture of the ways of providence with us, doesn’t it? God keeps us moving and establishes trust in countless ways we’re not even aware of. The circle of life we’re in is a round pen.

Marvin working Annie in the round pen.  Willis Creek Ranch.
Marvin working Annie in the round pen, Willis Creek Ranch

So many aspects of horse training are analogous to human relationships. What parent cannot identify with the following description of how Lyons deals with specific behavioral problems?

“Even when an owner told him what the horse’s specific problem was – unwillingness to pick up feet, touchy around the ears, spooky about fly spray – John never went directly to the problem. Instead, he started somewhere else with the horse, in an area completely unrelated. By the time that he actually made a move to address the specific problem, John had already founded a relationship with the horse… and in return, the horse had given John respect and trust” (p. 146).

Again, that sounds to me like the way providence works with us.

Speaking of working with difficult horses, Lyons explains the effect his gentle treatment produces in an animal who has known only rough disciplinary measures:

“I try to use more loving techniques. Soon after, the horse discovers that it’s a pleasant experience to have a human enter his stall, and the circle of violence can be broken” ( p. 114).

Another of Lyons’ principles is “never blame the horse.” Rather, understand how humans are teaching the horse incorrectly. Lyons’ loving approach transforms the human relationship with the horse:

“The very best way to solve the biting problem is to hang all over their heads. Love on them while they’re eating, stick your hands all over their faces, play with them – it’s amazing how fast the horse comes around. This, I believe, stems from the knowledge that horses are very social creatures. They love to love and be loved. They are not cows that could care less about seeing a human.” (p. 118)

The parallels with human relationships multiply! Parenting, teaching, counseling – any human relationship stands to benefit from understanding horses.

Jackson Mann riding Shadow
Marvin’s sons: Jackson on Shadow, Jonathan on Governor

But if loving methods are more effective, why did cowboys in the past “break” horses with violent measures? Lyons explains that, actually, training success may have less to do with the methods of the human than with the horse’s own social disposition:

“Horses are so congenial. The last thing they are is stubborn or obstinate. It is a complete myth that horses would choose to have their own way all the time. If they were stubborn, they would be zebras and we wouldn’t be riding. It wouldn’t be easy for so many people who have so little knowledge about the animals to actually work with them successfully…. There have been plenty of cases where an unbroken horse has been trained – quite effectively – by a young girl…. what is true is that it doesn’t take a great deal of advanced philosophy or knowledge to train one, because they are such willing partners most of the time.” (p. 140)

Marvin with Runner
Marvin with Runner

Lyons’ favorite horse, Zip, went blind at age 19. Lyons refused to put him down so long as Zip was not suffering (p. 159): “Zip can be an ambassador in many ways. He will show people that horses are still useful, even when they may not be able to see or may have some disability.” Indeed, Zip continued to participate in Lyons’ shows and symposiums:

“I can take Zip and spin him blazingly fast like a reining horse ten times in each direction – then lope him off and do flying lead changes…. Can you imagine closing your eyes, having someone spin you around, as fast as they could, and then say ‘now run a straight line’?… Ever see a blind person run at full speed?”

Thus even in his later years, Zip was an astonishing demonstration of a horse’s courage and trust in his human partner.

No wonder that encounters with horses so deeply encourage disadvantaged and disabled humans.

Marvin with school kids, Willis Creek Ranch
Marvin and Governor with school kids, Willis Creek Ranch

Lyons’ methods have constantly evolved. He insists that he is always learning, and that each year his clinics show some different techniques based on increased experience and understanding. No one ever arrives at a complete understanding of horses, or of humans.

Given the ever-present danger of working with horses, Lyons’ former wife, Susie, joked about angels working overtime in the round pen (p. 160):

“Everyone has a guardian angel. But you must have two, and I bet they’re both standing in front of God with manure all over their wings, covered with sweat and dust, just begging for a reassignment.”

I think Marvin and Dad have their own “cowboy angels” who love horses as much as they do!

Marvin with Governor in the Horse Barn.
Marvin with Governor in the Horse Barn

Lyons has always seen a connection between his horse training methods and Christian faith. For example, he emphasizes that horses are forgiving, an essential characteristic for any relationship. And he insists that human dominion over horses means not that we dominate them, but that we are baby-sitters. They belong to God, not to us. We are to watch over them and care for them. We have responsibility to keep them safe, “just as we would a little child” (p. 159).

Lyons goes further:

“They are, in my opinion, God’s favorite animals because he mentions them more than any other animal in the Bible, except for sheep. God also talks about how He will be riding a white horse when He returns. Horses are meant to be loved by us.” (p. 118)

He later reflects on three appearances of horses in the Bible (p. 152):

  • In Matthew 21:8-9, when Jesus rode a foal that had never been ridden, he “was the only real horse whisperer who ever came down the pike.”
  • In Numbers 22:20-33, Balaam’s donkey was trying to help him, but only being flogged in return.
  • In Revelation 19, Christ not only returns on a white horse, but is accompanied by multitudes of horses carrying his army (confirmation, he believes, that horses will be with us in heaven).

By creating horses and causing humans to care for them, God shows us something of how he cares for us. Similarly, all that we learn from horses applies to our relationships with other humans as well. So a world where humans show more love to horses would be a world with more love to go around for humans, too, as well as a world that knows more of the love of God.

Marvin with school kids, Willis Creek Ranch
Marvin and Frosty with school kids, Willis Creek Ranch

Numerous missteps and great hardships are honestly recounted along the way, and Lyons’ plain, down-to-earth life story is far from simple or ideal. Yet this journey toward love is the main point of Mastering the Art of Horsemanship: John Lyons’s Spiritual Journey. John Lyons is an inspiration. I highly recommend this book; it’s not just for ranchers.

Marvin with school kids, Willis Creek Ranch
Marvin and Governor with a happy guest, Willis Creek Ranch

Lyons concludes a web page with an invitation: our “door is always open to everyone and you are invited to stop by anytime.” We can affirm the truth of this western hospitality. Dad and Mother were driving through that part of Colorado a few years ago, and just happened to pull into the drive to the Lyons’ ranch, unannounced. John came out and chatted a while with them as if they were long-time friends.

Then Dad told Lyons about Marvin – that he was injured in Vietnam and now, legally blind, works with horses using Lyons’ methods. Lyons replied, “he is my hero (m4v).”

This is the legacy of horses.


Marvin Mann, Heartland Hero (KTVO local broadcast)


Note: Horse-riding is reportedly excellent therapy for those with Asperger’s.

This entry was posted in Nature and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Horse Sense of John Lyons

  1. Laura Mann says:

    I love this entire post! I am still chuckling at the visual in my mind of the poor ‘cowboy angels’. πŸ™‚ Horses truly are an amazing animal. And you are right, they DO enter into relationship with people. When Marvin was first injured he came home to his farm and decided to get a horse to help him get around. It is a long story best heard in person from Marvin, but the short version is that he got a horse named Buck who took him all over their 400+ acres and never rode Marvin under a tree limb, never lost him in a gully, took great care of him for years. Buck allowed Marvin to gain confidence in his own abilities again and was really the beginning of all that Marvin accomplished with horses.

  2. Kerry Magruder says:

    Laura, that is a beautiful story. Do you have a photo of Buck? If so, can you make a post about it on your Willis Creek Ranch blog? Tell Marvin I want to hear the full-length version next month when we see you. And I’ll bring Marvin’s book back to him, too.

  3. Laura Mann says:

    Yes, I will get that done. I should do more stories like that – to preserve them.

  4. Kerry Magruder says:

    Laura, let’s record Marvin on video next month when we’re together. If you happen to find any photos lying around, that’s a bonus – especially if it wouldn’t be too much trouble to bring them with you. I can’t wait!

  5. Kerry Magruder says:

    Marvin pointed out an episode of The Horse Show with Rick Lamb. In this episode we are introduced to the Beery family and learn about Professor Jesse Beery who had the Jesse Beery School of Horsemanship in the late 1800’s (it closed in the 1970’s). Jesse Beery was a relative of Noah Beery who played Rocky on The Rockford Files. πŸ™‚

    You can watch the episode online here….

    Click on “Professor Jesse Beery” Award-Winner Episode 293

  6. Pingback: Karl Barth on horses | Kerry's loft

  7. Pingback: Bruce Cockburn – love in a broken world | Kerry's loft

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *