Magner and Me
by Garry Leeson of Kingston, NS
I was seventeen years old when I got my first copy of Magner’s Standard Horse and Stock Book. I found it hidden at the bottom of a box of old books at a farm auction and as I dusted it off and started leafing through the pages I realized that I had struck gold. Every other page seemed to be adorned with beautiful woodcut prints of horses and other livestock: over two thousand illustrations in all. More importantly I could see at a glance that the text was addressing many of the problems that horsemen and farmers encountered when handling and raising various classes of livestock.
I bought the box of books for a song, discarded all but the one I wanted and then found myself a shady spot under a tree and got my nose into it. It was the beginning of a long and, for the most part, rewarding relationship between Mr. Magner and me.
I had spent the previous two summers breaking and training saddle horses for the summer camps in northern Ontario and had had many of the problems that go along with the job of handling young and sometimes difficult horses. During that period I worked in isolation and was forced to improvise with my own solutions when a colt was uncooperative or an older horse presented a problem. Reading through the horse section of my newly acquired book, I realized that I had been trying to reinvent the wheel. I found page after page of clearly explained, age-old remedies for everything I had struggled with on my own and, in addition, tons of invaluable advice for the future.
Over the ensuing years the book became my Bible and the ghost of Mr. Magner, my mentor. Of course I realized that he was not infallible, particularly when it came to some of the dated equine medical procedures and cures he advocated, but when it came to horse training and dealing with problem animals, his advice was as good as ever.
D. Magner lived in the gilded age of the horse whisperers when men like Prof. Jesse Beery toured the US demonstrating their art to the thousands of farmers and teamsters that required quiet well broken horses to earn their livings. Some of the methods they advocated were harsh by today’s standards and would offend contemporary training theorists like Monty Roberts but I found that I could separate the good techniques from the bad and use only those that suited me. I’ve probably tried most of his training and corrective techniques over the years and some of them have produced some pretty strange results.
In 1965, I was working as a police officer on the Metropolitan Toronto Police Mounted Unit and was serving as breaker and trainer for the division’s remounts. The first horse I was assigned to finish training had already had a saddle on him a time or two. He was a big jug headed bay gelding named Monte. I inherited him from my training partner Merle Smith because he claimed the two of them did not get along. That was putting it mildly. Whenever Merle attempted to work with him the big horse would stand quietly while he mounted him but once he was aboard and seated, the brute would refuse to move. That’s not totally accurate because after a while the horse would shake his head defiantly, then suddenly rear, snort and paw the air, standing so tall and erect that my partner would lose his seat, slide backwards off the saddle and continue down over the horse’s rump until he landed in a heap on the ground. Merle was quite a bit older than I was and after several of these episodes he figured that my youthful, less brittle bones were more suited to the task so he turned the brute over to me.
I wasn’t too excited about this assignment; I was new at the training job and still looking to prove myself. Unless I could pull something out of the hat I would be the one to take the rap for our failure. I was also troubled by the knowledge that the horse was on trial with us and the dealer, who technically still owned him, had said that if we couldn’t do anything with him the horse would probably end up in the meat horse pen at the stockyards. I didn’t want that to happen so when I returned to my apartment in the east end of the city that night I dug out my trusty 1907 edition of Mr. Magner’s book and did some careful reading.
The first thing that caught my eye was on page 35 – a section where the author attempts to classify the various characteristics of horses using a series of crude sketches of their heads. Figure number 24 suited Monte to a T.
If Mr. Magner’s assessment of Monte was correct what I had on my hands was one big self-willed son-of-a-gun who figured he was the boss and could do anything he wanted. It would be my job to let him know, in no uncertain terms, that from now on I was calling the shots.
Magner’s method of correcting horses with this sort of attitude problem was fairly straightforward. He called the technique: ‘Subjection’. I would be required to get the horse into a situation where he started to display one of his contrary moods and then, using the type of harness described in the book, throw him and hold him down until he stopped struggling and calmed down. The diagrams that describe the throwing technique appear kind of severe but if the procedure is done somewhere on a soft surface it’s not really that drastic and the horse is not harmed in any way. The result of my first treatment on Monte was immediate and astonishing. He got to his feet a new horse and within minutes I had him saddled and was riding him around the training ring. I had just seen the movie ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and I couldn’t help drawing some comparisons. What we had had was a failure to communicate and as we rode around the ring with Monte responding to my every wish, I could almost hear him saying, “I got my mind right, Boss”.
Unfortunately the cure was not permanent and occasionally, after I turned him over to another officer for regular duty on the street, he would take another bad spell and I would be called to go to the Police Station where he was stabled and give him a tune-up, as it came to be known. Over the next couple of years I did this so often that I didn’t require any special harness to get him to lie down. I would just lift his near fore leg and put some pressure on his withers and down he would go. I’d sit on his neck and talk to him for a while and after I let him up, he would be good for another week or two.
After I left the Police Force this arrangement became too complicated to maintain so I purchased old Monte and put him to work in my riding school where he performed faithfully for several years only occasionally requiring one of his tune-ups. Watching Monte trot placidly around in my riding class, often with small inexperienced children on his back, I knew that if he was up there somewhere, the ghost of Mr. Magner would be looking down on us with a satisfied look on his face.