“If only they could talk” is a despairing whinge common to horsemen and punters alike. But they do talk to Gary Witherford. He once, famously, did his thing with a Zebra, he put four Group One winners into the stalls last season, and two years ago he was the first man to have a full conversation with Sea The Stars.
It was cold last week at Westcourt, the ungilded stud and stables Gary runs a few miles south of Marlborough and when the showers came scudding across the Pewsey Vale it felt as if they had come direct from an Arctic version of the Bristol Channel. But what happened between him and three very different horses in the circular sand ring would warm the heart. They turned out to be The Good, The Bad and The Ugly but each within 25 minutes had learnt the language. In over 60 years with horses I have never seen anything to match it.
“Look at her lip, look at her lip,” shouts Gary as the first pupil, an unbroken yearling filly by Clodovil stops a touch baffled in a corner of the ring at the end of the long white lead rein, “she’s talking to me. She’s saying she is ready to do what I want next.” Gary, 49, once a sickly, self-doubting stable lad is now a big, powerful presence almost a bit too loud and dominant for the accepted notion of a “Horse Whisperer.” But while there is nothing cruel about the method he has developed from the different influences of a troubled youth, an escape with equines and time spent with both Monty Roberts in America and Stephen Forsman in Scandinavia, it is based on the need for the human to be the leader.
“I call it ‘Pressure and Release’” explains Gary who is certain that his gifts have emerged from the refuge he found with horses after the double torture of dyslexia and abuse overshadowed his childhood. “We are in an enclosed space so I shoo a horse away to run round the side of it but then ease off and when he (or she in this case) is ready they will stop and ‘lick and chew’ with that lower lip which says they are ready to do the next thing. Horses are animals of ‘Flight’ or ‘Fight’. She’s definitely ‘Flight’. You can see that inside ear listening to me. Some of them are not as easy as this but in principle they are first time learners. I want to help them. They want to please me.”
His strange mixture of strength and sensitivity tunes in naturally to the elegant filly in front of us. Having trotted round happily to the left, the filly is brought back into the centre and then literally “shooed” away to circle the ring to the right. For a moment it looks almost boorishly callous but within a couple of circuits the “Flight” slows, the filly looks across to her “Leader”, the lower lip chatters in acceptance, and Gary brings her firmly but gently back to the centre again.
We haven’t been going five minutes but Gary’s son Craig now walks in carrying the saddle and bridle. 26 months ago he did this in Ireland to a good looking Cape Cross colt which was the very first yearling that he and his father had handled for John Oxx. Even at the time the Withefords remarked on Sea The Stars incredible self possession. The whole process from start up to being ridden away on its own which under the standard system takes over a month, was completed in well under 20 minutes. As the filly stands apprehensive for the saddle and girths to be gently attached and tightened, you wonder if this will be quite so quick. As she kicks out at the beginning of her first circuit, Gary calls out cheerfully “look at how she has stiffened her top lip. She is angry with me. Look at her ear. She doesn’t want to listen.”
But she soon does. No drama but the inside ear begins to cock attentively and the trot round the outside of the ring becomes smooth. She is brought back to the centre and the bridle with its solid, one piece “Myler” bit is put on and the first lead rein is threaded from the rings of the bit through the stirrup iron out to Gary behind and a second rein is similarly attached. This is the process of “long reining” in which the standard practice is to drive yearlings ahead of you for days if not weeks, up lanes, across fields and through paddocks. Here we are only spending a few minutes. It should not be possible but it is.
For a circuit or two the filly’s anger resurfaces. “Look at her stamp her foot,” says Gary before catching a tell tale upward jerk of the head as she was made to turn to the right. “See that,” he shouts, “it only happens when she turns to the right. Bet you anything she has got a ‘wolf’ tooth (a pre molar that loosens easily), I will get the dentist to whip it out this afternoon.” Not an insuperable problem but after ten and a half minutes we have reached a crucial stage. The filly has got to walk backwards.
Gary has her directly in front of him and pulls insistently on both reins in unison. “She must take two full steps back,” he says. She does and stands and puckers that lower lip with as near to an “aren’t I clever, what do you want next” statement as a horse can give. What she will get is Craig on her back. It’s one of the great moments of any horse’s life and one, above all else, that needs assurance in the execution. Done badly, and we have all been responsible, there is too much tension and too many participants and the whole thing deteriorates into a fight for dominance not to mention a bucking bronco competition. Here there is only one man and his son. The horse is held by one hand not pinned by many. The boy is eased up ever so gently to lie on his stomach across the saddle. So far so good, but we have all been there too. OK Sunshine, now try putting your leg across and your bum on the saddle.
Craig does just that as Gary turns the filly’s head one way and then the other . To start with Craig places his feet ever so gently in the irons and keeps his seat actually above the saddle. But while the filly’s ears are flicking nervously, her body is calm, there are no sweat marks of worry. We have been going just fourteen and a half minutes when Craig’s posterior finally presses the saddle and, unlike one never to be forgotten personal memory, is not immediately bucked straight between his pupil’s ears. Almost immediately she is being trotted round a bit stutteringly at first but freeing enough within a couple more minutes to have Gary take off the lead rein and allow Craig on his own. Within a few more circuits the pair are cantering round confidently both ways. We have not yet reached the twenty minute mark and the opening part of the basic normally weeks long start-up process is complete.
But before the next pupil came in there was one more trick which at first glimpse looks like a publicity stunt. The filly is ridden back to Gary in the centre and Craig calmly hoists himself up until he is standing right on top of the saddle and then jumps off to the side for all the world like a Frankie Dettori dismount without the arms-flung-wide Sheikh Mohammed embracing histrionics. “I could not believe it when I first saw it with Sea The Stars,” says John Oxx. “But Gary explains that it gives a horse trust in having a man like a stalls handler up behind them and now my lads do it as part of the process when Gary is there. And the horses he breaks do seem quieter.”
One down, or rather up, two to go and if the first filly was “The Good” the second one was “The Ugly”. That might be a bit harsh on the little chestnut whose trainer had dropped her off at Westcourt the night before, but her coat was shaggy and her attitude something similar to a grumpy teenager’s curled lip scowl. “I will bet she was a home bred who has been petted and allowed to get away with things,” says Gary as the filly singularly fails to show any enthusiasm at obeying any of his commands. “She definitely won’t do ‘Flight’ so I am waiting to see where the ‘Fight’ is going to come from.” When it does, it is bizarre.
We were ten minutes into what was becoming an increasingly unsuccessful process and had reached the ‘long-reining’ bit when the pupil has to make the two backward steps. The filly locked her front legs and dipped her head in furious, dumb refusal. “Look at that stiff upper lip,” shouts Gary, “you know I think she is going to lie down on us.”
After another two silent, straining but motionless minutes the filly gradually lowered her head and neck to the ground in front of her before finally toppling over on to her left side and lying for dead like a toddler in a tantrum. “Told you so,” said Gary, “now we will make her realise the facts of life.”
For an awful moment you think that he and Craig are set to reap some primitive revenge process for their pupil’s misdemeanour. But what they do is harmless to anything but her rebellious psyche. They sit and walk all over her. They humiliate the girl. Don’t try it on your toddler but out here you can instantly see the point.
It works a treat. The filly is brought to her feet, stands meekly while Craig goes through the mounting process and then trots obediently round the ring as if asking for everyone to forget what happened. As with all other horses, it will be important that her future riders continue the strict ‘no nonsense’ regime, but the knot in her brain has been unravelled.
So that was “The Ugly”, bring on “The Bad”. During the course of the morning a delinquent two year old had been delivered whose reputation would, in human terms, have merited an ASBO and a leg tag at the very least. As a six figure yearling he had been the apple of his stable’s eye but when he finally made it to the track he behaved so disgracefully in the paddock and ran so deplorably in the race that gelding was immediate. Despite that he became so increasingly aggressive that he needed tranquilizing to even go on the horse walker. It had taken 15 minutes to even get him to enter the horse box that morning.
In the old days it would have been a classic case of boot camp, big whip “sorting out”. Gary is no shrinking violet and there is a certain challenging relish when he says “I think we have got a ‘right one’ here”. But his systems are different. The contest is a mismatch. Using his own rope halter he has the horse walking into the horsebox within five minutes. Within another five the battle in the schooling pen has become completely one sided. To be exact the hoodlum is lying on his right side, his legs trussed to prevent kicking and is being pulled over on to the other flank by Gary and Craig who then give him the “walk on” humiliation treatment.
To be fair, despite the horse’s reputation for coming at you with his front legs, Gary had given him a couple of circuit’s chance. “But watch his head,” shouts ‘The Whisper’, “he won’t look at us, he is telling us to stuff ourselves. I think we may have to pull him down. After half a dozen bolshy attempts at circling the ring the villain is brought quietly into the centre of the ring. His near fore is tied back up next to the knee. Gary and Craig twist his head to he finally drops to the ground where his other front leg is hobbled to the hind one so any struggles are against himself.
As with children there are a few moments when a storm of rage suffuses them. But unlike the human condition when acceptance comes it is complete, trusting and without resentment. Those who only a few minutes earlier had been in fear of an equine thug could only look on in admiring sympathy as he stood politely for Craig to place the saddle and then ride him round the ring. Once or twice the knots formed back in the mind but each time the absolute certainty that obedience was the most fruitful option took things forward. When we last looked he was being hacked happily over the horizon.
It had been a squally morning in Wiltshire but also rather more than that. It had been a revelation of what can be done with the equine spirit, and in Gary’s own case with the human personality. Gary and his second wife Suzanne are happy now but there have clearly been agonies along the way. By his own admission the future “Whisperer” was a disruptive child which considering an overseas childhood, severe dyslexia and sexual abuse for which a family member was eventually jailed, was not surprising. An enlightened schoolmaster saw horses as the key and at 14 Gary was the youngest boy on the apprentices course. “I felt horses could not hurt me,” he says, “I went to Stan Mellors but I never wanted to be a jockey. I just wanted to get the difficult horses to get themselves right.”
In 17 years with Mellor, Witherford never had a horse he looked after fail to win. When family needs meant swapping a stable lad’s wage for ten times as much with Marley tiles, the lure of the horses meant him working nights and riding out mornings with Eric Wheeler, something which, again unsurprisingly, did not fit well with family life. After a double glazing venture failed Gary got backing from Black Sabbath drummer Cozy Powell to develop his own system only for Powell to be killed in a motor accident and another later backer to also fall out.
“It’s been a long and difficult time,” said Gary tasting a glass of white wine in the gleaming kitchen, “but I always felt I had something. I can understand what they are saying to me. Like that filly saying she was going to lie down. This has been the best year of my life, working with four Group One winners Ghanaati, Fleeting Spirit, Spanish Moon and of course Sea The Stars. It was two years ago last spring that John Oxx asked me over to help a very well bred filly Timarwa who had refused to go into the stalls. I went with her to the Curragh and she won easily. John liked what I did, I came back to do all his yearlings that Autumn and the rest is history.”
Bob Hoskins in the famous TV advert was probably not thinking of Westcourt Stables near Devizes. But he got the message right – “It’s good to talk”.