Book Review – Vaquero Style Horsemanship

By Harry Hobbes

A review of Vaquero Style Horsemanship: A Compilation of Articles and Letters

by Ed Connell.

Original illustrations by Randy Steffen. Wimbley, Texas: Lennoche Publishers: 127 pp., $24.24 USD

One of the costs of modernity in our “Age of the Common Man” is the loss of traditional, long-working methods of craftsmanship originating in antiquity, and thence handed down from generation to generation; particularly those arcane parts of craftsmanship that were raised to art forms. The hallmark of such craftsmanship and art was the perfection of the product; a perfection honed down through the millenia.

Today, in our mass-produced consumer-oriented leisure culture, where classical education is as rare as sovereign man (and equally misunderstood), equine activities are almost universally restricted to recreational pursuits, and the traditional art and craft of horsemanship is as universally unknown. With few exceptions, the practitioners of the traditional art and craft of horsemanship are anonymous; their achievements unknown; their product un-remarked. Indeed, the very existence of such traditional craftsmanship and accompanying “art” is generally unknown and unappreciated, as is the recognition of the perfection they achieved. We know of the horses; we do not know of the men that trained them.

In today’s equine world, this seeming loss of craftsmanship has in effect created a vacuum, which we now see furiously being filled, using all the power of mass marketing, with all manner of methods, tools and mysticism; usually known as some flavor or another under the rubric of “modern horsemanship”.

But like truth, traditional craftsmanship, art and perfection are always there, only a realization away. One only needs illumination to see them.

Edgar Newton “Ed” Connell has provided that illumination.

The Author

Born on 28 July 1900 to middle class parents in Livermore, California, and encouraged toward a career at law, Connell chose to march to the beat of those different drummers that worked with horses and cattle for their very living; men of little means other than their skill and knowledge in working horses and cattle. Men who ran and worked the cattle outfits in the waning days of the cattle empires. In choosing his path, Connell sought out and learned from the horsemanship masters of his day. Men that held their secrets of the craft tightly; and the few men who had the vision to share their secrets. Men such as Luis “Lupe” Lugo, who became Connell’s instructor, and whose “degrees”, “certificates” and “qualifications” were to be found in the perfection of his remuda.

Connell became a master California Reining Stock Horse trainer as his interest and experience grew, and as time passed and he survived his mentors, he became the master. He published his first book, Hackamore Reinsman in 1952 and his sequel, Reinsman of the West — Bridles & Bits in 1964. Both books have seen many reprints. Taken together, these works constitute the “how to…” of producing a Reined Stock Horse.

Connell learned his chosen craft to the point that at the time of his death, on 4 June 1977, while teaching a clinic in Canada, he was considered The Dean of Reinsmen.

The Book

Vaquero Style Horsemanship: A Compilation of Articles and Letters, actually edited and published by Connell’s daughter in September 2004, is a short journey back to that world of the traditional school of classical horsemanship that produced the California Reined Stock Horse, as the craft was practiced in the first half of the Twentieth Century. It is a partial record not only of “how to…” produce the California Reined Stock Horse as the masters did, and sundry related topics about equipment and vernacular, but it also serves to reflect the opinions of the men that carried on the craft at that time and since.

The book is an anthology of 23 published articles, mostly by Connell, but also by such authors as George Necer, Charley Horse, Ada M. Morgan, and Jack Carroll. The articles were mostly published in equine magazines of the day, and cover such topics as reining, starting colts, breaking broncs, use of the jaquima (hackamore), training for turns and stops, and the spade bit. Being reprints of magazine articles, there is a fair amount of redundancy between articles; but there is also more detail and photographs not found in either of Connell’s two earlier published works.

In addition, fourteen Connell letters (and two replies) are included, which address specific training or behavioral issues; but more importantly, serve to reveal the man.

Underlying Connell’s writing is his deep respect for the master practitioners of history, the perfection of the horse, and his lament for the passing of the art, and the horsemen that practiced it. It is clear in Connell’s writing that he loved that way of life, and the men who were its masters, and viewed this Reining Stock Horse classical method as superior to other methods.

The modern socially-conscious horse person may find the methodology of Connell’s “how to…” to be tough, harsh, and perhaps brutal, because the traditional methods “tied up” the horse as a routine (and mandatory) practice; and initial “breaking” leveraged the power of the horse against itself. On the surface, those methods seem to be antithetical to the modern gentle methods, and therefore not practical in today’s “politically correct” environment. As such, this book will not serve as an instruction manual without judicious modification to indulge modern sensibilities.

But when one looks beneath the obvious rough and tumble (and seemingly harsh) aspects of the training, one can find the universal principles that date from antiquity: pressure, then reward with a release. And with that, the common key to developing any horse.

This work also provides a variety of historical and taxonomical tidbits of information that lend depth to what otherwise would be a series of “how to…” articles. This is where the work adds significant value to Connell’s other two works.

Connell tells of the history of the California Reined Stock Horse, which in his view is strictly a product of California; derived in principle and practice originally from the Moors, and a form of classical horsemanship practiced for centuries in Andalucia, Spain.

He talks of the two basic methods of training: The Californio Method and the eastern method (inherited from the English). The Californio Method did not introduce a bit to the horse until it was fully trained to work cattle in the jaquima (hackamore). The English method introduced the bit early and consisted of teaching the horse to “plow rein” (as born out by the popularity of “long-reining” in the English riding world).

Connell defines the two schools of horsemanship which developed in these United States: The California way and the Texas way, which produced two different products: the Reined Stock Horse (California) and what is known today as the Cutting Horse (Texas).

Connell and his teachers, who produced the California Reined Stock Horse to perfection using the classical methods were the “natural horsemen” of their day. They took years to train the horse to perfection; a perfection that Connell and his peers and masters lamented is no longer present.

This work is very instructional as to the traditional way of “breaking” horses to be top notch reining cow horses. As such, it is a good buy for the historically minded and inquisitive. But the power of this work is that it is an anthology of history, opinion, and the culture of that almost lost craftsmanship. One will not find that anthology elsewhere.

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