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Training strategy: Sterrett allows horse to ‘win’ to effectively train

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Gillette – A unique experience was in store for attendees at the presentation of “The Horse Whisperer: Lessons on Leadership and Coaching,” held July 23 at the Cam-Plex in Gillette.

The event paired trainer Lew Sterrett of Anadarko, Okla. with a never-before-ridden, three-year-old Quarter horse mare. Within the 90 minutes of the workshop, he transformed the horse to a willing partner while giving analogies about the parallels of her behavior to that of human relationships.

Sterrett grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and became involved in 4-H at age 8. He attended Penn State University, majoring in animal science, where he learned from a number of qualified trainers and educators. He went on to earn a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in leadership training.

Today, Sterrett runs a leadership training business. His clients include coaches, administrators, business people, teachers and parents. In addition, Sterrett is a master horse trainer.


During his Gillette workshop, Sterrett began by riding one of his own horses, a buckskin Quarter horse stallion, into the stands without a bridle. Then, he proceeded to a round pen set up in the arena where the young mare waited.

Using a sorting flag, Sterrett began to move the mare around the pen in both directions. She was sluggish, and he had to push her at a steady pace. Time after time, she would stop, facing away from him, and he’d send her off again with the flag.

Sterrett remarked, “She was essentially asking what the least amount she can give me is so I get out of her space.”

As the mare tested the boundaries of the round pen, he walked over to one panel, tapped the top of it and said, “She looks at this panel right here and wonders if it’s as high as the panel across the pen. She wonders, essentially, if what Dad says is the same thing as what Mom says, if what teachers say is the same thing as what he coach says and if that’s the same as what her pastor says.”

Sterrett continued, “Kids and horses are alike in that they’re always looking for the lowest fence. It’s the only one that matters.”

Defense mechanisms

Sterrett further explained that there are three defense mechanisms that horses use that also appear in the lives of humans.

“We can escape or quit, deny or blame others,” he said. “In the mare’s case, she could choose to jump the fence, keep running or kick me.”

Instead, Sterrett explained that the mare finally began to turn her head toward him when she stopped by the fence, acknowledging him.

“This is not enough, though,” Sterrett said. “I want her to fix her focus on me.”

Since a horse’s reward is a release of pressure, when she stopped and faced him with her eyes, Sterrett stepped back and dropped the flag.

“Punishment prepares us to fail,” he said, “but discipline gives us hope we can succeed next time.”

Changing attitudes

Soon, the mare began to seek out Sterrett in the pen. He was able to consistently approach and stroke her face and neck.

After she began following him around the pen, he took a saddle pad and rubbed it on her body and legs, as well as over her head and ears.

Then, he laid it on her back, saying, “She may not like it, but the mare is choosing to stand still.”

  He then placed a rope around her back, looping it back and forth over her nose several times. He also encircled her girth and flank areas with the rope, tightening it, which caused her to buck around the pen.

After the rope tangled her legs, she stopped, and Sterrett explained, “Sometimes enough is enough, and she lets me catch her.”

Sterrett saddled the mare for the first time, which was uneventful, until she was released, when she bucked around the arena. As soon as she settled, he began putting weight in the stirrups on both sides before swinging into the saddle.

“She shows little reaction,” he said. “She lets me ride her now, but I always made sure she won. When the horse wins, the trainer wins.”

Melissa Burke is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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