Years ago, people had come from miles around to a Baldonnel ranch to watch a possible execution by horse.
The executioner in this case was a stallion named Jack. The victim was the man who'd been hired to train him.
The trainer didn't want to tell the gathered crowd, but word had gotten around from someone who knew about the type of animal he was facing. There are wild horses out there, but this one was, in human terms, certifiably insane.
At the time, Jack had scar tissue from where he bit himself on the ribs, hair missing from where he tore it off from his lower legs, and he was slightly drenched in his own urine.
He'd spent a bit of time hitting himself on the ground, squealing, kicking. That behaviour didn't stop when the trainer approached the fence, as Jack charged at the trainer and tried to bite him through the gap in the fence.
Some of the people in crowd suggested gathered that the horse should just be shot.
But what they didn't count on was the skill of the trainer, Glenn Stewart, a man who by his own admission is addicted to being uncomfortable.
He wasn’t always this way, however. Stewart was raised around Fort St. John, playing or feeding on his farm.
He knew he wanted to do something outdoors, but he didn’t think he could make money at it. At 17, he decided to work in the oil patch, but for 100 days from July to October, he would work with his great-uncle Gary Powell as a wrangler.
Powell was “one of the original old-timers from up here ... he’s one of the good ol’ boys,” according to Stewart. Powell would pick Stewart up by landing his plane on the highway, then taking off when the traffic was clear.
Stewart travelled to the Rocky Mountains 80 miles away from the nearest road to work with his uncle, who wasn’t afraid to challenge him.
“His words to me were, ‘Go bring some horses in, and if you don’t have some horses in front of you, don’t come back to camp,’” said Stewart. “If I wanted to have supper and sleep in my bed roll, I had to find horses and make sure they came back to the corral, no matter what it took.”
Oh, and Stewart had never actually done this before in his life, and he was offered no training on how to get a horse, or where to find them. All he had was his own horse to ride in.
When Stewart was actually able to find a horse — either wild or a tamed horse who hadn’t seen a human in nearly a year — he thought he might just have to go and call up one to get him. When he approached, however, they would “put their tails straight up and gallop as fast as they can.”
Occasionally, in chasing down these horses, Stewart and the horse he was riding on would somersault over, and they would have to bring the horse back up and get back to riding before the horse he was chasing got away.
In the end, though, Stewart did catch these horses, and he credits these tasks given to him by Powell for changing him.
“He was fantastic at getting me to do things that you were really uncomfortable with,” he said. “I didn’t understand the long-term effects, and I’m sure he didn’t plan it either; he was just that way.”
By the end of October, he and a 13-year-old boy were tasked with riding 11 horses on a three-day ride to the nearest highway alone, guided only by a map drawn on a napkin in the kitchen table.
The 13-year-old led, as he was more experienced.
The trip involved crossing rivers and muskegs in sub-zero northern temperatures. They were also what some might consider intentionally ill prepared.
“We weren’t allowed to keep bedrolls, and the only food we had was in our (approximately six inch by eight inch) saddlebag,” said Stewart.
Sleep wasn’t a reprieve either. Powell required Stewart to sleep under the “stinky, sweaty old horse blanket” that the horse had just been wearing, and they were shivering and shaking throughout.
“It’s not as romantic as it sounds,” he adds.
Nevertheless, they were able to make it out and bring the cattle in.
Stewart admitted that the jobs he was asked to do were “uncomfortable.”
But he kept at it, even volunteering to go on some of these difficult tasks, seeing many of them as an adventure.
“After a while I got addicted to being uncomfortable,” he said. “Thanks to (being in the mountains), I’m pretty comfortable being uncomfortable.
He kept coming back to those mountains where he first had those adventures, but he also had other jobs in the other days of the year. In time, people would bring him horses to see if he could train them. Stewart admits that he “should give all the money back, because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
He learned from others, and eventually became quite good at it, and over time he has trained thousands of these horses. He admits that there only about 10 or 15 “really tough” horses to deal with. One of them was Jack.
Jack was trained to be a show-horse, and apparently quite a good at it. But Stewart said that he eventually became so wild that even his trainers and his owners — a husband and wife — couldn’t handle him.
It all came to a head when Jack “took down” the husband, breaking his collarbone, and forcing him to crawl out from under the rail.
That’s when they gave Stewart a call. He agreed to help, but under some rules. They would take him out of his box stall and put him with other horses, and they have to forgo their dream of “bringing this horse to the world.” The old trainers would have to go, too.
All this led to that day when Stewart first entered the ring with Jack, to the disbelief of some in the crowd gathered to watch.
Stewart admitted he was scared of the horse.
“He could kill me easily;” he said. “He’s way bigger, way stronger.”
It certainly didn’t help that when Stewart came into the pen, Jack charged at him “like a shark,” a move that Stewart deflected before he got hurt.
Stewart had learned some tricks in dealing with horses, however. He did the opposite of what came naturally.
“There are things we are taught to do throughout our life that might work in the human world a little bit at times, but it really interferes with horsemanship,” he said. “We are born with our little hands (closed). It gets a long time for babies to open up their hands.”
So Instead of getting tight, locking your jaw, or squinting — things that people do when they’re in scary situation — Stewart reacted by getting calmer and more open.
Then, for the next two hours, a little dance began. By watching the horse’s movement and getting a feel for the animal’s body language, he would attempt to calm him down and move the horse’s feet with his own. By the end of a two-hour session, he was able to calm the horse down, the first of ten days of sessions he worked with Jack.
Over time, Jack became Stewart’s “pet pit bull.”
When Stewart took him to train in areas with other riders, he would always warn others nearby that the animal was a bit dangerous. One rider apparently snorted at this news. So Stewart opened up the ropes a bit, and Jack “roared like a lion, reared up, and lunged at the guy.”
He closed his hand, and the horse stopped.
“If you’re going to snort at me when I’m trying to be nice, maybe I’ll show you why I should be a little more polite next time.”
Eventually, Jack was rehabilitated. The fees Stewart earned through this, teaching others how to train horses, and various other facilities have allowed him a nice ranch near Baldonnel. Called “The Horse Ranch,” its front “HR” logo is the same one he wears on his customized shirts.
Still, Stewart is trying his hand on other things that make him uncomfortable, like public speaking. He’s taught to universities, CEOs, lawyers, and more besides publicly, even though he admits this doesn’t come naturally to him.
In his view, a flawed person can’t be a good horseman.
“If you want to improve with horsemanship, you have to improve as a person,” he said. “You can’t be impatient, you can’t be unfair, you have to see the horses point of view.”
He recently added up his head, and by his estimates, he’s spoken to 20,000 people. And all this has come not from anything he really planned to do, but going for what’s difficult.
“If I’m not uncomfortable kind of regularly, I go hunt it, I go find it, because I know I’m not growing ... whenever you’re uncomfortable, you’re learning,” he said. I can’t say, ‘you horses grow and get better and be able to handle this,’ but it’s unfair that I would not have to do the same.”