UNITY - When Sammi Jo Stohler of Unity is around horses, there is a constant conversation, verbal and non-verbal. You could say she has a way with them.
And "her way" is usually with no halter, no bridle, no saddle ... but lots of gentle touching and talking.
Her last local performance was on Aug. 23 during Unity's Bull Run Day, where Stohler led the parade and carried the nation's colors atop her 4-year-old stallion, Wild N Rowdee Sage - of course, with no bridle, no saddle. Although it was Rowdee's first parade, he performed his duties with calm repose. Later that day at the community barbecue at Unity State Park, Stohler entered the talent show with a 7-year-old gelding, Bo, who performed outstanding fetes such as jumping in a tight area, nodding, shaking "hands," laying down and rolling over. They continue to develop an entertaining act incorporated with tricks.
She has competed in various classes such as Western riding, pleasure, reining and gaming; English pleasure, jumping and dressage; pack and trail events; halter classes and working ranch horse competitions.
One would expect her to take many ribbons, but she's usually disqualified because of not using the correct tack. In fact she often uses NO tack. Her performances are quite entertaining for the audience ... and judges. In competitions where she does place, it's usually in the top third.
Sammi Jo has been around horses all her life. Her mother, Cindy Stohler, verified that Sammi Jo has been riding "before she was born."
"Hobo's Charming Fantasy was my first horse," said Sammi Jo. At age 7, she began working with the filly and participated in parades and trail rides.
The family previously lived at Ontario where they raised horses and llamas. At the peak, their herd consisted of 28 horses, with 10 foals on the way. In leaner times, they were down to one stallion, one mare and a gelding.
In 1996, her mother and stepfather, Bill Ross, bought the Unity Motel and in 1999 constructed the Country Store. Since then, they've rebuilt their herd to include 13 horses, eight mules and three donkeys, including a couple of rescued animals. The horsewomen nurture gentle dispositions in the animals who willingly come to them while looking for some "lovin'." When Sammi Jo's not working at the store, she's with the herd, off on a ride or training one of her favorites in a borrowed arena just north of Unity. The arena belongs to friend Callee Fertch, a trainer of working cowhorses.
Growing up, Sammi Jo spent many hours grooming, riding, talking to horses and studying their habits. She was in attendance at the births of Bo and Rowdee, and at the birth of the mare that bore them. She participated in 4-H Sunset Riders, where she learned show etiquette and routines and the Wacky Ribbon event, a 4-H-sponsored activity at Baker City.
In early 2003, Sammi Jo graduated from Alternative Education in John Day. At age 19, she is wise enough to understand that traditional teaching applications don't apply to all children and typical training techniques don't apply to all animals. While training, she said cues can be different for individual animals. Voice commands and leg/foot cues are her main methods of control. She often experiments to find just the right combination by tuning into the horse's psyche.
"Instead of teaching them to follow my cues, I let them show me what cues work best for them," she said. "They are very perceptive."
Her amazing abilities read a horse's attitude and allow the horse to read her instruction. Overflowing praise is given for reassurance or correction, and repetition helps them learn how to properly perform. The horse/rider duo exhibits the fruits of their labor at local events as well as regional. Sammi Jo attends horse and mule shows such as the Stallion Showcase at La Grande, Western Idaho Fair and on Sept. 6-7 performed at Hell's Canyon Mule Days at Enterprise, where she entered 34 mule and donkey classes and rode bareback all weekend.
She and Bo provided the main entertainment for Hell's Canyon Mule Days and was asked to perform at other events. In competitive classes, she received a first-place buckle in a timed trail event where she broke an arena record; and four pairs of spurs, which were awards for barrels, pole bending and two special races. The Key-hole Race was running to the end of the arena and turning around in a circle, without going outside the circle chalkline, then racing back to the start location. The Mystery Race was a modified barrel race, where a muffin was picked up at one barrel location and placed at another.
Sammi Jo and Bo received an impressive bronze statue for their specialty act and she and Sadie, a black donkey, were awarded another bronze statue for High Point Donkey.
Joe, a spotted mule, was "by far the crowd's favorite," she said. He didn't win anything, but came in second for the Jump-off Challenge, where he cleared 4 1/2 feet. The competition allowed "any tack." Sammi Jo said, "I'll take it a step higher - no saddle." Joe is not a perfect picture of confirmation, she said, but is very lovable.
Sammi Jo's training techniques employ diligence, extreme patience and, perhaps above all, respect.
"I've trained horses, but don't have the gift like this kid," said Cindy Stohler. "She's even communicated with wild animals." In particular, injured, abused or abandoned young animals.
The mother-daughter team's goal is to raise family animals. Cindy tends to the breeding and Sammi Jo obviously loves training. Her ultimate goal is to provide professional horse training and one-on-one instruction with people, teach clinics and give demonstrations.
Under Sammi Jo's care, foals are handled from birth, but receive no organized training until they are 2 years old. That's not to say that they are ignored - they get daily attention. Then at age 2, they are given four to six weeks of introductory training, before being turned loose until age 4 or 5. When it's time to get serious, the first month of focused training is spent getting the animal's mind adjusted to learning, she said.
Sammi Jo doesn't force them to do anything, but during daily encounters they usually gravitate towards her out of curiosity to see what she's doing, or for some personal attention. She acknowledges that they are natural athletes and recognizes that the horses consider it a treat to learn something new.
"As long as they are having fun, they'll go along," said Sammi Jo. "They beg to go riding." Rowdee also occasionally indulges in a swim in Unity Reservoir as a welcomed reward.
Rowdee obviously is exceptional. By age 2, Sammi Jo had taught him to lay down and it literally saved his life. One day while riding, he fell in a cattle guard - all four legs down. Instead of thrashing and breaking his legs, he was accustomed to Sammi Jo's gentle persuasion, and she talked him out of the dilemma without any serious damage. She simply encouraged him to lay down, he drew up his legs out of the cattle guard and rolled over out of danger. Her fear was not as easy to allay; she said it was several days before she could admit the incident to her mother.
If an unruly horse is fortunate enough to end up in Sammi Jo's hands, she will leave them in the herd for about eight months to "let them forget their bad habits or experiences." Then the journey begins to rebuild confidence and from there progress to a higher level.
Other common-sense methods are to work with mares in the late stages of pregnancy when it is easier to create a bond that continues after the foals are born. Since their colts and fillies are usually sold before they hit the ground, the process continues.
The Stohlers watch horse training shows and have been reassured that they are doing the right things. They've also talked with clinicians such as Monty Roberts and Pat Parelli.
And Sammi Jo continues to develop her own style. Her skills are often honed during "down-time training," when riding isn't feasible. She constructively uses those times as she grooms, works with lifting their feet, or familiarizes them with dangling ropes or bulky tarps. Not following the same routine, she said, also makes them flexible and diversified. She's sensitive if the animal is having a bad day and acts accordingly.
"But if they want to go, we'll cover some ground," said Sammi Jo. Travelers passing through Unity have even seen her riding in the moonlight.