Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
Howard Cormier is retiring from the LSU AgCenter Master Horseman Program, but he is not hanging up his saddle and spurs.
“I’m trying to wind things down,” Howard said. “I’ve enjoyed this job but it’s time to give someone else a chance.”
His retirement is official Jan. 1.
It’s the second retirement for Cormier. The first was in 2008 when he was county agent in Vermilion Parish. “A month later, I started working with the Master Horseman Program.”
He recalled the Master Horseman Program was the idea of Clint DePew, retired LSU AgCenter equine specialist.
The first class had six people, he said, and two of those individuals – Richard Hebert and Mike Dartez -- became 4-H Horsemanship Leader of the Year. “They have done a tremendous amount of work.”
Howard said retirement will allow him to spend more time with his four grandchildren, three boys and a girl.
He said even though he’s been around horses for most of his 72 years, he still learns about the four-legged beasts. “With horses, you never reach a point where you know it all. There’s always a new approach to horse training.”
Howard said when he started working with the Master Horseman Program, he had to learn how to teach, and he had to relearn a better way to train a horse.
He grew up around Church Point where he learned about horses from his father and relatives.
Back in those days, he said, training a horse was usually done with a whip, forcing a horse to comply.
“The thing to do then was show it who was boss. It was pretty rough.”
At that time, it was important to get an animal ready to work on the farm quickly and owners didn’t have time to patiently work with an animal, he said. He recalled his grandfather would take a young mule and hitch it with a team of older, stronger mules to work the fields. The younger animal would resist and fight through the day but by the end of the day it was worn out and willing to obey.
Howard recalled a horse trainer once came to the Church Point area and claimed to have a special ability to communicate with horses. A horse whisperer long before that phrase came about. He charged $25 a head to watch his demonstration.
Howard said his dad told him the man actually walked up to a horse and appeared to be talking softly to it, but Howard’s dad surmised he was telling the horse, “Give me a fight but don’t give me too much of a fight because these fools have paid $25 a head to see this.”
Nowadays, the emphasis is on persuading a horse to obey more subtle commands. Howard explained the principle of getting a horse to do what you want comes down to pressure and release. Apply pressure with a spur or a leg against a horse’s flank, then release it as the horse complies.
Howard said spurs are used more to move a horse side to side, not to make it go faster. “If spurs were effective at making a horse go faster, jockeys would wear them.”
Horses are aware of a rider’s posture, he said. Sit on a horse like a sack of potatoes and the horse is likely to react similarly, but with correct upright posture and confident moves, a horse is more likely to perform well.
“The horse always rises or falls to the level of the rider,” Howard said.
He explained that training a horse these days start with ground work. The saddled horse isn’t ridden. Instead, the trainer stays on the ground and uses a rope along with subtle cues to make the horse move. With just raising a hand or his head up or to a side, Cormier can make a trained horse advance, move back, sideways or stop.
Horse trainer Warwick Schiller emphasizes making a connection with a horse, Howard said. “A horse can get to the point where it wants to be around someone.”
He said horses often connect with kids quicker because they are not identified as a threat. Howard said he has sent his grandkids to fetch a horse that would shy from him.
Attempting to figure out what goes on in a horse’s mind has been a lifelong pursuit for Howard. “The world of horses is fascinating. Trying to read horses and understand why they do what they do, that’s my goal. You’re always trying to get better.”
Howard said much of the modern-day horse training philosophy can be traced back to Ray Hunt of Utah. “He started a revolution in horsemanship.”
Howard said Hunt’s mantra was simple. “Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult but not unbearable. You try not to be so overbearing that the horse becomes fearful.”
A scared horse resorts to its fight-or-flight instinct and that makes it almost impossible to control, he explained.
Howard said he raised his first horse, Blaze, a palomino stallion, as a colt. Then he bought another horse in 1971 at an auction for $145 with a saddle.
He said he owned a horse that he wanted to sell, and he relied on his brother to show it to a prospective buyer. The woman didn’t seem impressed with the horse until Howard’s brother showed her the horse’s unique talent: chewing gum.
Howard’s brother gave the horse a slice, and the horse chomped away and the sale was made.
He recalled another horse had a bad habit of bucking, and it threw him three times, prompting a friend to ask how many throws would it take to convince him to sell that horse. Howard said he realized the friend was right and he sold the horse for $450 to someone who liked showing off a bucking horse.
Howard’s main horse now is Ruthie, a buckskin mare. Its official American Quarter Horse Association name is “Woohoo Check My Bootie,” Howard said. The AQHA’s initial rejection of the name was successfully appealed, Howard said, but he decided to call it Ruthie after his mother because of its gentle nature. “But if you pushed her too far, she stood her ground.”
He’s had his share of mishaps. Howard said he just finished physical therapy for a shoulder injury that occurred when he roped a calf and the rope got tangled in his horse’s feet. “Few horses can stand a rope running under their tail with a 200-pound calf on the other end.”
Howard said he’s still ever mindful of the danger of falling. “You never get to a point where you don’t worry about getting thrown.”
Howard has enjoyed competing in ranch skills events, even winning first place two years that require a rider to put a horse through maneuvers with practical applications.
But Howard said he mostly enjoys more sedate trail riding through the woods of the Kisatchie National Forest. His favorite area is the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness Area near Natchitoches. “You go to enjoy the scenery and make sure the pace is not too challenging for the horses.”
His most memorable ride was a 9-day excursion along the Continental Divide near Durango, Colorado, with an outfitter and a group of friends. They traversed the mountains, carrying all their supplies and equipment on horseback. “That was my dream trip.”
He also rode with friends on mules into the Grand Canyon. Howard remembers he tried to coax his mule to stay away from the edge of the narrow path but the mule reacted by getting closer to the edge with a sheer dropoff of several hundred feet.
“It didn’t take but a minute for that mule to train me.”
Howard graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in animal science in 1971. Between semesters, he worked in the oilfield as a roughneck alongside his dad, who everyone knew as Slim. “Whenever everyone else went off on vacation, I was on the rig.”
Howard credits that oilfield experience with his skill for knot tying that proved valuable with horsemanship. Howard has several knot-tying videos on YouTube, along with horse training instruction.
He started working for the LSU AgCenter in 1972 as a 4-H agent in Lafourche Parish after a year at seminary in New Orleans.
In 1978, he moved to the Vermilion Parish office to do 4-H and horticulture work, then he became a county agent working with rice and sugarcane farmers.
He used a newsletter, La Grappe, (French for The Seedhead), to communicate with his constituents and eagerly wrote recommendations to honor some of the outstanding area farmers with national awards. “Vermilion won more awards with its farmers than any other parish in the state.”
Rice and crawfish farmer David LaCour said Howard as county agent was always available for technical and moral support. “I think he was the best county agent ever.
He was on top of everything. He was with me every week checking on fields.”
LaCour said Howard taught farmers new technology as the computer age hit the fields, and ag organizations in the parish flourished under his guidance.
But Howard decided he would retire at age 60, just like his dad.
His time with the Master Horseman Program didn’t seem so much like work, since horses are his passion.
Horse trainer and cattleman Johnny Boudreaux of Vermilion Parish said Howard has been a major factor in the Master Horseman Program’s success in the area.
“He’s been a driving force. I’m really hoping they find someone to replace him on his level, but it’s going to be very difficult.”
Boudreaux said Howard’s teaching ability has inspired horse owner to improve. “He pushes everybody to excel.”
Howard has worked a 13-parish area but sometimes traveled to north Louisiana to conduct classes. Even now, he expects he will occasionally teach a class or two for the Master Horseman Program.
Dr. Neely Walker, LSU AgCenter equine specialist, said Howard invested his personal time to become a better instructor, and he expanded the Master Horseman Program with an advanced level, Master Horseman Wrangler.
“He has been the face of the Master Horseman Program,” she said. “He was the person who people looked to for instruction and guidance. That’s all he focused on and he put a lot of love and time into it.”
She said Howard has been important in her career too. “He’s been very influential to me in my career. I feel like we’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge.”
She said some figures in the equine industry have expressed concern that Master Horseman will cease with Howard’s retirement, but she said efforts are underway to continue the program.
And she said it’s likely that Howard will return to teach a class for the Master Horseman Program occasionally.
Howard said he’ll probably teach a class or two sometimes, and he has no intention of hanging up his hat and spurs soon.
“I’m hoping I can ride until I’m 90 or 95, then I’ll start slowing down.”