Spc. David Mayfield, satellite communications operator and maintainer, 62Nd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, from Troy, Mo., installs and maintains equipment for satellite communications to units on Contingency Operating Base Adder, but back home his specialty is his ability to communicate with horses.
“I was 15, and I was looking for work,” said Mayfield.
Through a friend, he heard about a local ranch where they trained horses. He walked over to the farm and met with the owner: a man by the name of Dennis. He asked Dennis if he was in need of a ranch hand. “I told him up front I didn’t know anything about horses,” said Mayfield.
That day the owner showed him around the ranch and the horses that were trained there.
“He showed me some of the ways he taught the horses, and he felt like I picked up on it pretty quick. He said, ‘Come back and we’ll talk about wages.’”
When Mayfield returned, Dennis offered him $25 a day, a meal and the chance to learn how to train horses.
“Old school ranchers and horse trainers can be a little tough to work for,” he said. “You have to prove yourself. The first month, I never even sat in a saddle.”
In fact, Mayfield spent a good amount of time on the ranch performing other menial tasks before he started working with the horses.
“We were out of weed-eater twine,” said Mayfield. “He handed me a rusty butcher knife and said, ‘Cut some of these weeds down.’” Mayfield laughed as he recalled the day, remembering how ridiculous he thought the task was, then went on to explain the importance of cutting the weeds.
“It was because they would grow up on the electric fence lines and short out the fence,” said Mayfield.
Still laughing, he said, “I was so upset. Out there it can be 100 degrees, and you’re out there chopping down weeds with a butcher knife. But I got through all of that and started riding.”
He began learning the basics, such as how to identify the coloring of horses depending on the breed, the proper posture to have when approaching a horse and ways to understand their body language.
“It really almost worked in my benefit not having any prior knowledge of horses because I didn’t have to unlearn anything,” he said.
“In the horse training community, a ‘hand’ isn’t just somebody who works with horses, it’s somebody who is proficient with them,” said Mayfield.
Over time, Mayfield got through the learning curve and began to acquire that proficiency.
“I started hitting some pretty hard challenges,” he said. “You have to be in the right mindset. You have to have a clear mind to be able to really sense what the horse needs you to do at that moment â€¦ because it takes a lot of focus.”
One of the biggest challenges Mayfield was faced with was learning the language of horses.
“I went into a horse's stall to grab his water bucket to get him some fresh water, and I got kicked,” he said. “I didn’t understand why. He was a good horse. But he got a little too close to me, and I had to shy him away to get him to back away from me, and he spun around and kicked me. I was really upset about it, and my boss was upset about it because he was a good horse,” he added.
Dennis mentored Mayfield and told him that he didn’t speak the (horse) language yet, said Mayfield. He explained that horses speak through body language.
About six months after he started working on the ranch is when Mayfield started getting on horses and actually training them.
“It was quite the experience,” he said. “It got in my blood, and I just couldn’t get away from it.”
He worked on the ranch through the summer and stayed on once he went back to school, working three to five hours each day after school, and from eight to noon on Saturdays.
But then he moved to Kansas to finish high school and had to leave the ranch.
“I thought about it and missed it everyday when I was in high school,” he said.
After graduating high school, he couldn’t wait to get back to the ranch.
“While the people that I was growing up around were working at McDonald’s, I was breaking horses, and it was very rewarding,” he said. “It was challenging, mentally and physically.”
As Mayfield gained more experience, Dennis complimented him, saying that he was becoming a decent ranch hand.
“My boss, Dennis Cappel, he was as much a mentor to me as he was a boss,” said Mayfield. “He taught me so much. A lot of it was, you might say, tough love. There were times that I had to prove that I was worth keeping around.”
Of course, one of the main risks about training horses is the chance of being bucked off if the horse doesn’t want to cooperate. He’s been thrown from a horse numerous times, but luckily he has never broken a bone.
“I had a couple of close calls, and it will rattle you," he said. “There was not a single time that I got thrown off, that I didn’t get back on a horse.”
“I guess where the art of it comes in is being able to read the body language of a horse in the more subtle areas, so it doesn’t get to the point of them spinning around and kicking at you,” he said.
A seasoned rider can feel the subtle movements of the horse’s muscles, even through the saddle and knowing how to feel those movements can be the difference between getting the horse calmed down or being bucked off, he said.
“All those little things will help you as a trainer to be able to get a horse to perform at its best, and you as a rider, to perform at your best,” said Mayfield. “A horse can only go to the level of his rider, as far as a level of ability.”
“When you’re a horse trainer, you’re actually the go-between guy, between the horse and the rider,” he said. “Your biggest function is to bridge the gap between people and their horses, which is a very challenging position because you have to be able to speak the language of horses and humans. You’re kind of the interpreter.”
Although Mayfield grew to love his job on the ranch, he felt the skills he had learned there were not enough and decided to make a change in his life.
In October of 2008, Mayfield quit working on the ranch and joined the Army, an experience that has helped him come out of his shell, he said. During basic training, Mayfield saw a parallel between the training he was going through and training horses.
“It’s like basic training for the horse,” he said. “Physically and mentally, that horse goes through basic training really. It’s kind of funny because when I went to basic training, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, I’m the horse.’”
The training he received through the Army has given this 21-year-old a whole new set of skills.
“The Army gave me the chance to move forward and made me feel like I was making some progress in life,” he said. “And I’ve learned a job skill that isn’t as dependent on the economy, working with information technologies.”
Once he finishes his contract with the Army, he plans on continuing his passion of working with horses.
“My intention when I get out is to go back to working with horses again,” he said. “Probably more on the side than as a main source of income, but some day I hope it does revert back into being my main source of income,” he said.
“It’s hard to stay away. For me, it became a huge part of who I was. When I left the ranch, I really felt like I lost my identity.”
“The Army has been a great experience for me,” he said. “I didn’t have a career skill before that was very stable because, unfortunately, working in a more recreational-type field, that’s one of the first things to go when the economy is failing, and it’s difficult to provide your family with financial stability. At least this way, I have a technical trade that I can do, and I also have training horses,” said Mayfield.
“So the Army has been a really great stepping stone for me, but being away from working with horses for this long â€¦ I know it needs to be a part of my life,” he said. “So I’m going to go back to it.”
November 22, 2011: Written by Spc. Anthony Zane, 362nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
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