Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson 

“Lee Anderson: Horseman of the Old School” 

Living historian, author and superb horseman, Lee Anderson, is a student – shall we say master – of the old Vaquero “Bridle Horse” methods. He jokingly admits, “I am probably the only Swedish vaquero you’ll ever meet.”

Born in Iowa, Lee has had a life-long affection for horses. He has ridden and trained in just about every genre of horsemanship, from Western to English and from the show ring to the pasture. He can drive two, four, six and even an eight-up team hitched to a wagon! He has trained and shown in reining, pleasure and trail and also worked with dressage, hackney, jumpers . . . and of course, the western cow-horse. His passion however, is the “Bridle Horse.”

For those who aren’t quite sure what a “Bridle Horse” is – it refers to a horse trained in the old Vaquero methods – methods not seen much in this country for 100-plus years. A layman will recognize a bridle horse as one which eventually ends up in the use of a spade bit. Many people are taken back by the spade and automatically assume it is a harsh bit based upon its appearance. Not true. In the wrong hands, any bit is harsh. Lee quotes, “All souls criticize that which they do not understand.” A horse trained in this method responds to a feather’s touch of the reins.

In the hands of a true bridle horseman, a well-trained bridle horse is pure poetry in motion. For example, it has been recorded that the old Vaqueros were big sportsman and loved to show off at festive occasions. One such game played went something like this: A hair was plucked from the horse’s tail and the “breakaway” in the reins was replaced with said tail hair. This meant if you pulled any harder than necessary to break the hair, your reins broke. The horse was then blindfolded and put through a series of intricate moves, showing its pure trust in the rider. For the finale, horse and rider ran full-tilt, straight at a solid wall. The team stopping closest to the wall, without hitting the wall or breaking the “breakaway hair” was the winner and the Vaquero considered a top horseman. (Before criticizing a contest such as this, keep in mind it was a different time, place and culture.)

When asked why old methods such as these are fading, Lee responds, “In today’s day and age, not many are willing to spend half a lifetime learning the proper methods of horsemanship so they can spend four or five years training a horse this way.” Lee is passionate about it however and says, “It’s like driving a high performance sports car. Whatever you want is there . . . and at a touch.

To a learned master such as Lee, he realizes every piece of the horseman’s and horse’s gear work intricately together to achieve an eventual result with the slightest of effort. He says, “The spade is a bit of signals. When properly used, a horse receives signals long before he ever feels the bit and responds before the bit is ever actually used.” Each piece of the tack and gear are a part of that signal system, not to mention the rider himself. Lee can pull the bridle off his horse and perform intricate maneuvers using nothing more than body language. Anderson uses a piece of string as a “breakaway” in his reins every day. Much like the old Vaqueros and their horsehair, if he uses more than just a slight tap of pressure on the reins, they break!

After many years of being fascinated with horses, Lee chose to concentrate on this old style of horsemanship because he felt it most in tune with the horse. After a lifetime of studying what makes a horse tick, Anderson has even written a book on the subject. Developing the Art of Equine Communications is all about how to communicate with your horse, from a horse’s understanding and point of view. In Lee’s opinion, the bridle horse style of horsemanship comes closest to that.

He studied horses and how they react to certain situations for over half a century. He noticed that most times, communications with a horse are approached from a human point of view, yet a horse can only understand things from a horse’s viewpoint. Lee has made it his life’s work to understand more from the horse’s view.

Lee has been known to spend hours sitting in a pasture full of horses just watching them. He studies their moves with each other in natural surroundings – how they interact together. Most people know, by nature, a horse is a “prey” animal, but few think of that when dealing with a horse. Man is, by nature, a predator and horses are easily scared of them. Lee is probably one of the best modern-day trainers who understands the philosophy of a horse, from the horse’s perspective. He felt compelled to write Developing the Art of Equine Communications to clear up some of the myths and misinformation out there.

As a historian, Lee does a presentation called “Four Hundred Years of Southwest Cowboys.” He does this in any one of three different outfits: A 1750 Spanish Colonial Caballero, an 1850 Mexican Vaquero or an 1890 American Cowboy. For each look, he has all of the period correct clothing and gear for rider and horse. The outfit may change depending upon what the situation calls for, but the historical presentation is tailored to fit what the client asks for. Lee goes over the evolution of the cowboy from its origins, beginning with the Spanish Hacendado (rancher) of the mid-1500s up through today. The first brand laws were recorded in New Spain (now Mexico) in 1529 and Lee is well versed in the history of the Vaquero – Cowboy from then through today.

Lee says, “We must include the Spanish origins in the history of the cowboy because the Vaquero was rounding up, roping, and branding cattle more than 300 years before the first American cowboy ever threw a leg over a horse. By 1800 a highly sophisticated Vaquero culture had reached its peak in what is now the state of California. To this day, no mounted herdsman on earth has ever achieved the elegance, the presence, the beautiful equipment, the exquisite horsemanship or the sheer artistry of the everyday working Californio.”

He has spent much time and research in getting his outfits correct for each time period as well. Everything Lee puts on he and his horse is either an authentic antique piece or a reproduction from the period, made by Lee himself. He says, “The Vaquero was a flashy dresser. He was extremely proud of his status amongst his peers. Then, due to the influence of the emerging American Cowboy culture the Mexican Vaquero lost quite a bit of the elegance and finesse of the Spanish Colonial Vaquero but he never fully accepted all of the trappings and methods of the American cowboy culture . . . these things are covered at length in a presentation. The heyday of the American Cowboy only covered about 20 years . . . The modern image of the cowboy is loosely based on the drovers that made the three month long (cattle) drives. The cowboy most people are familiar with today is purely a Hollywood creation. However, my preference just happens to be the real cowboys and I am well aware of the difference between ‘reel cowboys’ and ‘real cowboys.’”

Besides having a life-long passion for understanding what makes a horse tick, and the history of the cowboy, Anderson is a study of human nature as well. He is extremely good-natured and has a wry sense of humor. Lee claims, “I intend to live to be 125 and not die from natural causes, but at the hands of a thirty-year-old, jealous spouse!” You gotta love a man past seventy with an attitude like that!