Kelly’s Peter Campbell Story

“Are you ready to start listening yet?” Peter Campbell said to me as I looked up at him from the arena dirt. I had an excellent view of his horse’s belly and the bottom of his stirrups I remember, as I had just been dumped practically underneath his nice bridle horse. My mare was still pounding down the arena rail with her head between her knees, “hocks popping.” It was day one of my first Peter Campbell clinic.

She had finally had enough of me gigging the heck out of her with my spurs and jerking on her face and got rid of me. I was really proud of that mare too. She was home raised, I had started her. She was pretty with nice papers. She went left and right sort of and would sometimes stop without flipping her head upside down like a camel. She tolerated a snaffle. We could ride on trails or out in the open. We had survived thus far. I thought I was a pretty dang good “trainer.” I rode my whole life and I had ridden a lot of different horses. It was all I had ever wanted to do and all I have known.

That morning’s session shortly afterwards broke for lunch. I caught my horse and untacked her. Put her in a stall. Terribly embarrassed, picking arena dirt out of my underwear, I went and sat in my truck and cried.

This was the third time I had come off a horse in as many weeks in a row. And, they were all ugly departures. I felt every horse I had been working with lately was out to murder me. What was I doing thinking I could “make a living” riding other people’s damned horses, hell, my own horse didn’t even like me.  I hung my head and cried and pondered what it would be like to work a retail job again.

My good friend Roxanne Hill, who had been telling me to come ride at Peter’s clinics for years, came and knocked on my truck window. I rolled it down and wiped the snot off my face with my shirt sleeve. She asked if I was all right, if I was hurt. I told her no, just embarrassed. Mad at my horse. Mad at myself. She told me to not be mad at my horse, it wasn’t her fault. I just looked straight ahead and sniffed. She then put her hand on my shoulder and said “Put your big girl panties on and sign up for the afternoon session. It will be the best thing you have ever done horseback.” She then winked at me, laughed a little and walked off to her trailer. I stewed in silence for a while. Called my boyfriend and asked him what he thought. Cried some more. He knew how much I had been struggling. He said “Sign up.” I told him I couldn’t afford it. He said don’t worry about it and write the check, he would cover it. Later I would marry that man.

After lunch I led my horse in for the afternoon session. Peter looked at me and winked. I couldn’t quite look him in the eye yet. That afternoon and the following three days changed my life. I began riding with purpose. Directing and supporting my horse not only physically but also with my mental energy. I would “think” it and she would do it. I started learning “feel” and “softness”, “timing.” All of these terms I thought I knew about. I changed from pounding to seeing “how little does it take” and my blue roan mare changed in a matter of hours. We changed together. By the second day I realized I had never needed spurs. They just looked and sounded cool but I didn’t need the damn things. How heavy my hands had been. How I never looked ahead. How can I direct her if I’m not thinking about where her feet are? Actually riding correctly using my legs! It was like learning you had been driving a car blind your whole life. How did I survive? Just got lucky!

And the groundwork! I had watched some DVDs, audited some clinics. Previously scoffed at it. This idea of chasing your horse around in a circle but practiced anyhow. See! She can go in a circle and stop when I pull on her. Tada! Lunging is for show people. They do it to build muscle and wear ‘em out. Riding in a snaffle. The horses I rode wouldn’t have brakes if I rode in a snaffle. I didn’t ride arenas, there weren’t fences to stop us. I rode in the woods! Brakes were important.

“That shit is for sissies,” my South Dakota cowboy dad always told me. My idol. He had always just threw me up there. “Ride the hair off of it kid.”

So the groundwork. Directing the feet. Response with respect. “Get the thing out of your space. Don’t let her push on you. Move the hip! There! Now ask for the shoulder! See her blink? Let her think about it. Pet her! Too much petting! Just a little. Make her want it. There! See how much easier it was that time? Now, see how little it takes to back her up. Just wiggle the rope. NOT like that! More feel! There!”

Over and over again. Til it was like a dance. Pretty soon I just had to look at her hip and she would step over. Look at the shoulder and the shoulder would go. Like I was shooting a laser beam out of my eyeball and it would touch this horse and she would go. Forward, back, move the hip, move the shoulder. And I didn’t have some giant stick waving around, or slapping her with a rope a hundred times or more. Just a thought. Just a feel. And she would do it. It was magic.

I immediately felt guilty for all the horses I had screwed up previously. The ones I could have helped but didn’t know how. The ones that got called bad, spoiled, no good, crazy. Taking blame for the human. Set up for failure. It’s always the horse’s fault.
By the 2nd day my horse could side pass, pivot on the hind and fore, get soft off the snaffle. By the 3rd day she could lope, and I didn’t die! The 4th day we worked cattle! She tried to eat them! It was like Christmas! Please let this never end. Don’t go Peter. Where have you been my whole life. How could I have missed all of this. I was addicted.

The last day after the cattle session I said my goodbyes, loaded up my mare and was pulling out. Peter hopped up on my running board and rode the long way down the drive to his rig where it sat idling. He grinned at me and told me how good a job I had done. How he was happy how much I had tried and had changed. How good I was and to not doubt myself. To not forget all the stuff that I had known before. It meant the world to me. That this master horseman had faith in me and that I wasn’t a total screw up like I thought. I cried the whole way home.

When I got home I couldn’t quite describe my experience there. It took a couple of days to adequately put it in words. What had changed in me. What had changed in my horse. How differently I felt on the inside. It was like that every time I came home from riding with him.

I worked her in front of my parents and showed them all we had learned. How soft she could be, how easily I could move her body off my leg. All these things that were so foreign before were now natural. We were still learning together but it was so much easier than before.

I then started applying it to all the other horses I rode. They changed because I had changed. I couldn’t wait for the next year’s upcoming clinic in May.

But old habits were hard to break. It was a struggle to not go back to my old ways when things didn’t go the way I had planned. I found that by spring, after a summer, fall and winter of riding outside horses I was burned out. Tired. Peter’s clinics always rejuvenated me. Brought me back and set me straight. This mission of horsemanship. And each year there was more to be learned. Each time around him I was seeing these things that I had never seen before. Watching these changes in horse and rider. Reading the horses like I never could have if I had never met him. He could read a horse and a lot of times would tell us what it was thinking. Would tell us what it was going to do before it did it. It was astounding. And he always reminded me to not forget what I already knew. Just to add to it.

And his bridle horses. These equines that seemed to float. To do such amazing things with what seemed like no direction from him at all. He would think it and they would do it. Telekinesis horseback. It was an ultimate goal to be that good. To have that much trust and connection. And not even just his personal horses, it was like that with every horse he worked. He would touch them and you could see the energy flow out of them. It’s like he would suck the anxiousness, the tightness, the worry right out of them. And it would go away. He would tell us “It has to come from the heart” and you would see it as he laid a hand on a horse. One time he asked us where we all thought it went. That tightness and hurt. “Where did it go?” We all had different answers. “Just don’t bring it back.” he said.

“You have to give something you never gave to get something you never had.” Peter had all kinds of amazing sayings that many of us remember and repeat often. My favorite was more than likely the one about how sometimes there were “flying monkeys and shit” meaning it would not always be magical and easy. But if we kept trying it, we kept directing, kept “fixing it up”, it would get better. Don’t quit.

In his clinics I rode my personal horses and customers horses. He made huge changes in every one of them. A few of them were very “bothered” and I was really stuck with them. Didn’t know how to move forward with them. Ready to give up. Dangerous. These horses who had been carrying this tightness for so long that it was like a bomb getting ready to explode within in them. This hurt and worry caused by humans, including me unknowingly. He would see how much I was struggling and just stay with me. Not say much until he had seen me try everything I could under his supervision then just at the right time he would step in and help with them. And the changes they made were nothing short of a miracle. He would go with these horses right to the edge of the cliff and they would be teetering on the edge, ready to jump, and he would change their mind and bring them back to us. We all saw him do it many times with troubled horses. Their struggle and their courage and he was their light. “Whatever the horse is offering us it is bigger than us.”

This year would have been my 6th year riding in Peter’s clinics. Last year I was lucky enough to ride in 3 separate clinics. 6 years. That means I rode 28 different times (counting what clinics I rode with him, 4 days at a time.) 6 different horses. 28 times! That’s it?! That’s all?? It feels like years. Decades. So much knowledge crammed in to 4 days at a time. So much more to gain. How much of a change he put in me in such a short amount of time. He changed my life. I tell people all the time if it wasn’t for him some trail horse would have killed me by now because I was too dumb to know any better. He changed everything about how I handle a horse, how I approach them, how I think about them. Change on so many different levels.

He always told us he was the “last one coming down the pipeline”. The last one who had learned from the master, Tom Dorrance. To suck it up while we had it available. If only we had known.

This past Thursday I had knee surgery. Wasn’t really sure what my recovery time would be. How long rehab was going to take. Was bummed and frustrated but in my head going into surgery all I could think about was “Horseback by May. Horseback by the clinic.” 6 weeks. I can do it. That’s the last thing I thought about before they put the oxygen mask over my face and the lights dimmed.

But in actuality I had this sense of doom that started the night before. This sense of “what happens if I wake up and my leg is gone”. What would I Do with myself? Thought it was just pre-surgery nerves. Pull it together Kelly.

On the way home after surgery, muddled and tired and foggy, my husband broke the news.
Peter was gone. We had lost him.
It was like waking up without a leg.

It has taken me many days to get my brain cleared enough from surgery to write this. Talking with my friends who knew him and rode with him I realize we all have the same story. How much this man changed us. How much of himself he gave to us and our horses.
How there will never be another like him.
And how lucky we all were to have him.

Thank you to Trina Campbell, and to Peter’s family for sharing him with us.
Thank you to Roxanne Hill and Donnie Chulufas for introducing me to him.
Thank you to my friends and customers who came to his clinics and rode with him and learned from him. Thank you for believing me when I told you what you had been missing and coming to see for yourself.

I am sad for all the people who didn’t know him. For all the people who didn’t get to see him with a horse. I am sad for all the horses who will not know his ways.

Thank you Peter Campbell for everything that you gave to us. Your time and knowledge.  For believing in us. Thank you for changing my life. I will carry you with me always.

Kelly Sitter-McComb

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