Cowboy David Swanson thinks of himself as "a simple man," but his big gift of turning wild horses into rodeo success stories is no small matter.
"I don't think of myself as a horse whisperer, but I think I have a gift from God to work with horses," he said. "I've got clients from as far away as Texas."
The LaFayette resident said a lot of patience, love and repetition are needed to train horses well.
"When I was a young man I thought the cowboy way: saddle a horse and ride 'til it don't buck anymore," said Swanson, who became a cowboy at age 5, when he took a ride on his first horse, and grew up rounding up cattle on his father's 400-acre North Georgia farm. "Natural training is all about patience. I'm trying to establish trust between me and the horse."
He said he learned the proper way to connect with and train a horse through a Pat Parelli seminar, so he decided to branch out from rodeos, in which he competed roping calves beginning in college. He said Parelli taught natural horsemanship - without the kinds of force currently making front page news - to break the will of a horse. Swanson took the new ideas home to his Bar None Ranch, which sits adjacent his father's, began training young horses and found that the methods worked.
"I had been around [other] horse trainers and did not like what I saw," he said. "Some would starve the horse or whip it to train."
He said he traveled to Mississippi to check out a horse in 2007, but didn't discover until he brought the horse home that the former owner had used drugs to keep it calm. Without them Doc shook like a leaf in the roping box, but Swanson kept working with the horse until it was able to perform well in rodeos.
"Instead of taking him back I decided to fix him," he said, adding that through working with Doc he realized it's all about patience and taking one's time to train a horse. "I have respect for the horse and I want the horse to respect me. My biggest issue is safety."
Swanson said a horse thinks of itself as prey and thinks of a human as its predator, so he trains the horse to lose that fear. He remembers working with an Arabian mare a few years ago that had grown up without a mother. He said horses without a mother do not display respect or discipline. One day he decided to hold Orphan down on the ground so she would realize that he was her protector and she could depend on him to take care of her.
"After that first time I laid her down, I let her up and she was a different horse," Swanson said. "I'm not God, but as humans, during life when we don't put God first he brings us down to ground level, and then we put him back first."
He said he rewards the horses that train well by rubbing their face and telling them "Good job." Swanson said he has trained 15 to 20 horses every year since 2008.
Inside his Bar None Ranch barn, many championship-winning saddles won by his son Dusty and daughter Joy Beth straddle the fence. Swanson also has one of his own championship saddles on display. Some of the saddles go on the horses too.
Right now he's working a lot with American Quarter Horse Jess, age 2, preparing him for rodeo events. He taps a carrot stick rod on the ground to keep Jess running around the pen for training.
"I'm living out my dream," said Swanson. "The Lord has really blessed me."
To learn more about Bar None Ranch in LaFayette call owner David Swanson at 423-653-1757. In addition to horse training the ranch also offers farrier work, with staff shoeing horses weekly. In the afternoons Swanson teaches students how to ride horses and how to compete in rodeos. He also raises cattle and services other people's cattle with vaccinations.