LARRY NELLES: THE ORIGINAL HORSE WHISPER
“Go around there again, put a little lope motion in your body. You might have to over-and-under like that, but see if she can drop her head and pick up that canter.”
Larry Nelles is calling gentle instructions as a horse and rider circle around a small corral at the Pyramid Riding Stables. Wearing a beige stetson, brown leather chaps and with spurs on his well-worn boots, the 78-year-old cowboy looks like he rode right out of a historical photo from the Jasper Museum and Archives.
And in a sense, he has.
Nelles grew up in the backcountry of Jasper National Park. Raised at the Snaring Warden station, his father Alex wore warden badge number 17. His grandfather, John Curran, wore badge number three. Coming of age surrounded by wilderness, Nelles developed a special connection to nature, and to horses. Before he was old enough to attend school, it was discovered that Nelles had a gift.
“I had a real feeling for horses,” he said.
On June 11 and 12, as part of a weekend horsemanship course, Nelles was helping other Jasper riders obtain that feeling. He was teaching them to build trust with their animals so they could learn to handle their animals “in a learning frame of mind,” as he put it.
“It seems humans often want to bring the horse into their world instead of going into the horses’ world,” Nelles said. “I try to show them that it’s easier to ask your horse to do something rather than tell it.”
The lessons weren’t just for beginner riders, either. Outfitter and former JNP horse packer, Sean Elliott, said the tools that Nelles provides he and his fellow packers are invaluable. Deep in the bush, over rough terrain, trust between man and horse is at a premium.
“A lot of time the horses put their trust in you to cross a bad section of cord or a bog,” Elliott said. “Being able to move your horse around other horses—maybe you have to open a gate or pull a pack over them. It’s very important that they have that faith.”
Although he’s spent his life around horses, Nelles didn’t always make a living with them. Like his friend and mentor, the late Tom McCready, Nelles was a Canadian national ski racer and, eventually, national coach.
“He just had a way about him that made you feel really special,” said Loni Klettl, who skied under Nelles’ tutelage as a young girl.
What set Nelles apart as a trainer is not just his ability to understand the mechanics of athletes (whether two-legged or four) but his adeptness in articulating how to improve those mechanics. For Nicole Klopfenstein, a relatively new horse rider, she went home from the clinic with a better awareness of where to hold her horse’s reins and how to apply more gentle, subtle pressure.
“When you watch Larry ride there’s very little touch,” she said. “You can’t really tell he’s doing anything at all.”
Horses are so sensitive, Nelles says, that when a rider is in the proper position, and when that all-important trust has been established, there’s very little physical prompting necessary.
“Once you get that foundation, you can start to make direction changes and transitions with no resistance,” Nelles said. “If there’s effort, you’re either out of time or your balance is off.”