Story and photography by Heath Herring
My name is Matt Smiley. I’m a horse trainer here in the Navajo Nation and the owner of Whispering Beat Horsemanship. My story begins at my grandparents’ ranch, Billy Ranch in Manuelito, New Mexico.
I was raised by a single mother. There was no male figure on my side of the family. My stockmanship, respect for animals and the land, that was instilled by my grandmother. I’ve had my fair share of good and bad experiences out at Billy Ranch. Falling off, having wrecks, learning to ride on my own.
As I grew up, I would reminisce about some of the rough experiences I had with the horses out on the ranch. At some point, my father-in-law gave me some videos about horse training, and that made me realize I wanted to work with horses.
That’s when it clicked, all horses can be taught – young horses, old horses, and even horses with problems.
I got a horse named Geronimo around 2010. He was the first one I ever trained. He was a problem horse. He bucked like crazy. He’d even broken his previous owner’s arm. The training he needed was way more advanced than basic horsemanship. I said to myself, “You can handle this horse.” I started learning any way I could; watching, reading, research. I applied all of it to Geronimo. Thinking about that broken arm, it pushed me to apply the methods I was learning and set a foundation with this horse. I knew horses could be fixed. Especially the bad ones. He gave me a lot of trouble, but I knew he could be taught.
He bucked and fought for the first two weeks, but I started seeing a little change every time I approached him. Every morning his body language was a little different. He wasn’t showing me the whites of his eyes anymore. He wasn’t so tense. He started to have a softer eye on him. I decided it was time to saddle him up and put the first ride on him. It went ok for the first 10 or 15 minutes. He was doing good. Then he blew up. I just held on. When it was over I was still in the saddle. From there on, we had a bond. He knew I didn’t hurt him and I wasn’t going to hurt him. Right then and there I had his trust and we had a connection. He’s one of the most memorable horses I’ve ever started. He wasn’t a looker. Sure wasn’t pretty. He was no unicorn, but he was my horse. I was proud of him.
In the early days, I just started training horses for people. I didn’t know what to charge, how long I should keep a horse or how any of the business side worked. I had to learn as I go. I had to take what I was doing and find structure. I needed a name.
It started with a logo. Things that were meaningful to me. The Zia symbol is New Mexico, my home. The hummingbird represents my cousin who passed on. We were very close. The horses are the four sacred directions and the four sacred colors. We established the Navajo Nation through the horses and our prayers. They were vital to the emergence of our Nation and our people. When the design came together and I looked down at it, I saw a drum. My symbol represents a drum, a round pen and hogan. In our songs, there’s a beat. They say you can train a horse to the beats of our songs. To the rhythm of the drum. There is a rhythm to life and Mother Earth. A rhythm to the heartbeat of the hummingbird. There’s a rhythm to every gate of a horse’s steps. There’s a rhythm between the rider and the horse. And when you find that rhythm, the bond is formed. You and the horse become one. That’s your song. That’s the Whispering Beat.
The most important part of a horse’s life is the foundation you put on them. The first ride is everything. What you plant in that horse’s life, those roots and that foundation will always be strong. When I approach the round pen my spirit is talking to that horse. That’s where it begins.
Ranches and the public bring me horses to train. The problem-horses are the ones that have the biggest impact on my life. They come in with all these issues. I make them honest, reliable, and safe. Seeing that transformation, that’s what pushes me.