John Lyons knows a lot about horses, but he knows even more about people.
“A three-day clinic may cost $1,000, but I tell people I charge $100 for the horse and $900 for you,” Lyons said. “It’s so much more exasperating to work with people than it is with a horse because people cannot change as fast as horses can. I teach people that if you want your horse to change, you have to look in the mirror and first change yourself.”
This is just one of the concepts Lyons has been teaching for more than 40 years, giving him the reputation of America’s most trusted horseman.
Lyons, 69, said he’s been trying to retire for 15 years. His services are still in high demand and he continues to travel, hosting clinics and appearing at stock shows and horse expos around the world. He said he’s cut way back, but even at home in Parachute, he has his 70-acre ranch to care for.
Though John has advised his children against training horses due to the dangers involved, three of them—along with several grandchildren—are involved in the family business, surely inspired by the difference Lyons has made in the lives of others, who come to him from all walks of life.
Becoming a horse whisperer
Lyons has had his own TV show and a magazine with 110,000 subscribers. He’s written 20 books, produced instructional videos and manuals, taught 500 professional trainers around the world and has worked with 100,000 horses. But for him, success didn’t happen overnight.
The route his life took is surprising. Lyons grew up in Phoenix. He married young and had four kids, bought a house with some land, added a couple horses, and worked as a successful medical salesman in Kansas City. One might think he had everything a person could want—but something was still missing.
“I was making a ton of money but I didn’t enjoy it,” he said. “I didn’t want to wake up at 50 years old and regret what I had done with my life just for money.”
John fell in love with Colorado while visiting a stepbrother in Silverton. Striving for a change, he decided to leave his job at age 24 and pursue cattle ranching in Colorado.
So in 1976, he bought a ranch in Silt.
Despite his hard work and determination to make the ranch successful, interest rates skyrocketed, the bottom dropped out of cattle prices and Lyons felt the brunt of a years-long drought.
Through these challenging years, he and his family were learning about training and showing horses. They even made a champion performance horse. After the ranch went broke, Lyons started looking at horse training as a way to support his family.
Some trainers’ methods are based on fear and punishment. One horse-training clinic Lyons attended in Eagle struck a nerve.
“What this guy was teaching was so dangerous and terrible,” Lyons said.
That’s when he started his own clinics and started developing his own training philosophy.
“I decided to help people,” Lyons said. “Not just train their horses for them.”
Because of his success with horses, people started calling Lyons “the horse whisperer,” a moniker still used to describe him today.
But Lyons insists that “horse whispering” has connotations about special abilities, which he assures is not the case with him.
“You practice at it and learn,” he said. “I’m no different than anyone else. I was trying to teach people they could do anything I was doing with a horse. It was just a matter of learning new methods.”
The horse mentality
Lyons said the first step to horse whispering is understanding the world from the animal’s point of view.
“Horses are a conditioned response animal, which means they’re teachable, taught by repetition just like a dog,” he said. “Horses just have a different motivator.”
Where dogs have an owner or master, horses do not. They see one person as all people. Lyons believes horses are motivated by togetherness and peace, and says they will trade their freedom and everything in life just to have moments of peace.
“It probably took me 20 years to figure out the concept,” Lyons said. “Once I figured that out, I started looking at a horse’s behavior differently.”
Lyons said horses are good students, able to retain 90 percent of what they’ve learned over an 18-month period.
“That means if you teach them something and leave them alone, they will still remember it 18 months later,” he said.
They’re also able to unlearn a 20-year-old habit in 90 minutes and never go back to it.
According to Lyons, horses are God’s favorite animal and are mentioned 352 times in the Bible.
“He put the same desire in the horse that he did for us: wanting to live in peace,” Lyons said. “When He said, ‘I gave them their beauty, speed and grace, and filled them with boundless courage,’ he really meant it.”
Lyons supports this philosophy of trust and courage with the story of a horse he once had that went blind in one day.
“That horse would still carry me and run full speed,” he said. “What kind of ability and courage would it take for us to be able to do that?”
The replacement concept
Lyons teaches so that his horses never get the answer wrong. His methods are based on building trust with a horse and not motivating it by fear.
“I stay focused on what I’m teaching even when the horse is doing something I don’t want him to do,” he said. “I call it the replacement concept of horse training. I never punish or correct the horse’s behavior. Instead I replace it with, ‘Here, try this,’ and make it simple so they get praise.”
He requires the owner be present during training so they can practice the same methods he teaches.
“I treat the horse like a dance partner, gently redirecting him if he starts going in the wrong direction,” he said.
His methods work, as thousands of clients and horse experts can attest to.
Lyons has documented several occasions where his horse Zip demonstrated extraordinary trust. Lyons once asked a pilot friend to hover a helicopter so close that Lyons could reach the rudders while on Zip’s back. Another time, he was at a circus in Ohio and asked a trainer if he could take a picture of Zip with an elephant. Zip stood calmly while the elephant put his mouth over his withers and laid his trunk down one side. On another occasion, Lyons met a trained Kodiak bear at a game farm in Washington. He asked the bear’s owner to have the bear rear up in front of Zip. Unbelievably, it didn’t faze Zip. They even had the bear and Zip rear up at the same time.
A brand-new day
Lyons moved his family to his dream ranch in Parachute. His kids grew older, he separated from his first wife and was single again. Years later he met the love of his life, Jody, and they married in 2003. All together, they have seven children.
He’s seen similar “do-overs” in his work.
“No matter what the horse’s past has been, God gives us a brand-new day and a brand-new start,” he said.
Lyons was one of the first to introduce Christian teachings to the horse industry, and conducts church services at large expositions.
“If you’re a Christian, it should permeate into everything you do,” Lyons said. “I don’t know how to separate Him from my everyday life, so it’s part of my clinics.”
When their ranch eventually sells, Lyons and his wife will spend their lives somewhere in Colorado on five acres against Forest Service land, sharing a sense of peace with their three horses.