Former city girl learns from horses and passes on her knowledge

By Anne Kelley
Shawnee, Oklahoma (AP) 3-08

Denise May’s story is a romantic one. City girl meets cowboy, marries him, moves to the country and falls in love with horses.

Her story also includes a few tribulations, a little mystery, personal reinvention and the warm breath of long-faced beauties tickling her spine.

Some call May a horse whisperer. Others consider her an equine therapist. If she must be categorized, she prefers to be known just as a woman with a profound respect for horses.

May has spent the past few years honing her horse sense and teaching others how to have better relationships with their horses.

Her lecture hall is a renovated 1930s milk barn with a sliding glass door. Through the door one can see miles of green pastures on a 220-acre farm east of Shawnee. Its fields double as an outdoor classroom where she is assisted by a ragtag group of horses that have through various circumstances, and some not so good, ended up.

Like the horses, May is a transplant to the farm.

The former Oklahoma City girl moved there six years ago when she married her husband, Eddie May. Marrying a cowboy and moving to the country had always been a dream, she said. Denise May raised a daughter and spent years wrangling with a career in advertising. She said she was ready for a more peaceful life but hungry for new purpose.

Before moving to the farm, Denise May had never trained, owned or spoken to a horse. Eddie May wasn’t a horse owner either. His attentions were on raising cattle and cultivating crops.

Denise May said it was a few divine messages and a shocking revelation that involved an actual bolt of lightning that showed her the way.

She said one of the first messages was delivered on a dark night when she came face-to-face with a horse that appeared out of nowhere in a pasture near her house. The next morning, the horse was gone without a trace with no explanation how it managed to get inside or out of their secured fence, she said.

The next incident happened sometime later. She was leaning over a fence stroking a horse that was being boarded on the farm when both were electrified by a bolt of lighting that struck the ground a short distance away.

May said she’ll never forget the look in the horse’s eyes. At that moment, she saw the same panic, fear and pain she was feeling, she said.

“From then on, I felt a sort of spiritual connection with horses,” she said.

She spent several hours a day in the fields, hanging out with the horses, watching their behavior and infiltrating the herd. She said she discovered they have an amazing social structure that includes leadership, trust, respect and friendship.

Before long, she became keen to the rituals and body language horses use to communicate with each other, May said. That helped her develop a unique method of training horses without tack.

When she began consulting other sources, she discovered her methods were supported by long-practiced American Indian philosophies about horses.

Her horses practically line dance without the encouragement of a halter or lead. She uses simple commands and gestures to get them to move forward, backward and from side to side. She said the trick is training the human, not the horse.

“I’m not a horse trainer,” May said. “I try to teach people that the magical relationship between horse and human is possible, but it can’t be forced.”

She offers eight-hour classes and private lessons. The classes cost $85.

May’s students have mostly been horse owners who are confused and frustrated over problems with their horses they’ve unsuccessfully tried to correct with quick fixes, she said. She’s also had students who are not horse owners, but take the class for self-enrichment. One was a cartoonist who wanted to know more about horse behavior to incorporate in his work.

May’s goal is to eventually build an equine education center with an indoor arena on the farm. The center would provide resources on training and horse behavior.

“They (horses) have so much to teach us about being better human beings,” she said. “And I honestly believe they have an ability to heal the human spirit.