"Some people were telling me once about their son. He had a brand new BMW, a computer, his own room ... They never put any pressure on him, yet he still ended up joining a gang and getting killed. ‘We gave him everything he wanted,' they told me. And I said, ‘You didn't give him the one thing he needed: somebody to respect.'" - Sam Powell
Sam Powell seems to have stepped from the pages of American history, from frontier towns and open ranges, when self-sufficiency and independence weren't just nostalgic values but rather necessities for survival. He's also a thinker, whose views are informed by Eastern philosophies, meditation, and untamed nature. He's compact, not that tall, but he seems to tower over the landscape. His face, craggy from decades spent outdoors, betrays the Cherokee strain in his blood. His clothing, the PFI shirt and Wrangler jeans, is often dusty though always impeccably worn, with creases crisp and fit tight.
At his spread outside Shelbyville, about an hour south of Nashville, Tennessee, or before audiences as far away as Europe and Australia, Powell demonstrates an almost mystical ability to work with horses. Clients - country superstars Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker, the Nashville Police, and universities and stables throughout America - have watched him and extolled his gifts. His background - readings in Zen, days spent observing herds in the wild, lessons learned through his rowdy youth and woven into subtler webs of experience - feeds this talent, which must surely have been with Powell since birth.
What matters more is how he has grown his work beyond communion with horses, into a garden of wisdom, whose patterns reveal what it means to live a meaningful life. In this role, as a modern philosopher, Powell offers his greatest service. "People will watch as I connect with each horse," he explains. "They'll see it following me, with no rope or anything. They'll understand that this comes from effective communication, mutual respect, listening to the ones you're with and finding where they're troubled or scared and helping them get past that. That's the secret."
The approach can be applied in complex ways, whether with horses or finding one's own path through life, though it boils down to a simple concept, summarized in just three words: "teach by asking." Its roots stretch back to Oklahoma, where Powell was raised by relatives after his parents had divorced. Fascinated by the cowboys he saw on Saturday movie matinees, he left home at fifteen to find his father, who was running an equestrian program at a school in Scottsdale, Arizona. A year later he visited again, this time staying longer and observing more closely the behavior of horses that roamed free through the nearby canyons.
Shortly after that, Powell dropped out of high school and began seeking work as a rodeo performer. By age sixteen he was riding bulls and traveling far from home, to Cheyenne's Frontier Days and the Calgary Stampede, before leaving that world for steadier employment on ranches, culminating in a 22-year run as equine manager at the famous Mullendore Cross Bell Ranch in Oklahoma.
Getting there wasn't easy. He had his share of trouble, got into a few fights, suffered seven broken noses, and woke up now and then in local jails before receiving a police escort to the outskirts of town. It was even rougher in the rodeo ring, where injuries were frequent and sometimes serious. During one winter, immobilized while recovering from a broken neck, Powell passed the hours with books that a friend would deliver from the library.
"That's where I first heard about Zen and psycho-cybernetics," he recalls. "I'd read these books, so that by the time I could get back to bull riding I'd be able to go to the pen, find that bull, look at the arena, look at the shirt and clothes I'd wear that night, and then I'd sit by myself in a corner and visualize it all. I'd ride that bull one hundred times in my mind - a good ride every time. So when I finally did crawl on that bull, there was no apprehension. I'd already done it, so I could concentrate completely on the now."
From this point Powell reassessed the working method that prevailed among his peers. To the idea of being in the moment he added the insights he was absorbing, even without knowing it at the time, through watching those canyon horses with his father. Respect was the key - for the needs of the horse and for your ability to serve them. Trust, honesty, courage, control, persistence: With these tools, the respect shared by the trainer and the horse could transform into results beyond those achieved by even the best of the old-school bronco busters.
"Horses don't love people," Powell points out. "They have no concept of affection. When that horse comes up and puts his head over your shoulder, you think he loves you. But he's really trying to get you to say, ‘Don't do that. Get back.' And they think, ‘Whew! That's good. I need a leader, and he's my leader.' They crave security and comfort. Give that to them, and they'll stick with you."
Today, as head of Sam Powell Equine Consulting Services (asksampowell.com), Powell introduces horse owners to his system of non-violent and effective training. Whether outlined through personal appearances, videos, or seminars at Oklahoma State University, Middle Tennessee State University, and other institutions, its essence becomes clear through his plainspoken but poetic presentation - and above all through the results he achieves through hands-on contact with troubled animals. The relevance is there, as well, for those who have never sat on a saddle, whose goals are more to discover something about themselves and their interactions with the world. Fact is, the lessons of Sam Powell have universal resonance, in the arenas of business and spiritual growth.
"You're the boss of a company, you come to the office, and all your employees are on the curb with picket signs. Or you go home after work and your wife has thrown all your clothes into the front yard. You could have prevented these things if you had been aware of what's going on in your world. If I'm aware with my horse, I'll know that he's thinking about doing something I don't want to do, and I can change his mind without getting into a fight. You prepare. You know how to get to your goals. And you pay attention on your journey. That's awareness," says Sam Powell. "That's what I teach."