Harold Wadley: A Higher Level of Horsemanship

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Harold Wadley
Photo by Jackie McNeel

By JACK McNEEL

Harold Wadley had my full attention as we sat and talked on his front porch. Barn swallows flashed past between us, taking grass to a nest site a few feet away. An old pair of snowshoes hung on the wall, along with an old trap. Various bridles and other horse gear, which Wadley handcrafted with horse hair and buckskin, covered the porch railing. This all has been part of his life for much of his 80-some years.

He was raised in southeastern Oklahoma of Native American ancestry.

“We were raised a ranch family, a long ways from nowhere,” he said. “There was a saying ‘we had to have our own tomcat.’ It was too far for tomcats to travel to supply us with kittens.”

His family farmed with horses and mules and didn’t have tractors. “An uncle of mine got the first John Deere tractor on their ranch, and my dad nearly shot him over why he would do such a dastardly act as to get a tractor.”

Wadley still makes his own rawhide for repairing or creating all the rigging for his horses, using whitetail because it’s easier to work with than cow rawhide. 

“All my rigging is twisted and braided horse hair, and I have sacks of it stored away.”

He often wonders who will take it over when he dies as it’s almost a lost art, and he works with 4-H kids, teaching some of the old ways and how best to work with horses.

But he finds that most of them don’t have the patience to learn the traditional ways.

“I worry about our young people, the pressures they have on them. They spend their time sitting side-by-side, texting one another instead of talking,” he said. “Will they be able to handle conflicts or interactions with other people?”

The proper treatment of horses is very important to Wadley. “My dad had some of the best cutting horses there were, and he never put a bit in their mouth,” he said. “We never rode with bits. I still don’t. If you watch them on TV, they’ve always got their mouths full. How would you like to have your mouth pulled open every time you wanted to turn or stop? I use a horsehair neck rope and just barely tap them.”

Wadley was once involved with a “little old mare” in Korea, a horse known as Old Reckless. She is the number-one war horse in history, having received two purple hearts.

One war-time event was particularly precarious.

“The guys that had her were firing 75mm direct support over our heads as we were trying to retake Outpost Vegas,” said Wadley. “Old Reckless made 51 trips that day and night.” She toted ammunition in one direction and carried injured marines coming back, for a total of 35 treacherous miles, according to the men’s calculations.

“The planes flew over dropping big candles, chutes 12 feet wide, and I could see that mare come in and out on the ridge line,” said Wadley. “It was real spooky, and I thought there had to be an angel riding that mare.”

But Old Reckless traveled alone.

“The guys at the ammo bunker would load her, and she’d turn around and head back up that ridge with all that crap coming in,”said Wadley. “I never saw anything like it. I figured she’s a dead horse.”

During those months in Korea, the marines would spend time on the hillside using their bayonets to cut grass as forage for Old Reckless.



“She also developed a liking for the C-rations the marines were eating, including scrambled powdered eggs and little pound cakes—whatever the guys ate,” said Wadley. “She evidently had a sweet tooth.”

After the armistice in 1953, Old Reckless returned from Korea. The date was November 10, the day of the Marine Corps’ birthday. An officer and a couple of others who had been with her in Korea met her at the docks. According to Wadley, the men took her with them to the hotel, and she went right in the elevator with them and up to the 10th floor.

“The first thing she did was to go over and take a big bite out of the cake,” he said.

Apparently the sweet tooth still remained.

That “little old mare” returned to Camp Pendleton in 1953, where she was promoted to Staff Sergeant and remained until her death in 1968.

After the war, Wadley began work for the U.S. Forest Service, working in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho. He retired as the St.Maries District Ranger after 12 years. Soon after that he began work with 4-H groups.

Horses are certainly his thing, particularly when it comes to making an initial connection with a young horse.

He imprints colts before they’re born.

Wadley calls the process “spirit blending foals.”

“Starting about six months before birth, in their third trimester, you place your hands underneath, on the milk vein, and on the other side a little bit of tension,” he said. “You can feel movement, and you talk into the flank like a horse talks to a foal even in uterus. When they’ve foaled, I’m right there with them. When the mare foals, we’d sit there quietly and let her talk to it first.

“She’ll hu-hu-hu like a mare does, and the little guy will raise his head and sometimes nicker. Then, within a snap of a finger after she does, I talk to it the same way I have all those months before. It turns that little head to me and nickers. It never, ever, forgets it. My horses, as far as I hoop, they’ll answer.”

According to Wadley, it’s a traditional Indian way, particularly with Kiowa and Cherokee people.

He boasts one could do most anything with the horses in his family.

“You can touch them all over. If you get knocked off they’ll do anything to not step on you,” he said. “I’ll go out at night and hop on them in the dark, and they’re just glad to see you. If I go out to work, doing things, they’ll come out, stand, and want to help you.” ISI

In 2003 Harold published the book Spirit Blending Foals Before and After Birth, An Old Way Continued. Veterinarian Robert M. Miller calls it “the best book on horsemanship ever written.”