Life Lessons from the Herd
POSTED: 2008-05-29 :: LAST UPDATED: 2008-06-09, 10:30 ET

Creator of the canine superstar Benji, Joe Camp (Mississippi) loves animals. In the midst of a funk that followed the floundering premiere of his fourth Benji movie, Joe had no idea that his passion to understand the heart of another kind of animal would not only fuel the freedom from his sulking, but also take his career in an entirely new direction.

Joe's journey with horses began with a gift. As a surprise for his birthday, his wife Kathleen had scheduled a trail ride for the two of them. They'd been talking about horses ever since they moved into their country home in northeast San Diego County. They would sit on the front porch and look down along one side of their property where there were three horse stalls. Sipping glasses of wine at sunset, they'd chat about how nice it would be to have a few horses meandering around those stalls... like a picture postcard, they'd say.

Two weeks after their first trail ride, Joe and Kathleen owned three horses.

It was the beginning of an entirely new lifestyle and career for Joe. It wasn't at all what he had planned. "If the fourth Benji movie had done well, I would have been out there doing another," he says.

He's written, produced and directed several motion pictures (including all of the Benji movies) which have cumulatively grossed well over the equivalent of $600 million in today's dollars, making him one of the most successful independent filmmakers of all time. He's written three novels from his own screenplays, the inspirational nonfiction book Benji & Me and several children's books. He has also written, directed and produced four network television specials and a network series.

And after all that, Joe was suddenly a horse owner. With more questions than answers, he and Kathleen began to dig and learn as much as they could about the three new occupants of their sunset-kissed horse stalls.

One of Joe's earliest questions was related to his horse Cash who came with shoes on his front but not on his back feet. "We lived a quarter mile down the road from the local horse club arena, and I was seriously worried about being able to take this horse down the asphalt road without hurting his feet. It never occurred to me that horses have been around for 50 million years, taking good care of themselves in the wild without the use of shoes," he explains. When he asked around about why a horse would have shoes on only two of his feet, the answers he got from other horse owners didn't make sense to him.

On a token trip to the "Boot Barn" Kathleen picked up a horse newspaper and began reading aloud an article about Monty Roberts, the man who inspired the movie "The Horse Whisperer". Joe went straight home and ordered Roberts' book The Man Who Listens to Horses and one of his DVDs. What he found blew what little he knew about horses out of the water.

He calls it "life changing." Joe learned that horses are nomadic prey animals and that "domesticated" horses are, genetically speaking, exactly the same as wild horses. Their natural lifestyle is shaped for survival, and their primary method of survival is to flee. "In the wild, a herd will travel 10-30 miles a day for food and water and to evade predators," explains Joe. Horse stalls, like the ones he and Kathleen owned, were therefore more of a prison than protection. Wild horses also have strong, rock-crushing hooves that can manage even the rockiest terrain. Joe learned that in captivity, with the proper care and habitat, Cash doesn't need shoes on ANY of his feet. Traditional assumptions about other things like blankets, feeding and leg wraps also didn't make sense next to what they were learning about a horse's natural habitat.

As important as daily care, but possibly even more significant, was what Joe learned about the heart and soul of a horse. Watching their language in the herd and observing Monty Roberts' video demonstrations taught Joe how to become a trusted companion, partner and leader of an animal that instinctively sees humans as predators. As he began to work with, care for and communicate with them, Joe was able to build a trusting relationship in which he gives his horses the choice to be with him and earns the right to become part of the herd. It's a completely different way of relating, one that's free of struggle, stress or violence and that respects the natural language of the animal.

Three years into their journey of building a relationship with their horses and providing a habitat that would keep them happy and healthy, Joe has written and published a book about their experience. THE SOUL OF A HORSE: Life Lessons from the Herd (Harmony Books/Random House; April 29, 2008; $24.95) is a compelling and heartfelt story that lures the reader into the heart and soul of a horse, while exploring through Joe and Kathleen's eyes, the life lessons learned along the way.

"The book became the story of our journey. It's not a horse book or a text book," says Joe. "And what we discovered about horses applies to other areas of life as well. When you walk in another person's shoes or are able to look at a situation from the other person's perspective, it affects your communication with them," he shares. "I'm not a patient person," says Joe. "I've always believed the shortest distance is a straight line from A to B, but that doesn't work with horses. And it doesn't always work with people or life either."

Today, Joe and Kathleen have six horses, which hardly ever linger around those stalls near the front porch. Instead, they are usually off together on the other side of the hill exploring and living as parallel a life to the wild herd as their one and a half-acre pasture allows. Although Joe and Kathleen still sit on their front porch dreaming of that picture postcard, they know they've gained priceless wisdom about the heart and soul of the horse and realize their own hearts will also never be the same.

For more information about Joe, his book, his horses or any of the topics Joe has studied to learn more about providing a healthy environment for his horses, please visit www.soulofahorse.com.


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