COLUMBIA — Horse whisperer David Kenyon doesn't like to call what he does horse breaking — instead, he said, "I call it more horse listening."
Kenyon, of High Point, has worked with horses for more than 25 years. For the past 10 years, he's been using a Gospel approach to his work.
On Monday night, Kenyon preached while breaking Baby Doll, a three-year-old honey brown mare, at the Gateway to the High Country Cowboy Church.
The church holds services every second and fourth Monday of the month at the Midway Expo Horse Arena west of Columbia. Pastor Dale E. Larison started the church in April.
"I've been a pastor for, like, 22 years," Larison said. "I just had this notion that God wanted me to start this church."
After visiting other cowboy churches around the state, Larison realized that what they were doing was basically the same as his preaching. "It was just a little more country," Larison said.
About 180 people showed up Monday to watch Kenyon's presentation. This was the church's highest attendance yet.
Kenyon, who is also president of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association, gave his entire presentation on the back of King, his 17-year-old chocolate-brown Poco Bueno and King breed American quarter horse. He's had King since the horse was 21 months old.
"He's like our oldest child," Kenyon said. "He has a lot of trust in me."
On Monday, Kenyon worked to gain the trust of Baby Doll in the round pen. He said the horse's head represented the spirit, her shoulders, the soul and her hips, the heart.
"The last thing I’ll get in our relationship is her heart," Kenyon said. "She’ll draw near to me."
Kenyon said there are two approaches to breaking a horse: the physical approach and the conscionable approach. He said he prefers the latter.
With the conscionable approach, "you ask the horse to do something and let the horse make the decision," Kenyon said.
Although Baby Doll had experience on a lead rope, she had never before had a blanket or saddle on her back — let alone a person.
Kenyon’s daughter, Stacey Kenyon, 13, was the first to ride Baby Doll. Stacey has been working with her father for five years and has been the first to ride many of the horses he's trained.
Before Stacey mounts a horse, she said, "I just pray that the horse is ready."
"She has to put her trust and faith in me," David Kenyon said.
He continued to lead Baby Doll around the pen. Every few minutes, he stopped and patted her on the shoulders and then the hips. Baby Doll kicked and whinnied.
"I see a little selfishness inside her," David Kenyon said. "We'll want to pass that before we move on."
He continued around the ring.
"God wants us to cast all of our anxieties on him, and I want Baby Doll to do the same thing," the cowboy preacher said.
He reached down to pat Baby Doll on the hips; this time she stood still and licked her lips, which Kenyon said is a sign that she's relaxed.
"Good girl, Baby Doll," he said. "That's a good girl."
David Kenyon let the horse smell a wool blanket and then put it on her back. He reached over, while still sitting on King, and leaned on her.
"Tonight, if you don't get nothing out of this, I hope that you can get something that will help build the relationships in your life," he said.
After a few more rounds, David Kenyon circled around to grab the saddle from the railing and placed it on Baby Doll's back. He then jumped down to fasten the buckle.
"It's when things get tight that you really begin to see what's on the inside of a horse," he said while fastening the saddle in place.
Baby Doll was ready for her first ride, and David Kenyon joked that the door prize winner would have that honor. But it was Stacey who stepped up on the stirrup and then down again. She leaned against the railing and waited for her father to circle back.
The fourth time Stacey stepped into the stirrups, she threw her leg over Baby Doll’s back and sat for just a second. She then climbed off the other side.
The sixth time Stacey climbed on, Baby Doll didn’t balk. David Kenyon led Baby Doll around the ring with Stacey on her back. The room was silent except for the sound of cars passing on Interstate 70.
After once around the pen, Stacey dismounted and removed the saddle and blanket from Baby Doll's back. She carried the load to the side of the ring.
David Kenyon addressed the audience. He asked if they thought Baby Doll was broke, before answering his own question.
"Absolutely not," Kenyon said, adding that a lot of "little steps lead to changes."
"Hopefully you've seen a little glimpse of yourself in Baby Doll or King here tonight," the cowboy said. "Maybe you need to get in the round pen and let God lead you around."