If you spend enough time in racing yards or sales yards, pilule you may notice a figure in the background. He’s a tall, site solidly built man with dark hair, a moustache and frequently sporting a pair of dark glasses. He’s usually discretely positioned somewhere on the periphery – visible, but unobtrusive – quietly keeping a watchful eye on the horses. His name is Malan du Toit and he is South Africa’s very own horse whisperer.
Malan is tanned from a life spent outdoors and has crow’s feet around his eyes from frequently squinting into the sun. They crinkle further when he laughs, which he does often, throwing his shoulders back and the deep belly laugh seeming to come right from his core. Tall people are occasionally uncomfortable in their frame, hunching their shoulders or stooping to try and make themselves smaller. Malan is the opposite. He is utterly comfortable in his frame and inhabits it with an ease and confidence that makes him appear taller than his official 5 ft 11. His tall, hulking frame is reassuringly solid and he has a commanding presence, his movements smooth, deliberate and measured.
Different people have different levels of energetic presence and they often project this into their immediate environment. It’s not quite an aura, but not far off. Like horses, people operate on the principle of synchronicity and we try and tune into and synchronise with those around us to create a harmonious environment. Sort of an energetic social nicety, if you like. Some people are erratic, with their energy levels feeling a little like an ECG graph, spiking from high to low and back again. The erratic volatility is wearing on the nerves and makes those around them feel nervy and anxious. At the other end of the scale, are those calm and unflappable types who are handy to have around in a crisis. They project a steady, constant and reliable presence, creating a calm and soothing energy around them which is welcoming and easy to be around. Most good horse people have this. They don’t get overly excited, or upset or angry and always seem to be relaxed and in control.
Malan is a textbook example. His baseline energy is lower than most and it is utterly unshakeable. Monty Roberts often says there is no such thing as teaching and that one can only create an environment in which a student can learn. Malan is a past master at creating this environment. His focus, when directed at you, is unrelenting, feeling more like a physical force than the transient, low wattage energy one is used to from most people, but it has an entirely neutral and non-judgmental feel to it. Naturally he demands the same in return and it is the ease with which he creates a safe, neutral place to work and gives and commands this absolute focus that makes him so good at what he does.
When he is not working with a horse, the large hands are often curled around a cigarette or coffee mug and he is usually talking – either relating a funny story or explaining some of his work. The language is often fairly colourful and those who don’t know Malan, may be surprised to learn that he started his professional life as a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church.
Malan du Toit grew up in Kuilsriver in the Western Cape. His father was a clerical worker on the railways and his mother was a hospital clerk. Malan was the youngest of their three children and their only son. Although it was a religious household, Malan says he was a bit of a wild child, but a turning point brought about the realisation that he had a calling for the ministry and a genuine desire to share it, so he decided to study theology.
His course started with 3 years of ‘an ordinary BA’ degree in which he majored in psychology and philosophy. Malan says he is eternally grateful for the privilege of having had this important foundation. He remembers being fascinated by Pavlov’s experiments and the study of learning theory in particular, all of which would stand him in good stead many years later when he started working with horses.
University brought another pivotal moment in his life when he met his future wife Finnie. She would also set him on the path to horses and what has become his life’s work. The pair met in 1981 and married three years later. After completing his studies and national service, Malan was ordained a pastor at the Maitland Dutch Reformed church. With horses far from their minds, the couple settled in Maitland and got on with married life.
Malan says he’s always been an animal lover and they’ve always had pet Rottweilers. However, their first Rottie proved quite a challenge. “Each animal is an individual and I’ve learnt that when it comes to a difficult situation, you have to apply your mind and find a way through. I’m not academic and I don’t read unless I have to, but when I don’t understand something, I am good at research. Because I was struggling with the dog, I read up on dog training and psychology and revisited my old studies on learning theory. Through a contact at dog training, I arranged a half lease on a horse for Finnie, a mare called Sister Beware that we kept with the Garlicki’s in Brackenfell.”
Life changed for good when Finnie fell pregnant in 1992. “I didn’t know the front of a horse from the back at that stage,” he laughs. “I found them big and intimidating and Finnie and I often had big fights about the horses. Finnie would invite me to come to the stables with her, but I always said I had better things to do. When she fell pregnant, I went along one day and asked ‘So who’s going to work your horse while you’re pregnant?’ and she answered ‘you are!’ And so she taught me to ride. It was the first time I ever experienced being totally ‘stupid’ at something. Luckily Finnie understands horses and how people relate to horses and she was patient. She was adamant that I needed to learn to crawl before I could walk and gave me a good foundation. We spent a lot of time just walking, before trotting and cantering. She gave me my final lesson on the afternoon before she went into labour! And by then the bug had bit in a big way.”
“I found it amazing that one could build a bond with a horse, even though they are a totally different species. It was incredible to have all those muscles under control, even though I always said the path to those muscles is through the horse’s head. I started riding regularly and I am quite a big guy, so I started asking around for a weight carrying horse. A friend mentioned a horse in the hills of Bredasdorp, advising that if I could get on him, I’d have fire under my seat, but that the horse would take me anywhere I want.” The horse was called Zarp.
“I was still pretty new to horses, but I realised that Zarp had some serious issues. He was a scared, over-sensitive type and it was obvious that somewhere along the line, something had gone badly wrong with him. His heart was broken and I desperately wanted to help him. It started as a hobby, but I’m an all or nothing person and it became almost an obsession. I started researching and consulted every book and video I could lay my hands on. It was before the time of Monty Roberts, and I found John Lyons’ theories very influential. I was very naïve, but perhaps what worked in my favour was that I had come to horses late in life and so didn’t have any preconceived ideas or theories and approached it in a totally open-minded way. I was still a full-time pastor, but my schedule allowed me time to work with the horse every day. I was spending three hours a day working with the horse and then going home and spending another three hours writing down everything that had happened, evaluating objectively what worked and what didn’t and trying to figure out why.”
“Because of his problems, everyone knew Zarp and when people saw how he was changing, they started asking me for help. My methods were still pretty raw, but I could approach problems objectively and found that the more one broke a task down into a series of smaller steps, the easier it was for the horses to learn. People thought I was totally mad, but somehow it seemed to work and I was reasonably successful. I found that I could help horses with loading issues in particular and one day I was asked to work with a horse called Big Appetite for Rian van Reenen who was difficult in the starting stalls. The work grew and one day I got a call from Joey Ramsden. He had a horse called Sun Cluster who had major starting stall issues. In his typical way he said “I’ve heard about you, I don’t know you, but I can’t lose anything, so try your luck.” It worked out and shortly afterwards Joey asked me to break in all his strings. It was the break that led to my being able to turn my hobby into a full time profession and it’s something I will always be grateful to Joey for as it provided me with the experience that I so badly needed.”
“Another person I owe a huge debt of thanks to is Craig Carey. He gave me the opportunity to break in horses at Arc en Ciel for 15 years and that is experience that is beyond price. I broke in horses like Pocket Power, which was a huge privilege and of course, Variety Club, who I did a lot of work with during his career. When Arc en Ciel closed down, Ross Fuller asked me to get involved with the breaking in and pre-training at Drakenstein Stud.”
“Experience creates a frame of reference. It gives you the maturity to be objective and unemotional about a situation and know that it is not the horse’s fault. It also teaches you to think on your feet and to have the confidence to evaluate yourself and the horse and improvise when necessary.”
“Early horses I worked with included Dynasty who had starting stall issues. Back then, I didn’t travel with horses the way I do now, so I had to watch his July on TV. He very nearly didn’t load that day! Jay Peg was another, but he was more complex and was difficult on the ground. He was a big strong horse and was difficult to saddle. Most people don’t believe that that can be a problem, but it can be a major issue. Basil (Marcus) was the first person to recognise that trainers are good at conditioning horses, but that they do sometimes need specialist help for in certain areas. He said ‘I train the horse, but from the saddling box to the starting stalls, he’s your responsibility.’ Jay Peg was the first horse that I started travelling with.”
“Other big horses are Jackson, Potala Palace and current ones are Louis Goosen’s Trip Tease and Mike Azzie’s Deputy Jud. I am incredibly blessed to have the record I do.”
What’s the secret?
“You need a feel for animals and you also need an inborn talent, which I didn’t even know I had. You need to be calm and confident. Any sign of being tentative causes anxiety in horses. You need the ability to read each horse and each situation. You cannot wait for something to go wrong, you need to anticipate problems and work to avoid them happening in the first place.”
“Most crucially, you need to be humble. Big Appetite taught me that the hard way. We loaded him one day at Durbanville and he nearly won. The next time out at Kenilworth, he refused to load and kicked me. It was the most humiliating moment of my life, because I realised I had made a mistake. I fixed it, but it was an important lesson. One never knows everything. They say the definition of madness is repeating the same thing and expecting a different result. Every horse is an individual and needs to be treated as such. It is hard work, it’s high risk, but it’s very rewarding and it is a tremendous privilege to do this work.”
-Author: Robyn Louw.