Tommie Turvey’s take on horsemanship isn’t just about training – it means looking after every aspect of your horse, including his future.
When Tommie Turvey first met the other half of what would become an amazing duo in the horse (and entertainment) world, he was at an auction. He was looking for a horse to be part of his act for a circus he was working for, and purchased a flashy 15.1hh Paint gelding for a mere $2,220. In that simple transaction, one of the greatest equine comedy acts was born.
Making lemonade out of lemons
Tommie and his new horse, which he called Pokerjoe, started out by performing trick and Roman riding acts for the big circus companies, as well as shows like Arabian Nights. But after a few years, Pokerjoe developed navicular syndrome, leaving him unsuitable for riding.
In another situation, Pokerjoe would have faced an uncertain future, but Tommie, as an entertainer, was able to create a new job for his horse with a workload that would suit him. He developed a comedy act called “The Riding Instructor”, which subsequently became very popular and has entertained thousands all over the world. Pokerjoe has also helped Tommie earn his gold buckle at the National Finals Rodeo in 2005; appeared in Larry the Cable Guy’s “Whitless Protection”; and even became a Breyer model.
Navicular syndrome tends to have a negative stigma, and Tommie used to be afraid to tell people that Pokerjoe had it. Over time, however, he realized there was a need for people to understand that horses with navicular can still be useful and successful, so he’s happy to share Pokerjoe’s story. When it comes to navicular, there typically isn’t a “one size fits all” solution, and after working with many farriers and vets, and trying different shoeing solutions, Tommie has found that Pokerjoe does best barefoot. He also finds relief in herbal remedies such as Bute-less from Absorbine.
“As a horse owner and horse lover, I’m thrilled that I inspire people to do more with their horses and to show them that these animals can do more than they ever thought possible,” says Tommie. “And as a horse trainer, I think it’s cool to show people the greatness of the horse.”
Like many of us, the horse bug bit Tommie at an early age. “My daddy was in the PRCA rodeo, so I got my start as a cowboy, or with that kind of mentality anyway,” he says. “I was one of those kids who was way too small for his age, but could ride the heck out of a horse bareback. We went to a lot of ‘play days’ as they were called back then, and my sisters and I would clean up all the ribbons.
“When I graduated high school in 1987, I went to college thinking I wouldn’t have horses again because of the expense and the fact that I didn’t know where my life was taking me. Then in 1988, I went to Florida on spring break and saw a show called Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament. I asked for a job, and never looked back. I have been in the entertainment industry ever since.”
Redefining Natural Horsemanship
Seeing all the amazing things Tommie and his horses do, you can’t help but wonder how he makes it all happen. Most horse folks would assume he uses natural horsemanship, a phrase often used in the equine world to describe a certain branch of training techniques and philosophies. But Tommie has a slightly different take on what natural horsemanship means to him. “Please forgive me, but I’m not big on using the word ‘natural’,” he explains. “I think the most natural thing a horse does is run from you, or from things he doesn’t trust or know. I worked in quite a few different shows over the years where they did drill riding. Because of my ability to ride, they would either put me on horses that were difficult to ride, or the really good horses whose training they didn’t want diminished. I learned that every horse is different. The job might be the same, but the way the horse gets there and the approach used is going to be a little different. So I learned not to force myself or my riding style on the horse. I rode the horse the way he knew how to be ridden.
“When I buy a horse and start training him, I know he’s going to be in the entertainment industry, but the horse decides his own destiny. What is he going to be great at? I allow him to decide that, based on what comes naturally to him. That is my definition of the word ‘natural’ in horsemanship.”
The legacy lives on
After many years of success, Pokerjoe is now 22 years old. His act with Tommie was, for a long time, his most popular. “In fact,” adds Tommie, “I developed the act with Pokerjoe so I would stand out in this business – nobody was doing anything like this when I started. Now there are a lot of copycats (or inspired people), so I have new things coming along and I just hope Pokerjoe continues to live a long and healthy life.”
When asked what advice he would give those who want to develop the kind of relationship with their horses that Tommie has with Pokerjoe, he reveals this thought: “Don’t force love on a horse – gain trust, develop discipline, and the love will come.”