Several years ago, some elders of the Comanche Tribe were watching a woman work with an especially spirited and difficult horse. They knew little of the woman except that she was married to a member of their tribe and was not Native American. What they did know about was horses, as for hundreds of years the Comanche have been among the finest breeders, trainers and riders of horses in the world.
After watching the woman quickly bond with the horse, one of the elders said, “Horse Woman.” The other men nodded in agreement. Word spread and ever since Denise Waddle has been called this revered name by members of the Comanche Nation. Others have called her a “Horse Whisperer.” When I asked Denise about this, she laughed and said, “I am more of a ‘Horse Yeller.’
The daughter of Colonel Hugh Schmitt, Denise is a proud Air Force brat. Colonel Schmitt joined the Army Aircorp before there was an Air Force. In World War II, he was a “hump pilot” flying gas tankers across the Himalayas. Later he taught English pilots how to fly and then took on the very dangerous assignment of being an Air Force test pilot.
When Denise was 7 years old, she took her first riding lesson in California. The instructor didn’t seem to care much for children and did more ridiculing than teaching. Then the family was transferred to Chateroux, France, where Denise found a great instructor, fell completely in love with horses and spent her days gleefully galloping across the French countryside.
While stationed in Ohio, the family got their first horse, a paint mare they named Misty Jan. Denise rode her at every opportunity and remembers being dumped and launched off horses about the same amount of time she stayed on them thinking this was normal. In the 7th grade, without her family knowing or any training, Denise borrowed a friend’s horse and entered an “open trail obstacle” riding contest against mostly older girls. She won.
Then the family got transferred to South Korea and the riding stopped for a couple years as all the local horses were exclusively used by the military. Back in California she rode for pleasure when she could afford it, but had a full time job at a hospital. When the hospital went on strike, Denise took this opportunity to follow her dream, move to the Ozarks and immerse herself completely in the world of horses.
She learned from the best about breeding, training and caring for horses. In 1983, Denise apprenticed with Bob Peters for two years learning horseshoeing. Thirty-seven years and tens of thousands of horseshoes later, she still does this back-breaking work three days a week. Denise focuses on breeding, training and raising Quarter Horses and Paints, but has also works with numerous thoroughbreds and racehorses. She began training other people’s horses and giving riding lessons, during which time Denise and her students won numerous jumping and obstacle riding contests throughout Missouri and Arkansas.
In 2001, an Army, Vietnam veteran showed up wanting Denise to train his horse, Ike. A highly honored member of the Comanche Tribe, Michael Waddle also had a deep respect and affinity for horses. This common interest evolved into a friendship, then marriage. It was when Michael took Denise back to the reservation that her special talent with horses was noticed and she became Horse Woman.
Denise says that her real joy in working with horses is to get them to do something not because they are forced to, but because they want to. To establish a trust so deep that when the two of you go for a ride or preform, both are having a great time. Denise and Michael Waddle live outside of Berryville, with their dogs, cats and, of course, lots of horses.
Matt Russell is a USMC Vietnam combat veteran and Commander of the Boone County DAV. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent the position of this newspaper, the Disabled American Veterans or any other organization.
Matt can be reached at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 632, Harrison, AR 72602.