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Jennifer Cocoma Hustis has always felt connected to the equine spirit.
An accomplished artist by trade, she also serves as a horse whisperer. Mentored by several famous equestrian instructors during the past decade, her goal is to educate individuals of all ages about the animal.
“During the many years in and out of the horse industry, I have seen many broken spirits along the way,” Hustis says. “It has proven difficult but not impossible to mend a broken spirit in a horse or human.”
Born in Chicago, she moved to Edmond at age 2. She recalls that nearly every house in their neighborhood had a horse and several acres, but her family was one of the few that did not. She used the absence as a way to make friends with the large animals and ask their owners if they needed to be exercised.
By age 8, Hustis began formal lessons and discovered a natural riding talent. Another gift also emerged about the same time which allowed her to show more creative expression through the arts.
“My mother is a painter,” she says.
“My parents encouraged me by buying art supplies. Horses and art have always been a passion, and even as a little girl, I figured out a way to pay tribute.”
As a teenager, Hustis purchased her own horse, and rode many different breeds, including thoroughbreds, show jumpers and quarter horses.
She sold her horse as a way to pay for tuition at the University of Oklahoma, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art. She later completed a master’s degree in painting at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York City’s before completing more studies at the Royal College of Art in London.
“I didn’t think about horses for five years,” she says. “But being in Brooklyn, I started dreaming about horses. I did a sculpture which evolved into a life-sized version of a horse.”
Moving back to the Sooner State, Hustis pursued an artistic career, gaining recognition with paintings being shown in museum and gallery exhibitions nationally, as well as internationally.
Never absent from her busy schedule, however, was riding.
In 2001, she received a technical assistance grant from the Oklahoma Visual Artists Coalition to visit Monty Roberts’ International Learning Center in Solvang, Calif. Considered one of the first horse whisperers, Roberts promoted a nonviolent approach to horse training.
Lessons from the man, who authored the book “The Man Who Listens to Horses,” prompted Hustis to embrace the idea that managing a horse is akin to managing people. That realization led her to develop an interest toward learning “Equus,” Roberts’ term for the horse’s own silent communication system.
“Everything I had experienced as a child with horses was misinformed,” says Hustis, who lives on 10 acres in Edmond. “You tend to listen to the adult, not the horse, because you think they are right. They are supposed to be the teacher. Really, it’s the horse.”
Hustis is just a lady doing what she loves.
“You can do amazing things with your horse,” she says. “They are looking at our body language. They try and see us as we truly are and whether we are congruent in our emotion.”
When it comes to the semantics, the married mother of one feels that each signal means something. Simple foot stomps or ear flicks are not mere body tics, but communication.
“They all have personalities,” says Hustis. “It’s fun for me as an artist, as I like to study each gesture.”
Aside from working with her own herd of four horses, she currently assists local trainer Robert Hayes with dozens of breeds and disciplines at his Guthrie training facility.
For riders young and old, a successful relationship is based on more than just a trip around the arena or down the bridle path. She believes that the more you understand yourself, the better you are with the horse. Additionally, in order to build a trust relationship, give and take is essential. It is also a lifetime process.
“Our country was founded on the back of a horse, ’’ she says. “It’s a pleasure and I think we owe it to the horse.”
Photo by Shannon Cornman