Skier Joe Turner on his buckskin quarter horse, Madison. PHOTO: Klaudia Turner
Skier Joe Turner on his buckskin quarter horse, Madison. PHOTO: Klaudia Turner

It Takes a Skier’s Eye to Tame the Heart of a Horse

How a ski bum became a horse whisperer

There's a memory I have of Joe Turner that's burned (pardon the pun) into my brain. A few years back, we were skiing together in a steep out-of-bounds zone in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was during one of those wickedly beautiful Teton storms, where the wind howled across the trees and snow blew in sideways, the inches stacking by the hour.

Turner, who lived in Jackson from 1999 to 2005, had led our small group into a protected alcove among tall evergreens at the drop zone of a couloir. As we got ready to ski, somebody pulled out a little glass pipe and packed it with a small amount of marijuana tinged with lavender. Aside from the setting, there was nothing particularly unusual about this. A lot of skiers smoke weed. But the more I got to know Turner in the years since, the more it made sense in illustrating how well everyone at that moment was connected to each other and the mountain through a simple, small ritual.

“Take some time and recognize that other people are other people. Not everyone has the same emotions or beliefs that I do. Not everyone walks the same path in life as I do.” —Joe Turner

A tele skier deep in the ski industry for two decades, Turner, 41, is a force of positivity whose big smile, work ethic, and positivity draws people close. Since the late 1990s, he's done just about every job in numerous ski towns—from retail in Crested Butte, to snowmaking, waiting tables, and whitewater kayak instructing in Jackson, to ski patrolling at Sierra Summit, to being a liftie at Big Sky. He's a sponsored athlete with Icelantic and nine other brands, and is an ambassador for Mountain Rider's Alliance.

Joe Turner says the focus and observation required to ski a big line helps teach us about how to observe and react to animal behaviors. PHOTO: Emmet Lingle

Though all of those things are important to understanding who Joe Turner is, they obscure a rich personal connection to friends, family, and a deep understanding of animals. He was born in Maine but grew up in California outside of Yosemite National Park, skiing little old Badger Pass. Friends say he's been "through some shit," including run-ins with the law as a teenager, and a broken first marriage that left him, for a time, as a single father caring for their two children, including a daughter who is non-verbal autistic. “He is probably the most solid person I know,” says Icelantic CEO Annelise Loevlie. “We call him ‘Fuck Yeah’ Joe Turner because he’s such a boss—in everything. I always tell him I’d give him my first born.”

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Today, in what seems like a complete 180, half of his year is dedicated to horses and their riders. Not many pro skiers wear tight Wranglers, a huge belt buckle, boots, and a cowboy hat, but that's Turner's split personality as a natural horseman (think Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer). He says dealing with horses, including those with behavioral and psychological issues, has deepened his understanding of the importance of patience, listening, and observation. He now runs horsemanship clinics near his home outside of Bozeman, Montana, as well as overseas in Italy, German, and Poland, where he met his current wife, Klaudia. They have a child of their own, and have created a solid foundation for his 10-year-old autistic daughter.

Back in Jackson, after everyone was tuned up, we pulled down our goggles in anticipation for one of the best runs of the year. The new snow and steep terrain meant we had to be hyper focused, and Turner's confidence was contagious. He leaned over with a grin and said, "Leave no turn unstoned." Then he dropped a knee and disappeared into the storm.

I recently sat down with Turner to hear his thoughts on how skiing complements his work as a horseman.

"Leave no turn unstoned." Where does that come from?
There's a certain aspect of peace in life that you look for. I tend to get that enlightenment from a little bit of herb. "Leave no turn unstoned" is a saying I've lived by for a long time. It seems to fit really well with my lifestyle.

Are you a horse whisperer?
I don't ever say I'm a horse whisperer, but I definitely don't ever feel a reason to yell at the horses. I treat the horses the way we want to be treated. I'm trying to show people how to operate with the horse on the horse's level and how to speak the horse's language.

So how does a pro skier-slash-ski bum get involved with horses?
For the first four years I lived in Jackson, I made snow, midnight to noon. I ended up working with a guy who was a cowboy on the Snake River Ranch. That was his day job, working cattle. I also got into elk hunting. It's always at the end of the season that I'm shooting my elk, and after so much time and effort, you know, it's 4 o'clock in the morning and I'm starting at the trailhead. By 7 o'clock, I'm halfway up the mountain and down in the valley I can hear the horse trailers pulling in. An hour later, I'm not much farther up but they're passing me. Another 45 minutes later, it's 'boom boom boom!' And I'm, like, goddammit! Another half hour later, I'm finally catching up to them and they're throwing an elk up on their horses and I'm still really skunked with a long ways to go before I get an elk. I thought, 'There's gotta be something to this. Johnny, put me up on a horse!' So he did, and I ended up buying that horse. She was a good horse. She was a cowboy's horse.

Three months later, I bought my second horse. Because, what good is it for me to hunt just by myself? I needed to have a horse for my friends. So I bought my second horse super cheap—me being a cheap bastard not knowing anything about horses and just being a ski bum. She didn't have any training on her and I just let her follow me all over the Tetons.

Then I left Jackson in 2005 to spend a summer in California and the plan was to move to either Golden, BC, or Chamonix for that winter, then move back to Jackson. I got out to California, and I called a guy to look at my horses’ feet. I left them with him and he called me up and said, 'Joe, we need to talk about your horses.' I thought, OK, that didn't sound too good. He said, 'Your buckskin, she did great. But your paint horse, she's gonna kill someone. I'm not going to come back until after you have someone work with her. But I don't know anyone who will, because she's gonna kill someone.' My heart just sank.

For the next 30 days, I studied as much as I could and tried to listen to her and tried to learn her body language. I started applying what I observed watching wild horses while I was out elk hunting, and the way they behaved with each other. I studied some other trainers in the natural horsemanship world, guys like Buck Brannaman, Ray Hunt, and Tom Dorrance, the founders of horse whispering and natural horsemanship. A month later, I called the same guy up and he came out to look at my horses again. He said, 'Joe, we need to talk about your horses.' My heart sank again. He said, 'Who worked with the paint horse? She was amazing.’

So I designed a program and started working with horses and their owners. I did that the first summer and got a lot of business, then people asked me to start doing colts, and taking on behavioral problem horses. This is a matter of two years. It took me by surprise. I never knew I had a natural talent. But I don't look at it that way. I just want to treat the horses the way I would want to be treated.

So those plans to go to Chamonix or Golden, sounds like it didn't work out?
They didn't. I got a pass at Kirkwood that year, stayed in California, and was working horses. In the spring of 2007, I was just done with California and had to get back to the Rockies. I wanted to go back to the Jackson area but knew I couldn't afford going back there and working the horse scene. So I chose Bozeman. It seemed like a pretty good horse community.

What have you learned from being a horseman that you can apply to being a skier? Is there a connection?
Skiing: First and foremost, requires you to make quick decisions and maintain calmness. I was able to take that, as well as experience working as an EMT on an ambulance, and be able to separate the world to the situation at hand, and have that focus. When you are skiing peaks up in Alaska, getting dropped off by a helicopter, and no one's ever skied it before and all you have is a little polaroid to look at, that's some life-changing shit right there. You get gripped pretty quick and you have to come to terms with that very quickly. It trains your brain and trains you how to think quick and react on your toes to keep you safe and your life intact.

That gave me a one up on a lot people because horses react like that (snap!), they have much quicker reactions than humans. To be able to read every little muscle twitch, hair or lip or nostril or eye movement, to be able to read that body language, I think skiing definitely helped me with that big time.

The other aspect that helped me is my daughter. She's non-verbal autistic, and I had to learn from her how to have patience. I was a pretty agro guy, coming from the way I ski. My daughter has changed that and changed the way I approach horses as well. I have so much more patience now. I take the time to understand where she and the horses are coming from. Whereas my daughter could show me she was upset by crying, the horse’s can’t cry. They can't speak to you and say these things. So we have a tendency as humans to dominate and be a predator, and push all that communication out and not recognize that they are talking to us. But they are. The question is if we are listening. I really learned that through my daughter.

What are some of the lessons that you've learned about your own life?
I'm still learning them daily. The day we die is the day we stop learning. If we think we've hit the top, we've actually just started our progress to the bottom. Because we never hit the top.

Take some time and recognize that other people are other people. Not everyone has the same emotions or beliefs that I do. Not everyone walks the same path in life as I do. That was really hard for me when I was younger. I was trying to show my spot in the world, and expecting everyone to be on the same page or same wavelength as me. I was expecting common sense to be more common than it is.

I'm a God-fearing man. I do believe in God. I believe in the Bible. I think it also needs to be taken into consideration that all of this stuff is manmade. I take what I believe God has given us, including the horses, and understand that we are all on the same energy and operate on the same wavelengths. We just have to figure out to be congruent with each other.

What's better: riding a horse at full gallop through the mountains, or a deep powder run?
Oh man, there is no comparison. I mean, they're both the same. This is why I don't ride horses in the wintertime, and why I don't head south in the summertime, either. They have both taken a spot in my heart that are equally the same.

Johnny Cash or Bob Marley?
Depends on what I'm doing. Johnny Cash, right off the bat. But if I'm skiing, it's Atmosphere and Bob Marley for sure. If I'm riding horses, it's Johnny Cash or Willy.

A lot of people think horse people are weird. Are horse people weird?
Hell yeah, everyone's weird (laughs). We're all freaks. I think we're considered weird because we've taken another living being and put it in our lives. Most other things are static situations without emotion, without feelings or body language. Reading horses, you have to be on it every single second. The moment you let your guard down is the moment they take over.