Editor's note: Part of a series profiling Plant City residents.
Perhaps, only a horse trainer would know ears are actually made for talking.
Bob Shivers, 69, of Plant City has been training horses for over 30 years at his modest Knights Station ranch.
"Horses talk to you through their ears," he says. "If the ears are back, that's not good; if they're straight up, you got their attention; and if they are forward, you've gotten through to them."
When Shivers retired from Reynolds Metals Co., his lifelong interest in horses turned into a business. Now, he might be training three and boarding a dozen in a given month.
"Some of the happiest people I know are cowboys and those who ride for pleasure," Shivers said. "One of my boarders belongs to an 85-year-old woman who rides five days week."
Shivers has trained horses from all over the South, including the National Calf Roping High School Champion's horse.
"I sold Dalton Richards, from Georgia, the horse and got a kick out of it when in an interview, Dalton said he had gotten it from an old man in Central Florida."
Shivers believes there are indicators for what makes a good horse. It's not just ears. Learning horse psychology or "horsenaity" (whether the animal is extroverted, introverted, right- or left-brained) is more important than gender, and using the right tools is critical: rope halter, cue stick and long lead rope.
"I've never had a horse I couldn't train, even a mature one with some bad habits," he says. "It just takes longer if the horse comes to me with head-tossing, rearing or bucking.
Shivers guarantees he can be riding in 30 days, but cannot guarantee that for the owner. He recalls training a small Arabian horse from Miami whose owner weighed over 200 pounds.
"That took more than 30 days," he says.
It is a myth that putting on the saddle and waiting for the bucking to stop "breaks" a horse.
"I call that the John Wayne way," Shivers laughs. "It's much more complicated, and you don't want to break the spirit, just bad habits."
While every horse has a different personality, Shivers says they are prey and herd animals with limited intelligence and a "flight and fight" mentality. Repetition and consistency, rather than verbal commands, build trust and respect.
"They understand tone of voice and the feel of your body. You ride with your hands and feet," Shivers said.
He concedes that some people should not own a horse. In a physical confrontation, there is no match with a human — a horse can weigh 1,000 pounds. Owning a horse is a monumental project.
"My oldest horse was 32 years old, and a 25-year-old can still be a useful horse, but I tell people if you want a pet, get a dog or cat."
There is also the expense of boarding, feeding and medical care, and training runs about $750 a month for Shivers' one-on-one technique.
Does the Knights Station trainer have any secrets to training?
"Good instincts don't come from a college education," he says. "You can't teach a horse if it's standing still: Keep 'em moving."
Shivers said he would like to sit down and write about his training experiences and pass them on to his two sons he raised as a single father, and three grandsons, the youngest a year old.
Recently, when his doctor asked him when he plans to quit training, he answered: maybe in ten or fifteen years. In the meantime, he has no plans to take his eyes off what he calls the first indicator of training, the ears.
"I thank God every day that I can do what I enjoy in a place like this," he says, looking out over pastures of grazing horses, an eagle's nest high in a nearby electric tower, and the sound of sandhill cranes near a watering hole.
The Knights Station resident has 60 acres for riding and says Florida has done a good job of conserving land for parks and riding trails. Among them are Alafia River State Park, with a 40 mile network of riding trails, and Old Welcome Game Preserve, both south of Plant City.