MANTECA — Dave Bricknell starts many days sitting outside on his ranch, a cup of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches his horses milling about, and he waits.
Sounds like a pretty relaxing way to start the day. And if that’s not enough reason to be jealous, get this — for Bricknell, this is work. The 67-year-old horse trainer is actually taking the first step in teaching an unruly horse to mind: catching the horse.
“How do you catch a horse?” Bricknell asks, leading an American Quarter Horse across his 10-acre Sweet Horse Ranch in south Manteca. “You don’t. The horse catches you.”
Bricknell approaches his job with a smile and a calm, patient, but commanding air — like the father you’ve never seen mad, but never, ever want to. The horses respond, showing Bricknell the deference he quietly demands, by licking their lips, bowing their heads or relaxing a hind leg. (On the other hand, showing their backside, he explains, is the equivalent of the horsie middle finger.)
Horses come to the ranch because they refuse to cross water, refuse to load into a trailer or because they’re just plain rude. Most he can get in line in 30 to 60 days.
During that time he walks them past traffic and construction, pits them against barking dogs and grooms them with a leaf blower — all activities designed to train them to use the “thinking” side of their brain, instead of the “reactive” side.
Bricknell didn’t always spend his days like this. For most of his life, he went to work with a badge and gun at the Alameda County Sheriffs Department, where, in 1976, he helped bring to justice the infamous Chowchilla bus kidnapper. After climbing the ranks to Division Commander, he retired in 1990 after 26 years and started a second career as a self-employed private investigator.
It was the sudden death of his cousin 16 years later that forced Bricknell to take a close look at his priorities.
“I thought, ‘I’m in perfect health, and I’m out chasing idiots in Stockton. What am I doing?’” Bricknell recalls.
Two weeks after his cousin’s funeral, he called his clients to say a tearless goodbye.
I said, ‘It’s been a great run. Call somebody who gives a damn,” he said.
So Bricknell settled into a quieter life with his wife, Michele, on their Sweet Horse Ranch. He had spent years working with horses — he got his first horse, Linda, at age five; she later became the namesake for his first child — but for the first time started spending hours each day reading up on training methods.
Two years later, Bricknell noticed a lump on his jaw one day while shaving. It had grown to the size of a golf ball when he finally made it to the doctor.
On Aug. 3, Bricknell found himself on the receiving end of the most horrible words he had ever heard. Doctors diagnosed him with lymphatic cancer and told him he had three months to live.
“I sank to the deepest of despairs,” Bricknell said. “I’m trained as a cop… I can handle almost anything… but cancer?”
The despair, he said, lasted for about two minutes before he became determined to prove the doctors wrong. Five months later, Bricknell has been through three doses of a nine-dose cycle of chemotherapy — and the cancer, he said, her “fallen off the face of the Earth.”
He credits two things: his doctors and his attitude.
“I do not allow negativity,” he said. “People call and say, ‘Can I do anything for you?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I’ve got 450 feet of fence that needs putting up.’”