Ride with a Reason
Aaron Ralston keeps his show horses fit and happy by giving them new and sometimes surprising jobs, but all those chores give the horse a reason for what it’s doing.
Photography by Darrell Dodds
Aaron Ralston keeps his show horses fit and happy by giving them new and sometimes surprising jobs, but all those chores give the horse a reason for what it’s doing.
Drilling a horse on the same exercise over and over just isn’t something Aaron Ralston likes to do. While repetition is necessary for learning, if it’s overdone it can also lead to boredom, resistance and downright annoyance on the horse’s part.
That’s why Ralston often can be found riding his cow horses on the hills of his ranch in Silt, Colorado, working cattle on a reining horse, or pulling a roping sled on a versatility prospect.
Ralston’s ranching background taught him that horses do best when they have a job. Now, he’s found that his show horses excel when they’re given a task that, at first glance, seems to have little to do with their main focus. It’s all about alleviating monotony and providing the horses with a logical reason for the maneuvers they’re asked to do.
A Ranching Foundation
Ralston grew up riding, but it wasn’t the carefree sort of horseback time that many children remember. His parents had a working ranch, running cattle on corn stalks in the winter and driving them up into the mountains to graze in the summer.
“Everything was very spread out, so we had to do a lot of gathering, a lot of moving,” he says. “We’d truck our cattle to get to the winter corn stalks, where we’d calve out. But then we’d drive them for miles to our spring pasture and the summer pasture up on the mountains. Dad took me everywhere he went. If that meant he was going to be horseback, then I was right there along with him.”
Ralston and his family didn’t show horses, but he did some team roping and saddle bronc riding. He loved the ranching lifestyle, and thought at the time that the only way to make a living with horses was to rodeo. Although Ralston wasn’t introduced to the performance horse world until he was about 20, his ranching background provided the foundation for his training philosophy.
“Growing up on that ranch, doing those things—with long days where you don’t think, you just react—that’s helped me out immensely,” he says. “I just got on my horses, went to the mountain and spent all day. There’s just something about growing up on a horse in that situation that’s so difficult to teach.”
Ralston also learned that a good ranch horse could do just about anything, and generally be content with its job.
“My dad used to say about horses that you can always take a ranch horse to the arena, but it’s very seldom that an arena horse will make a very good ranch horse,” he says.
That’s why Ralston has found that horses pointed toward arena careers are better off when they’re exposed to a variety of situations and tasks. Doing that has made a difference in how his horses perform and the level of success they reach.
“By giving a horse a job and a purpose, my program has changed immensely in the last two or three years,” he explains.
Although about half of Ralston’s earnings have come from the reining arena, his working cow horses have taught him that a horse performs better when it can relate what it’s being asked to do with a job.
“I love the sport of reining, but I do fear that it’s very unnatural to a horse. They don’t truly have an understanding of why they’ve done five or 10 turnarounds in a row, or why they’re asked to spin so fast when they’re going nowhere,” Ralston says. “What I’ve seen in my horses and in other horses is just an overall lack of desire to work and to do their job as straight reining horses, because they have no understanding. Once I started training a few more reined cow horses, I started finding that my horses were so much more excited to go to work every day. They weren’t nearly as resentful of their jobs.
“Reining training actually became easier for me, because my horses were just thinking that was a warm-up to go work a cow, go perform a job and complete an objective.”
That gave Ralston an opportunity to praise his horses consistently and frequently, rather than discipline them for doing a maneuver incorrectly.
“I started being able to catch my horses doing something right. I was more the encourager instead of the reprimander for my horses,” he explains. “Their confidence started escalating. I had better horses that were happier to do their jobs. At the ages of 8, 9, 10 years old, they were still getting better.”
Ralston’s training program today includes plenty of outside riding and variety, and he’s not afraid to use his show horses to work on the ranch.
“Training reined cow horses gave me a chance to return to my roots in the ranch world and get into an objective-based system,” he says.
Here, Ralston explains some of the exercises he does with any horse he has in training, and how they contribute to a horse’s success and longevity.
Turn Back Cattle
Several of the maneuvers reining horses must do can easily be related to working a cow. Stops and rollbacks in particular can make more sense to the horse when a cow helps initiate those movements.
“We have a cattle club and get together once a week to work cattle,” Ralston says. “I have some people who help me ride some horses, and if I put one of them on one of my reiners to turn back for me, that horse gets a chance to do something that has meaning to it.
“When that horse turns with a cow and gets that cow to turn away from him, there’s something inside of him that says, ‘I’m the man. I did that!’ It builds confidence.”
Ralston might use one horse for several hours, and finds that the work eventually relaxes a horse.
“It’s light work with an objective, and a horse accomplishes something, but they’re not going to get in a big hurry to get things done because they know they’re just going to have to do it again. Longer, slower rides with a purpose develop confidence and allow time for that horse to process what’s going on. With short, quick rides, the horse gets into that fight-or-flight mentality. They don’t have the time or the ability to process what’s actually going on. Longer, slower rides give them time to process, and they start building up that mental reserve to deal with the issues they might have.”
Ralston is conscious of correct movement—straight stops and complete rollbacks, with a horse staying on its hindquarters—but with his reining horses, he doesn’t worry about the horse being in the perfect position on a cow.
“I don’t worry about them making a correct cow turn, but I do want to make sure they get stopped and they’re not leaning on the bit, and they turn over their hocks,” he says. “This gives me a chance to work on little things, like a horse that might be bracing in the face or a little sluggish in the shoulders. I’ll take the opportunity to turn with the cow, maybe do a reining turnaround and then go back to the cow. I’m working on a turnaround and a good, square stop, but I always try to keep it connected with the cow.”
Use a Mechanical Cow
Ralston also takes advantage of a mechanical cow or flag to help fine-tune all of his horses.
“The mechanical cow is something I use on every horse that I ride, whether it’s a reining horse or a trail horse,” he says. “And it’s the best place to teach a rollback to my reining horses.”
Again, Ralston says, it shows a horse a reason for the maneuver without a lot of pressure.
“It really helps teach a horse to do the mechanics and keep the footwork precise,” he says. “You can have that horse rate to its stop, finish its stop completely, and then be able to balance the horse and rock it back on its hocks. You want the mechanical cow to turn slowly and then speed it up out of the turn. That will draw the horse up out of its rollback.”
In the reining pen, he says, the rollback is a “high-intensity maneuver,” so a horse needs to learn to relax coming out of that turn.
“Remember, that horse just exploded into a rundown and into a stop. Now, if it’s got any anxiety about the rollback, it can get a little crazy and out of control,” he says.
The rollback itself needs to be explosive, but the horse needs to remain confident and calm, Ralston explains.
“If you can keep that horse confident and relaxed, then you can contain all that explosiveness of the rundown and sliding stop, and have a horse that explodes through a rollback and relaxes as comes out,” he says.
The mechanical cow also comes in handy for younger horses, Ralston adds.
“I use it to teach my young horses basic footwork,” he says. “I don’t always have great access to cattle, so when I do get to use cattle, the last things I want to work on are body alignment, dropped shoulders and footwork. I want to work on connection [to the cow].
“The mechanical cow teaches a young horse to stop square and rock back on its hocks. Then, when we do get to work cattle, we can focus on the timing of our horse with the cow and utilize the cattle better.”
Pull a Roping Sled
Show horses typically take a good bit of warm-up time before they can be either worked or exhibited, but Ralston finds that giving them an alternative way to work off their energy is more effective than simply loping in circles.
“Often, we find ourselves loping these reiners around for 30 minutes before they’re mentally ready to learn,” he says. “That’s partially due to the anxiety they’re associating with the training program.”
Ralston uses a roping sled—a dummy dragged by one horse and rider that allows a second rider to practice roping skills—for all of his horses.
“One of us will hook onto that sled and drag it around, and another person will rate around and rope it,” he says. “Again, it gives your horse a purpose. The horse might not know why he’s pulling a roping sled, but he is. He understands that and accepts it. This exercise also builds some muscle in a horse, and can really help strengthen a horse’s stride.”
Ralston uses the roping sled with all of his horses, no matter their occupation.
“I rope steers and use the roping sled on every horse I have, just for something to do. I try to add as much variety as possible for my horses in training,” he says. “Even at the end of a good reining workout, I’ll grab a rope and just track a couple of steers around, swing, rope and stop. I might just do that two or three times, but if I do something at the end of each reining workout that has a purpose, that helps my horses understand.”
Ride a Trail Course
Lately, Ralston has become interested in ranch versatility, so he makes use of a small trail course as part of his training regimen.
“Setting up any kind of trail course is phenomenal,” he says. “It helps a horse know where to put its feet and gives them something to focus on.”
Even setting up a few logs for a lope-over is effective, he says.
“It’s something for that horse to think about that’s out of the ordinary, and it engages his mind,” Ralston says. “It doesn’t allow him to just wander off into a numb mental state that they can easily go to.”
His home trail course includes a bridge, and he also makes use of the gates on his place to add an extra lesson.
“There’s nothing better for a horse than to go in and out of a gate,” he says. “Pushing or pulling a gate, you get to work with every part of the horse’s body, including all four feet. You have to have control over everything on your horse to get through that gate. You’ll really find out whether a horse is broke.”
When he’s riding outside, Ralston will ride over natural obstacles, such as fallen logs or rocks, and around or through sagebrush. That helps his horses learn to pay attention and be aware of where their feet are.
“Any sort of uneven terrain will keep your horse mentally engaged and connected to their feet,” he explains. “A horse’s foot has a connection to the brain. Therefore, if the brain is losing quality in the arena, let their feet do the talking and leave yourself out of it.”
If you get bored trotting or loping circles in an arena, imagine how the horse feels. Ralston prefers to spend as much time outside as he can, whether it’s driving cattle from one pasture to another or simply taking a relaxing ride.
“I love any opportunity to work cattle outside,” he says. “I love to track cattle or tag calves or separate bulls out in the open. There’s a purpose to it, and the horse begins to understand that.”
Ralston believes that such work not only gives the horse an understanding of a job, but also makes the horse think on its own.
“There are so many different situations that the cattle will put you in that you cannot duplicate in the arena,” he explains. “Working cattle truly raises the intelligence of that horse. The experience makes them more confident in an arena situation. It allows them to learn to read a cow. It absolutely will brighten up your horse in the arena and allow him to work better and smarter, because he has more confidence and more knowledge.”
The trainer uses outside work as a building block for his young horses, but sees it as something of a therapy session for older, burned-out or fearful show horses.
“Where I’ve seen the biggest impact is on the older horses,” he says. “With the young horses, it’s more preventative. If they’re started with some kind of objective-based training, then life is much easier. But most of my business has been from people who have brought me horses that have developed bad habits. The worst thing I can do on a horse like that is to go drill on that horse [in the arena].”
Ralston says that kind of riding may “fix” a horse in the short term, but “in the long run, it just gradually gets to where the battles get bigger and bigger.” Instead, he gathers cattle or simply puts some miles on them by riding up the hills near his ranch.
“If I can take those horses up and down the hills—and they’re not easy trail-riding hills, they’re straight up and down—they learn there’s a time and a place to use all the energy they’ve got,” he explains. “It’s like a ranch horse that may get ridden for six or eight hours or longer. He doesn’t get in a hurry. He knows there’s another few hours ahead of him.”
The same goes for 2-year-olds that are just getting a start. Those youngsters also benefit from either rides out in the hills or being led from another horse.
“We’ll take those 2-year-olds out after we’ve done the round-pen work,” Ralston explains. “We’ll pony them to the top of the hill, and then rest and do some desensitizing with them. Those long, slow workouts allow that younger horse to process what’s going on. In the round pen, we’ve often got a small window where we can accomplish something with our horses, and then it turns into a battle of running the horse around until it’s tired, and there’s just no purpose in that. A lack of purpose builds up his anxiety and nerves. By taking them out to the hills, we set them up to learn. There’s less stress coming from us to them, and it makes the process easier.”
Show horses that only get ridden in an arena also are likely to develop anxiety, Ralston says. Ponying or outside riding can also benefit them.
“Longer, slower rides are the best approaches to rehabilitate some of these older horses, especially reiners,” he says. “They learn that there’s going to be another hill once we get down this one, so there’s no need to get in a hurry. If you run down the first one, it just means you’re going to have to climb the next one sooner.”
About Aaron Ralston
Aaron Ralston grew up on a ranch in Collbran, Colorado, fewer than 100 miles from the Silt Ranch where he lives and trains horses today. Riding ranch horses and roping, he dreamed of making the National Finals Rodeo. In his early 20s, he worked for Doug Millholland, an established reining trainer, and says that changed his life.
“He was the biggest influence in my show career,” says Ralston, who also credits Millholland’s father, Herb “Junior” Millholland, as a mentor.
Ralston earned his first National Reining Horse Association paycheck in 1999. Since then, he has won more than $143,000 in reining and reined cow horse competition.
Aaron and his wife, Meg, own Smart Paul Olena, a stallion by Smart Chic Olena. In 2004, that horse carried both to American Quarter Horse Association reserve world championships—Meg in amateur reining and Aaron in senior reining. Meg returned to the show in 2005 to claim the amateur world championship. In 2006, Aaron rode Smart Paul Olena as part of the U.S. gold-medal-winning team at the World Equestrian Games in Germany, where he also won the individual bronze medal. In 2009, he rode Spending Peptos Money to win the novice horse division of the Circle Y Ranch Derby, where he also was reserve in the intermediate open.
Ralston trains horses for reining, versatility and reined cow horse competition, coaches amateur and youth riders, and gives clinics. In 2010, he provided on-air commentary for NBC Sports from the reining competition at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky. He can be seen weekly on RFD-TV’s “The Ride with Aaron Ralston,” and recently completed a motivational guidebook titled Ride Up with Edgell Franklin Pyles, PhD.
The Ralstons have two young sons, Parker and Colter, who have inherited their parents’ love of horses.
Susan Morrison is managing editor for Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.