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.