Steve Jones Likes Horsing Around
Story and Photos by Rich Maples
Steve Jones breaks horses, but he's no bronco buster. Instead of fear and intimidation, Jones uses trust and mutual respect to reach his four-legged friends.
"Basically, it boils down to asking the horse to do things rather than forcing it into submission," says Jones, a livestock specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. "The key to training horses is communications."
The same is true with the people Jones trains to be trainers, including inmates at the Wrightsville unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Jones and a select group of inmates train all of the horses used by the department's line officers. Jones also hones the riding skills of the officers, many of whom had little experience riding a horse before becoming pison guards.
You might call Jones the University of Arkansas' "horse whisperer." He says, "Horses have a highly developed communications system based on body language. If we mimic a horse's body language and watch its reaction, we can persuade the animal to do things it wouldn't normally do.
"We make the horse think it's their idea, and that's the way it should be. First, we gain the horse's respect, then trust. A horse will do anything we ask it to do as long as it's not in danger."
Jones calls his resistance-free training program PREP, which stands for Positive Reinforcement for Excellent Performance. He's divided the program into two parts. "PREP 1 is colt training, starting with young horses under saddle. Usually, I can take an unridden 2- to 3-year-old colt and ride it for the first time in two to three hours.
"It just astonishes people," says Jones.
PREP 2 begins after a horse has been ridden and involves teaching the required maneuvers for a riding horse, says the specialist.
Wrightsville inmate Robert Webb, known nationwide for creating beautiful leather saddles in his prison shop, says Jones' training techniques are "so much better than what was done in the past, and I've been in the department for 27 years. I've seen a lot of men and a lot of horses get hurt in the past."
The inmate says, "We don't beat these horses. We don't have to. They agree to do what we want them to do."
Bruce Hall, supervisor of the livestock operation at Wrightsville, says Jones has also helped with the prison system's horse breeding program. "Our line riders need a large, strong horse with a good disposition," says Hall. "The horse has to be easy to ride, so anyone can get on it."
Jones has worked with the Department of Corrections for three years. He's coordinated the extension service's 4-H Horse Program since coming to Arkansas from Louisiana in the early '90s. "We teach our 4-H'ers basic horsemanship and basic showmanship," says Jones. "The showmanship training is for competition. Proper horsemanship techniques are needed regardless of whether or not they're in a contest.
"Many of our counties have local 4-H shows," notes Jones. "We have five district 4-H shows, a state 4-H show and the Southern Regional, which is rotated around the southeastern states. There are horsemanship events that test the youngsters' abilities to ride. There are speed events, and there are cattle classes, such as calf roping and team roping."
Jones says the extension horse program goes beyond 4-H. "We serve 60,000 households in Arkansas that own horses. The horses are a source of recreation, and they contribute directly to the economy.
"There's a lot to horse ownership," says the specialist. "There's horse health, diseases and vaccinations. There's horse nutrition. Horses require high quality forages, so I include extension forage specialists in my in-service training for county agents and horse owners across the state."
Jones estimates that there are about 160,000 horses in Arkansas. He would like to make life easier for all of them.
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