Philosophical cowboy has a way with the wild
One would never guess that, a mere three months ago, Ringo was a wild, free-roaming Nevada mustang, untouched by civilization. The chestnut-colored horse stands calmly in the arena, intermittently munching the bit on his halter, as owner Jim Hicks settles into the saddle and tells the story of how they came together. The only thing that gives Ringo away as an undomesticated animal is the cipher freeze-branded under his mane, a federal marking which denotes his registration number and year of birth.
On June 14 of this year, Hicks met Ringo, a 4-year-old sorrel mustang gelding, at a holding facility in Reno. Hicks had been selected as one of 200 horse trainers from around the country to compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, a national training competition that promotes the versatility and trainability of wild-born horses. Each trainer is assigned a mustang — fresh from the wide-open range — and given 90 days to take his or her designated trainee from an untouched, untamed wild horse to a well-mannered, gentle companion.
Hicks has been around horses his entire life. He grew up in Nevada and has lived in Utah for the past 20 years. He’s been training horses for two decades, and has spent the past 10 years competing in dressage, an Olympic-level sport that is best described as equestrian ballet. In 1994, Hicks and his wife, Donnette, partnered with another couple to build the Sage Creek Equestrian Center in Heber, where they spend their days riding, training, and teaching lessons.
Hicks met Donnette while he was working at a gas station in Park City. Donnette had stopped to fill up a truck and trailer, and Hicks approached her and asked what she had in the back. Aptly, she was hauling a horse and carriage for Salt Lake City-based company Carriage Horse Livery, and she suggested that he apply for a job. Hicks did just that, and he and Donnette have been married for 18 years. They have eight horses, including Ringo, who is the sole mustang in their brood.
Hicks, who has trained several mustangs before, took a very gradual, patient approach to teaching Ringo to be what he calls a "solid citizen." Mustangs are very misunderstood, he says. "They have the fight or flight attitude," he says. "They’re willing to bite, kick, whatever it takes to preserve their wellbeing." The key, Hicks says, is never presenting them with a situation where they feel threatened or overwhelmed. "Everything that I ask them to do, I prepare them for," he says. "It all comes back to confidence, willingness and preparation."
Hicks started building a trusting relationship with Ringo from day one. By helping Ringo to understand that he could interact with humans without having to protect himself, Hicks was able to put a halter and saddle on the horse the second day of training. Each day thereafter, Hicks worked to expand Ringo’s level of comfort. His biggest attribute, says Hicks, is his ability to pick things up quickly. "His learning capacity is brilliant," he says.
Hicks attributes his teaching style to his childhood experiences and frustrations with learning. "I was dyslexic to the point of writing my name backwards," he says. He realized that education can’t be force-fed, and that patience is the greatest virtue. When he’s training, Hicks always asks himself, "Does the horse understand what I’m trying to do?" If the answer is yes, he proceeds, and if the answer is no, he backs up a few steps. "It’s easy to blame it on the horse if they’re not doing something right," he says, "but I assume 100 percent responsibility as the teacher."
Hicks says it’s important to constantly be aware of Ringo’s body language and expressions. "Riding a horse is like having a good dance partner," he says. "You develop a feel for one another."
Ringo seems perfectly comfortable around strangers, but his loyalty and trust in Hicks is obvious to anyone who witnesses their interaction. When Hicks walks away, Ringo doesn’t let him out of his sight. "For the first couple of months, he wouldn’t let anyone approach him other than Jim," says Donnette.
Hicks and Ringo showed off their skills in the Extreme Mustang Makeover Sept. 18-21 in Fort Worth, Texas. The competition included a body condition scoring to assess the animals’ overall health and wellbeing, an in-hand obstacle course to evaluate ground manners, a riding segment consisting of a reining pattern and obstacle course, and a two-minute freestyle performance. Although Hicks and Ringo were not selected to be in the top 10, Donnette says that the quality of the training stood out. "Jim was the top rider in the whole competition it just showed," she said.
Part of the agreement for the trainers involved in the Extreme Mustang Makeover was that, on the final day of the competition, their horses would be auctioned off for adoption. "At first, my intention was to make sure he got placed in a nice home," says Hicks. As his days with Ringo became numbered, however, he realized that he didn’t want to part with him. "There was something special between him and I," he says. During the auction, Donnette watched nervously as horses from the top trainers went for up to $11,000. "I had worked out that we could afford to spend $5,000," says Donnette. "When the bidding started on Ringo, I knew we were in trouble we were gonna lose him."
Donnette describes what happened next as a little piece of magic. In an unexpected twist of fate, Patti Colbert, executive director of the Mustang Heritage Foundation, stopped the auction. Turning to Hicks, Colbert said, "Cowboy, you want your horse to come home?" She then announced that the Mustang Heritage Foundation had bought Ringo so that he could return to Utah with his trainer.
Ringo now enjoys the same amenities as the hundred-thousand-dollar dressage horses that reside at Sage Creek. Hicks plans to perform with him in Heber’s Cowboy Poetry Horse Extravaganza on Nov. 5 and will use him in upcoming colt-starting clinics to show people what they can accomplish in 4 to 5 months of training. Whatever Hicks does and wherever he goes, he knows that Ringo won’t be far behind.
For more information on Sage Creek Equestrian Center, visit http://www.sagecreekequestrian.com . To purchase tickets for the Cowboy Poetry Horse Extravaganza and Wild West Show, visit http://www.hebercitycowboypoetry.com . To contribute to increasing the awareness and adoption of mustangs, visit http://www.mustangheritagefoundation.com.
Favorite activities (aside from riding and training, of course):
Reading, new experiences, dates with Donnette
Classic rock n’ roll (although he says the best music to ride to is classical)
Stephen Covey, Anthony Robbins, Neale Walsch
Seafood, Italian, sushi, and "good ol’ meat and potatoes"
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