Ranching Blog: No Shortcuts

Ranching Blog: No Shortcuts

If you’re going to do it right, it requires doing the work.

black and white photo showing a horse's lower face and a curb bit, as the horse gazes toward some cattle shown in the background

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By Jenn Zeller


If you do the work, you get rewarded. There are no shortcuts in life.
                                                                              -- Michael Jordan


I’ve been riding horses for 33 years, but only in the past 15 or so years did I become a student of the horse. 

What I define as becoming a student of the horse is this: I take responsibility for their every shortcoming. I don’t blame them when I fail. I don’t say they’re just being dirty or trying to put one over on me. They don’t. They won’t.  They’ll simply be a horse. They’ll teach us so much about ourselves and make us better humans if we listen.

It took me years to understand how to approach a horse with no motive. And more years yet to get to a place where I turned off the inner competitor and turned on the inner horseman. I wasn’t truly enjoying the journey.

I struggled for a long time with blaming the horse for not helping me win, when I gave them zero reason to want to be my partner. The angst inside me must’ve been terrible for them. Upset over a tipped barrel or missed heels would send me reeling, and often I’d take it out on them. Make no mistake, a horse knows when you’re frowning, scowling or otherwise angry. 

What I needed to understand was that a horse can only be a horse. They don’t do stuff to anger us. They only do what they think we want them to do, or what they think they need to do to survive that moment. They’re well aware of our mood and attitude long before we are. A clock or a judge mean nothing to them.

The once hardest-to-catch horses are no longer a struggle for me. Now that I’ve turned up my awareness, turned down my agenda and learned to ride the horse from where he is that day, I rarely struggle to get one caught – no matter the circumstances.

Since becoming a student of the horse, I’ve begun watching how other folks have their horses riding around. One thing we always tell our students is this: Don’t take advice from those whose horses don’t behave or ride around like you want yours to do.

There are a few folks we’ve ridden with, yet many more whom we admire and do our best to emulate: Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman, Martin Black, Isaac and Levi Johnson, Jason Perry, Tristan Baroni, Nub Long, Lee Smith and Curt Pate – to name a few. 

I have seen the folks on this list make soft, willing, happy horses. So, when the opportunity arose for me to go ride with Isaac Johnson, a longtime student of Buck’s, I jumped at it. He has started Rockin X, a Horseman’s Academy. It’s a beautiful concept. My November will be spent in Texas, starting two of my colts, restarting a 6-year-old mare I bought and riding two other assigned horses (they could be colts, too) and soaking up as much knowledge and confidence as I can from someone who has plenty to share. I can hardly wait to learn all the things.

When I began to put the horse first, my heart got happier, my horses got happier and I no longer left the competition arena angry. My hope for everyone is that they, too, can learn to enjoy the journey, if for no other reason than for the sake of the horse. The rewards will be worth the work. I promise!

Happy trails!

Jenn Zeller is an aspiring horseman, photographer, freelance writer, barrel racer and collector of horses and chickens. She resides in South Dakota on the DX Ranch, a third-generation cattle ranch where the family raises Angus and Brangus cows, as well as Quarter Horses. Contact her at jennifer@thesouthdakotacowgirl.com.