Estes has been running horse and hunting programs in Lajitas for the past five years, heading up trail rides, aoudad hunts on horseback, and horse-training clinics for pros and amateurs alike. A well-known cutting horse trainer, he has been a member of both the American Quarter Horse Association and the National Cutting Horse Association since the early sixties, serving on the board of the NCHA for eighteen years.
I saddled and broke a bull calf when I was five years old. I lived on a little dirt-poor farm in Missouri, and we grew our own hay and vegetables. Listening to my family’s stories, I wanted to be a cowboy. My grandmother had a milk cow that went dry, so I began, literally, riding a cow as a boy. I later grew up in Arizona’s cowboy country, and as a teenager I worked on ranches on the weekends and for summer break. That’s how I got my foundation with horses.
But cowboying didn’t pay anything except a dollar and beans and tortillas twice a day. And my father and I didn’t get along, so I left home and became an ironworker. I never thought I was the type to make it through college. On the weekends I’d ride in match races and rodeos, which is where I got interested in cutting competitions. I later worked for more than thirty years on the East Coast at Combustion Engineering, a global engineering firm where I headed up safety for the U.S., Canada, and Australia, but during my free time I was breeding, raising, training, and showing cutting horses. That was my passion.
Cutting horses are special because of their overall athleticism and precision. You have to work a horse so that, in competition, it will know how to isolate an individual animal from a cattle herd in two and a half minutes. You are judged, among other things, on how well you can hold the cow in the middle of the arena without visibly cuing your horse in any manner.
There’s a lot people don’t realize about the cutting horse industry. For one thing, it’s a big business. There are more than 150,000 entries in shows each year nationwide. It’s a circuit that pays out more than $40 million to competitors. The NCHA Triple Crown series, in Fort Worth, has an economic impact of more than $57 million on the town. It pays out an estimated $10 million, compared to the more widely publicized Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing, which pays out around $4 million. In my opinion, it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
It wasn’t until 1995 that I finally cut my ties with corporate America and hung my shingle as a full-time horse trainer in Colorado. I’d work horses and then haul them all over the country, entering them in cutting shows for clients. About six years ago, I heard about an opening for someone to run a horse and hunting program at Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa. I don’t know the first thing about golf, and to be honest, at seventy years old, I’m pretty sure I’m never going to. But the famed James L. Kenney, one of my horse-training mentors, grew up riding and running cattle in this area. And at my age, the opportunity to ride horses and shoot guns all day was a dream.
People from around the country send their animals here to be trained, whether the horses end up in an arena or working on a cattle ranch. I like to work with colts for at least ninety days to really make a difference in their abilities; I’ll spend two years with a cutting horse. We also offer self-paced cutting horse clinics. I love to teach that person who grew up in the city watching John Wayne movies and dreaming of being a cowboy. We’ve worked with a whole cross section of people from all over the world, including Lebanon and Japan.
It used to be that the simple term in horse training was “breaking” a horse. But then people got too sensitive about that and felt it was breaking the horse’s spirit. So they began using the term “starting” a horse. I don’t care what you call it. I break bad habits and find a way for the animal to better get along with its owner.
Before I even think about getting on a horse, I first get him used to a rope halter. Second, I teach him to turn using his hock, or back legs. I help him think through how to cross his right feet over his left feet and vice versa. We then progress to a nose band, and then a simple snaffle bit. Finally, I set his head. A horse’s head is his biggest asset. It helps him balance and communicate; it helps you read his body language. If his head is up high, then he is the one in control, which means that he is more apt to react irrationally to unexpected distractions. You have to train him to relax and drop his head. Then the one in control is you.
If you get on a horse’s back before he’s worked through all this, you just add frustration to what he’s doing. Before I ever throw a leg over him, he knows how to turn left and right, how to respond to “whoa,” and how to control his head. And he figured it all out on his own.
Next I teach him cues. For instance, to teach a horse to turn left, I use a direct pull on the left rein, pulling his nose left; that’s one cue. I also lay the right rein on the right side of his neck, applying pressure to move to the left; that’s the second cue. As I do this, I lay my right leg in the girth area, asking him to move; that’s the third cue. By the time I’ve finished training, the horse knows all these cues cold, to the point that I barely have to use reins. It’s really all very simple communication.
I get in trouble sometimes when I teach an animal specific cues and his owner can’t ride at a certain level or won’t take the time to learn what I’ve taught his animal. Everyone thinks they’re Bronco Billy until you get them on a horse. I had to learn long ago not to get too wound up about that.
I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I’ve been married to the same Texas woman for almost 52 years. The way I see it, I’m a lucky son of a gun just to be alive after all these years as a cowboy. I’ll probably be sitting on a horse until the day I die.