Personal Stories of America at Work
How a Rancher’s Persistence Built a Bit of Paradise in the Shadow of Yellowstone
Montana Rancher Alvin Pierce shares a bit of his working life as the real horses whisperer
Growing up with cattle and horses
I don’t believe there’s any particular talent to training horses. The main requirement is desire and determination. You have to be willing to work with them every day for thirty to sixty days, even when it’s thirty or forty below. It’s kind of like working with a child. If you let them do anything they want, they’ll be spoiled. If you work with them daily and set limits, they won’t be spoiled.
I knew from a young age that I wanted to have a ranch and work with animals. My grandfather had a cattle ranch north of Chico about five miles from where I am now in Paradise Valley. I grew up nearby and spent summers on the ranch. In his spare time, my dad trained horses, and that’s how I got my start with horse training. I started training my family’s horses in my early teens and loved it.
After high school, my goal was to run a working cattle ranch. In 1984, I leased this property and bought three cows. It was tough going at first, so I took on just about any extra job I was offered. I put up fences, trained horses, shod horses, welded, and guided hunters. You name it, I did it. Over time, I built the ranch up to over 200 cattle and six horses.
Whispering with horses
In the mountains where I run my cattle, I need horses I can trust. Being able to train my own is very important. Communication with a horse is silent. Horses learn by repetition—reward the good and block the wrong. Rewards are done by releases or no pressure—timing is real important in the rewards. I call it the “three second rule.” That means when a thought occurs (right or wrong) you have only a very short time to reward or correct that thought. Horses are animals of habit. We, the humans, determine if those habits are good or bad. Horses don’t remember in the way humans do. Mostly they remember things that make them feel good—or things that frighten them. Fear can be tough to remove out of a horse’s mind.
Some people treat their horses like pets. They don’t ask anything of their horse, so the horse takes advantage of them. Horses know whom they can manipulate. If you let them, they’ll walk right over you. Once a horse understands I’m the leader, he’ll start doing what I want him to do. I can be the softest, kindest person with him, but he can’t manipulate me. For a horse to behave, the owner has to become a leader; otherwise, the horse will lose total respect and take over. A lot of horse training is about training the owner.
The most common excuse I hear from horse owners is, “I didn’t have the time to mess with him.” It doesn’t take that much time to get out and just pet the horse, so they get used to humans. Someone will hand a horse to me and say, “Here, do your magic.”
Training a horse can take a lot of time. One question I’m asked is “How long will it take?” The only answer I can come up with is, “It takes as long as it takes.” Horses are herd animals and have leaders. The main part of training is to establish leadership, not by force, but by respect.
I’d do it all over again
If I could have two life times, I would do the same thing I’m doing, just maybe in a less arid area. But that would be hard because our families are here, and we have such great neighbors. Fifty neighbors once showed up in a blizzard to rebuild my barn that had been destroyed in a fire. I still call my uncle sometimes to ask how he might handle something. I savor his knowledge.
My best time is the time I spend with my kids. With the ranch, they can be with me while I’m working. My son is getting involved with the cattle now. That makes me smile. My daughter leans more towards the horses. Sometimes I see her instructing other kids how to work with their horses. Truth is, there’s not enough time during the day to do everything. I’m always busy. The great thing is, I don’t have to go somewhere else to relax. I can always just come sit on my front porch swing and enjoy the mountain view.
The best advice I ever got was not to get too big too fast. Otherwise, you may find yourself in a pile of debt. The advice I would give a young person is to stick with it. Have high goals, but take small steps. Watch your money, and enjoy life along the way. But it’s good to quiet down too. I learned to do that because you have to be quiet with the horses. You have to slow down when you work with them—they just can’t be rushed.
Other than my kids, I am most proud of my horse work. Over the years, I’ve probably trained thousands of horses for working cattle, trail rides, hunting, events, roping, and a number of specialties. I keep gaining the knowledge to help horses and people. I’d like people to think of me as, “He was good at what he did and took pride in it.” My family, my horses, my cattle—I’ve got everything I want. I’m doing what I set out to do, and I love it.
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The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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