With nearly 130,000 acres to look after, the Bailey family needed reliable transportation to check the more than 1,500 head of cattle they were responsible for. The family turned to American Quarter Horses.
That meant Eric Bailey got acclimated to horses at a very young age.
“Part of my daily chores included feeding our horses,” Bailey said. “There were between seven and 10 horses around at any time. I was always passionate about helping my dad and working on the ranch. Helping with chores was a way to do that.”
Bailey, an assistant professor in the Division of Animal Sciences and a state beef Extension specialist, grew up on a large, corporate cattle ranch in eastern New Mexico. The ranch was made up of more than a million acres and was split into three divisions. Each of the three divisions was home to separate units. Bailey’s father was responsible for one of the units. With rough terrain and long miles to cover, Quarter Horses were the most reliable way to travel from place to place.
“Quarter Horses have the perfect mix of stamina and muscle,” Bailey said. “They’re also gentle minded and good-natured. They’re great for riding but they can also provide some of that horse power.
“Where we were, there was a lot of cactus and a variety of terrain. It is pretty common for us to ride 10 or 15 miles a day, four or five days a week. UTVs and four wheelers weren’t really an option. Quarter Horses were just so much more mobile for us.”
Having a strong comfort level led Bailey to begin training those horses, something he continues to enjoy. Bailey practices what is termed natural horsemanship. Rather than force the horse to submit, natural horsemanship focuses on working with the horse’s behavior patterns.
“It’s a step-by-step process for sure,” Bailey said. “You want them to be comfortable with your presence – but you also want them to know that you’re in control. They’re prey animals so they’re real sensitive. The goal is to make them feel comfortable when you touch them or put a halter on them.”
Bailey begins by getting into the horse’s flight zone, meaning he gets close enough to the horse to make it uncomfortable and feel the need to move. When Bailey wants the horse to stop motion, he backs away from the flight zone.
“That process really unlocks their mind,” Bailey said. “It’s remarkable how quickly they’ll learn that you’re in control. From there, it’s just a process of acclimating them to putting a saddle on, putting a blanket on them, things of that nature. They can feel a fly on their butt, so you have to get them comfortable with things being attached to their body – and have them understand that they can move with that pressure on.”
After the horse is comfortable with a saddle or blanket on its back, Bailey attempts to have the horse reach a comfort level with him on its back.
“Old Westerns would have you believe that you blindfold the horse, tie them down, get on their back and turn them loose,” Bailey said. “That’s not the modern school of thought. I’ll take the horse to the fence for this step. This allows the horse to get acclimated to my weight and see me from above. Those are two different processes. I keep a leg over the fence and throw a leg over the horse. If that bothers them and they bolt, at least I still have a leg over the fence. It’s really about developing strategies.”
With a passion for teaching, training Quarter Horses was a natural fit for Bailey.
“I’ve always liked education and coaching,” Bailey said. “Every spring we had a couple young horses to work into our group and they needed to be trained. And when I went off to college, training these horses was a way for me to stay connected to the ranch.”
When Bailey joined Mizzou, he took advantage of the Equine Teaching Facility at the South Farm Research Center, in Columbia. Bailey had two horses that found a home at the facility.
“I like to find project horses that have fallen through the cracks,” Bailey said. “It’s exciting to give them a good start. I enjoy buying project horses and giving them a ranch education.
“The Equine Teaching Facility is a tremendous option. (Equine instructor) Marci (Crosby) and the crew are phenomenal. They take great care of the horses and the boarding barn is in great shape. It a great deal.”
Bailey has served as a guest lecturer for Crosby’s equine training course since he joined MU. While Bailey sold his two horses this past May, he is looking at getting back in the game.
“I’m going to keep riding and training horses,” Bailey said. “I’ve gotten into the competition stuff a little bit as well. I did a ranch horse competition this summer and had a ton of fun. We’ll see what the future holds.”