• Jolene Hamilton

Notorious Horsemanship: In the Round Pen with Tristen Baroni

Photography by Jolene Hamilton and Mountain Medicine 406

This article was the cover story of our inaugural Spring 2020 publication. Order a hard-copy of our Spring edition via the "LEGENDSshop" tab.

In the American West, there has never been a more notorious partnership than that of horse and man. From the indigenous tribes to today’s cattlemen, a trusted mount has been vital to conquering the wild frontier.

But long before horses carried warriors to victory or moved their cowboy counterparts along the vast and dusty trails, they roamed wild. They were the prey and feared the very predators who would ultimately tame them.

Over the years, equine professionals have established bloodlines that produce legends. Conformation, color, disposition, and ability are among the qualities that are skillfully bred into these extraordinary creatures. Yet, one thing that remains unaltered is their God-given instincts; to shy away from those who trigger an emotional response, making their alliance with mankind forever fragile.

For Russell Freeman, these instincts are not only embraced but encouraged. Every year the Southeastern Colorado cow horse producer turns his weanlings out on his rugged land in Las Animas County. While in their natural territory, the horses learn to climb rough canyons, cross deep water, coexist with wildlife, and rely on their natural instincts to endure.

“Horses raised in the rugged country tend to have stronger hindquarters, better balance on varying terrain, and are more durable overall,” says Freeman.

When Notorious Horsemanship’s Tristen Baroni came face-to-face with the two-year-old band of Freeman horses, they had lived untouched for a year. As onlookers admired the flashy colors and conformation of the animals that moved freely in the round pen, Baroni was inside their mind. Analyzing every breath, flick of the ear, and movement of their body.

“I really want to see where he is mentally, so I know where I am starting from, and then I can start to move him around and see how he reacts to my body,” explains Baroni.

“If I go in there before I’m aware of where his mind’s at, I might do way too much, I might do way too little, or I might put myself in a terrible situation.”

After the horseman profiled each cow horse, he caught them one by one in his loop. While the rope’s slack hung loose, an occult force seemed to pull the animals to the trainer.

Baroni’s ability to connect and build rapport with horses is why Freeman summoned the champion horseman from Montana to start his young stock alongside Freeman Ranch’s Stephen Heitmann.

“Everything Tristen does, he does with purpose,” says Freeman, “and it’s amazing watching horses respond to his techniques and energy.”

While a horse’s keen intellect and unique spirit ultimately make them our most valuable partner, in the beginning, it’s a challenge that must be handled appropriately.

Baroni views each horse as an individual worthy of unique treatment, which is why awareness is crucial.

“It depends on the horse, they each have a heart and a mind, and things they like and don’t like. If they are a little bit worried, I’ll move them around and start to shift their mind to curious. Once I get their mind to curious, I’ll begin to shape it in a learning direction. But to do that, you really need to approach them in a way that feels good to them.”

While pressure reveals a horse’s natural abilities by peeling back the layers to original thought, there’s a fine line between leading a horse to greatness and forcing it to mediocrity. For Baroni, that line is an unbridled ego.

“The ego is something the majority of humans will develop as they interact with society. The horse naturally, as in before interference with the human, lacks this trait.”

Baroni appreciates that ego can be both good and bad. Still, uncontrolled emotion and ego will spur a negative response in a horse, kicking its fight or flight instincts into high gear.

“Emotions are very important, just like the ego. But, you can’t let them control you, especially if you tend to be aggressive, that will get the horse to shut down, or start fighting with you.”

While Baroni and Heitmann consciously conquered their psyche, a sound mind came naturally to the band of Freeman Hancock prospects.

“We worked with a lot of different Freeman horses,” says Baroni, “and we got along with every single one of them. We didn’t have a single horse that bucked when we rode it, and that’s a big deal.”

Baroni credits their disposition to the time and attention that Freeman puts into his breeding program. Meanwhile, Freeman acknowledges that excellent bloodlines are only part of the equation.

“Whether we’re a horse or a human, we all deserve a purpose and the opportunity to be the best at what we were designed to be,” Freeman said. “I’m confident this team of trainers gave my horses exactly that.”

Baroni has certainly gained notoriety for himself since he started training professionally ten years ago. Still, for the humble horseman, the true satisfaction of the job isn’t etched into any trophy.

“Competitions and stuff are cool, but they’re just a measurement. The most rewarding part for me is getting horses to where they want to be around people, and they want to work for us because they enjoy it, not because it’s forced.”

“It’s so nice to be around someone or something that wants to be around you, wants to work for you, and wants to do good.”

In just three days, 16 head of cow horses were introduced to their destiny. Where there was once anxiety, there is now contentment. Where there was reluctance, there’s now a partnership, and curiosity was replaced with knowledge.

When the sun peaked over the wind-blown prairie to the east, two empty saddles hung from the round pen. When it set behind the Rockies, Baroni and Heitmann had bridged the gap between challenge and purpose.

They sat tall in the saddle, stroking the mane of the colorful creatures they had conquered, both a living, breathing symbol of the American West.