Mario Johnson began starting colts about 30 years ago. His father and mother were his first horsemanship mentors and teachers, supporting and helping him as he began to follow in their footsteps. Soon after he was married, he went to work on the Flinder Ranch in Snowville, Utah, where he halter-broke 40 weanling colts and started 40 fox trotter 2-year-olds.
At the same time, he was able to view a video by California horse trainer Bryan Neubert. He had been to several clinics and schools about breaking horses, but this video had a profound effect on him, and he learned a great deal about “gentling” horses from it.
Later he went to work on the Flitner Ranch, a 300,000-acre ranch with 1,600 head of mother cows in Shell, Wyoming, where he cowboyed and broke more colts. His childhood and these experiences gave him his foundation for breaking horses. Johnson has refined his art over the years to the point that he has been sought out by people from many of the western states to work with their horses. He has been able to work with Neubert one-on-one as well as with other professional horse “gentlers.”
He starts colts for every discipline such as rodeo, reining, English, ranching and trail riding. He also takes problem horses with issues and gets them relaxed and teaches the owners how to handle them. He says, “It’s a challenge at times, but really rewarding because you can look back and see where you have come from. You go out to work with a horse and you know that two years ago this horse would have been kind of tough, 10 years ago maybe impossible, right now we can work with this, no problem.”
Normally when Johnson gets a horse, he has a system of things he does from the ground before riding the horse. He tries to do a lot of different things to gain the horse’s confidence and to eliminate fear to a point that the horse is safe to ride. He exposes it to things that it might be afraid of, trying not to over-expose it, but trying to let it work at things hard enough that it is able to gain confidence. If he doesn’t challenge it enough, then it doesn’t gain enough confidence to be safe with him. But if it isn’t enough, then that isn’t good either. He exposes them to things such as plastic, ropes, or himself; just things that they might be afraid of enough that they might work at it and overcome it such that he can put enough pressure on them so they will get something out of it.
A lot of times with the demonstrations he does, he will get horses that are wild that have never been touched. There he is starting at the very beginning. They have never been handled or had a halter on or even been caught. The same technique applies only on a different level, teaching them how to lead and get used to him. This is something he does in a round pen, and he’s learned how to set it up so it works out that it’s the horse’s idea. Johnson says that is one of the most fun things to do, working with a horse that hasn’t been handled; working with the horse in a way that it finds the answer on its own and he’s not just forcing his way in there too much. The horse can work through it and work it out on its own if you present it in the right way. He says that every horse is different and how he presents things to each horse is going to be a little different. A lot is the same, but every horse is an individual and he has to keep that in mind.
With gentling, he says, “I look at it like a painter with a blank canvas when it’s one that hasn’t been handled. You can paint it like you want and that can be something good. Or, you might have to fix something that you or someone else did that wasn’t so good. Either way, it is something fun and all helping the horse to get better.”
Over the years, Johnson has won many awards for what he does. Most recently, in 2017 he won Impact of the Horse Mega 100-Day Champion, in 2018 he was Impact of the Horse Champion and recipient of the Partnership Award, and in 2019 he was the Rugged Mountain Trail Course Champion.
Johnson also rides for different ranchers, helping move cows and branding. He rides for a grazing association and has done for quite a few years. He shoes a lot of the colts he rides and also has a few customers that he shoes for regularly. This works into the training because of lot of being able to shoe a horse is being able to handle them in a way that they don’t fight.
Johnson says, “It’s a really humbling thing because it doesn’t matter how many horses you’ve done or how long, there is a new experience coming and you learn more and more and there is always a new challenge. There is always an element of danger that keeps you in line, and it keeps you from thinking you know too much and you’re safe. You have to handle them one at a time. As soon as you think you’re doing pretty good, another horse will come along and put you in your place. It’s good that way.”
He also says he is fortunate to be able to make his living doing something he really loves and enjoys. He says, “I have been blessed to have my wife, Cynthia’s support, and that’s important because it’s a lifestyle. Without her I wouldn’t be able to do it. She is really supportive. It’s been a good way to raise my family, too; a good environment for my kids and a good way to be with my family.
Mario and Cynthia have two children, Adrianna and Zane. Johnson says, “The kids help with the horses. They ride with me and help with the training and care of the horses. We get to ride and work together as a family a lot.”
Horse gentling is a gift. Not everyone can do it. Johnson’s wife calls it “horse psychology,” but he says the main idea is to encourage the thoughts and actions that you want in the horse and discourage the thoughts and actions you don’t want. He has a quote he really likes by Xenophon that says, “What a horse does under compulsion is done without understanding and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.” It takes a special kind of person with a special empathy for these animals to work with them the way he does.
He is a rare man; a cowboy, a colt starter, and a horse gentler; and Bear Lake is proud to call him their own.