John Loftus lifted the brim of his cowboy hat to lock eyes with Little Bay, his 10-year-old quarter horse, as he directed the animal to take several steps back. The pair was training on a recent summer day at his 45-acre Loftus Ranch in eastern Paso Robles.
“He’s got to trust me 100 percent,” Loftus, 62, said of the horse. “I want to keep his eye all the time.”
Born and raised in Shandon, Loftus has been riding since age 4.
He says the horsemanship technique he’s adapted in recent years from equestrian celebrity Chris Cox has changed his life. It’s profoundly altered the way Loftus, a self-described old-school cowboy, approaches riding and working with the public — and it gives him the confidence to teach others what he’s learned.
“I realized what I needed to work on, was working on myself,” he said. “I needed to be good with horses and good with people.”
Cox’s horsemanship concepts follow a more instinctual practice that encourages riders to truly understand their horse to establish a lasting working relationship. That’s something that Loftus, a lifelong North County rancher, says has completely changed everything he knew before.
“It was not even close to what I grew up with. We were all raised to have power over the horse. Before, it was get in the saddle and get ‘er done,” Loftus said. “(But) it’s really about figuring out what the horse needs from us.”
He explained his training transformation to an international audience on the “Chris Cox Horsemanship” television show last month, which he said was an honor.
He helped fearful riders that have been injured in the past to overcome their apprehension toward horses for the "Building Riders Confidence Clinic” episode, which aired July 14 but was filmed for about a week in mid-April in Mineral Wells, Texas. The show is televised on RFD-TV, a rural-theme television network, and airs in the United States, Canada and has select episodes available in Europe.
The full TV episode is available, for a fee, on the Chris Cox website.
Sharing his story on TV was exciting, Loftus said, because he was able to talk about something he believes in.
Loftus met Cox at an expo in Paso Robles about a decade ago and was blown away by his ability to make known problem-horses rideable.
“A lot of the problem is in not realizing what the personality of the horse is,” Loftus said. “They’re just like people — it’s all about body language. It’s not forcing them to do what they don’t want to do, it’s about them getting it done and thinking it was their idea.”
Loftus has since adopted Cox’s horsemanship techniques as his student over the last 10 to 12 years, using what he’s learned to teach about 30 riders a year in addition to the regular cattle ranching services he offers at his ranch.
Part of Cox’s technique is for the rider to establish a foundation with a horse before jumping on. Loftus does that by creating a mutual understanding with the horse using communication cues such as eye contact and body language to feel out the horse’s personality.
He looks for what human actions translate into positive or negative responses in the horse. He watches their eyes, ears and feet, which all signal what the horse is about to do. One example he gave is feeling out which of his own movements cause the horse to stiffen its rear muscles, a sign that it’s tensing up and about to buck.
It’s about being consistent and paying attention, Loftus said — something that can be tough for people to learn since they don’t have one-track minds. “Horses are in the moment,” he said. “If we’re in the moment with our horse, we can learn quite a bit.”