CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — J.J. Anderson stood atop Rylee, a 2-year-old quarter horse. He stood straight up on the saddle like somebody riding an escalator — except without handrails.
With one hand, Anderson shook a large green tarp in the horse's face. With the other, he cracked a whip.
And Rylee just stood there, taking it all in.
From atop the horse, Anderson said: "I usually say, it can't get any better than this."
With a little more of the work in the pen, the ground work, Rylee would be ready for a ride.
Anderson has been training her for about four weeks. And standing on her back and shaking a tarp and cracking a whip wasn't just an act. It was something of a final exam for exercises meant to desensitize the horse. That means training a horse to remain calm when out on the trail, in a world full of surprises.
Otherwise, a spooked horse could spell trouble for the rider — and the horse.
So if Rylee isn't rattled by the tarp, she likely won't be bothered by a blowing plastic bag. And if she can handle the crack of a whip, she won't be spooked by gunfire, if a rider takes her out shooting or hunting.
One thing seems clear. Just about anybody who has trusted a horse to Anderson says he's the best. That's a high bar for a 23-year-old, but Anderson has the skills and a presence that seem to set him apart. And horses, to be sure, are the second nature to him.
"I've been around horses all my life," Anderson said.
His father was a rodeo team roper. Anderson grew up in Higley. Later on, he learned the basics of colt training from a master trainer in Show Low. Anderson, in time, developed his own approach. He's a low-key, even-tempered young man who believes in winning a horse's trust.
He wins the trust of people, too. He won JoAnn Rice's trust. She co-owns a quarter horse ranch in west Casa Grande. Anderson trains her horses and the horses she boards at the ranch.
"Our horses are our family," Rice said.
And Anderson has the trust of Kenna Davidson of Maricopa. She owns Rylee. She bought the quarter horse from Rice and boards her at Rice's ranch.
Rylee, Anderson added, has been a good student. Maybe it's growing up on the ranch, having a bit of room to run and being in the care of breeders who know horses. But Anderson said training a horse involves, in good part, undoing instincts going back thousands of years. Their instincts tell them to turn from danger. To run from danger. That could be a loud noise, a plastic bag or anything unexpected.
So Anderson seeks to desensitize the horse, to get the horse to take the unexpected in stride.
"Mostly, you kind of start them off with the tarp," he said. That is, just showing the tarp folded up. "It's like small baby steps."
He spoke from the corral where he was taking Rylee through her paces. At this point, both horse and trainer had feet firmly on the ground. He would stand atop the saddle later. This was the time for ground work, for waving tarps and flags and cracking whips.
Rylee was learning. He was getting the complete workup.
Anderson only had a week or two to work with Blackie, a large draft and Hancock quarter horse belonging to Dan York. He and his wife, Anne-Marie, bought Blackie from a man who was moving out of town. Blackie took up residence on the Yorks' horse property northeast of Casa Grande, settling in with three other horses.
But Blackie, it turned out, was not easy to get along with. York's older daughter took Blackie out for a ride, without incident. But when York entered the horse's pen, he got a chilly reception. Blackie made biting gestures and reared up. Then, York said, "he chased me out. I just lost my nerve."
But he had earlier met Anderson through a mutual acquaintance.
"I called J.J.," said York, a technology-industry expert. He told Anderson, "I need you to come over as quick as you can and take a look at my horse."
Anderson looked and saw a poorly trained horse. It wasn't the horse's fault, he added. The previous owner could have used some lessons.
"When you get a horse charging at you like that, you know you're doing something wrong," he said.
York recalled Anderson's comment on seeing Blackie: "This horse has great potential."
And what the Yorks saw in Anderson was somebody who connected with Blackie right off the bat. Anderson walked up to Blackie, putting him at ease and taking control. He later took the horse to his own place and worked with him for a week.
Blackie came back a changed horse. York will still be watchful when his daughter rides Blackie, but he'll feel more comfortable about it.
For Anderson, horse training isn't just about the horses. He talks to the owners, too. A trained horse won't be much good if the owner doesn't handle it correctly. York agrees.
"I'm trying to follow in J.J.'s footsteps, and do what he did with Blackie," York said.
At the Rice ranch, Rylee's owner said — as part of the training — she had to remember Anderson's mission statement.
"Which is to create a safe and pleasant all-round riding horse," Davidson said.
In the pen, Anderson continued to put Rylee through a series of exercises. Some would help the horse get used to the unexpected. Others would help the horse take direction without force. So with a bit of work, Rylee responded to the slightest tug on the reins. And from a gentle movement of the stirrups. Sometimes people make it hard for a horse to take direction, Anderson said. They might have the bit placed too tight in the mouth — pulling the horse's head back. To a horse, that means stop, even as the rider spurs it to go faster.
After the ground work, Anderson took Rylee out for a brief ride. First, he rode her around a wood pile, to get her used to branches and the like. Then he took her out on a dirt road, past dogs barking from behind a fence. They made Rylee a bit nervous, but she got by without too much fuss. Anderson next eased her into a deep weed-choked ditch. Slowly down and slowly up. It would give her a taste of rugged terrain.
After that, he took her along a farm road that skirted Rice's property, at a walk. He made a confession.
"I don't own my own horse," he said. "I don't have time. I bought myself a dog — a corgi."
At the ranch, Davidson met up with Anderson as he rode Rylee toward the barn.
I asked Davidson when she planned to take Rylee out herself.
"Whenever J.J. says she's ready for me to get on her," Davidson said. "I totally trust his