A Lifetime of Learning: A Conversation with Jill Barron

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Jill Barron has never known a life without horses. Based in Calgary, Canada, the professional horse trainer and equestrian coach has made a career out of following her passions. Her unique approach to training blends classical techniques and natural horsemanship in a manner that focuses equally on the horse and the rider, benefiting all involved. She prioritizes an open mind and effective communication in her training methods and says that horses have just as much to teach us as we have to teach them. 

Jill’s expertise has made her name synonymous with excellence within the horse industry. Her work ethic and passion for teaching has taken her across the globe for competition and training opportunities alike, from the pastures of her family’s ranch in Canada to the shores of places like California, Mexico, and Australia.

Jill Barron performing at the 2023 National Western Stock Show

Most recently, it’s brought her to Denver, Colorado for the 117th National Western Stock Show, where she’s spent a little over two weeks performing specialty acts and hosting horsemanship clinics with her horse Cossaco. I recently had the opportunity to meet Jill and hear the pair’s unique story – one that she says is best described as a “star-crossed meeting” that put the two of them on a journey that changed both of their lives for the better.

“Probably before I could walk, I was riding,” Jill tells me the morning of our interview, answering my questions over her shoulder as she sets about her chores. “I rode a little black Shetland pony and made many miles on the ranch with my dad.” Riding with her father as a child was one of the many ways Jill’s appreciation for horses started. She says she will always be a “ranch kid” at heart, and to this day is grateful for any opportunity she gets to join her dad on the ranch.

Jill’s mother was also pivotal in her journey with horses. “She hauled me everywhere,” Jill recalls. “The gymkhanas, the rodeos, and all the horse shows within a 3-hour radius. I got really into rodeo – my favorite thing to do is rope.”

As Jill got older, her passion for horses continued to grow. She competed in rodeo throughout college at the University of Alberta, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Education. Following graduation, Jill began work as a seventh-grade teacher, continuing to train horses and teach riding lessons after school. 

Jill speaks fondly of her time in the classroom, but she admits that the life of a schoolteacher was far from the perfect fit for her: 

“I kind of hit a wall teaching. I loved the kids, but I hated being inside. I was worse than the kids – it’d be nice outside and I’d be at the window like, We should go outside kids!

After five years, Jill decided to take a year off from the classroom. During that time, she traveled to Europe and Australia, training horses overseas. When she came back, she continued to train colts to get some cash flow going.

“That’s where it all started,” Jill says. 

She smiles at the memories as she grooms Cossaco, smoothing a soft brush over his muscular frame until the Buckskin’s coat gleams beneath fluorescent barn lights. At 15 hands high, the 16-year-old Lusitano gelding would have towered over the little black Shetland of Jill’s youth. Bullfighting blood and a broad skill set ranging from dressage training to high-speed eventing also make him a far cry from a children’s horse. But for Jill, the basic mechanics of horsemanship are the same across the board:

“I kind of feel like if it involves a horse, I can do it. Horses all speak the same language. I don’t care if you’re a quarter horse or a Lusitano, an Andalusian, or a pony – they’re all very similar. You just have to learn that language and then adapt it for each situation.”

The language of the horse is one that Jill is certainly fluent in. Her expertise is evident to anyone lucky enough to attend a performance or clinic featuring her and Cossaco. The specialty act they’ve been performing at the Stock Show features a flaming 13-foot pole that Jill ignites while seated in the saddle. The pair carry it around the arena, then close the act by Jill igniting a circle of flames in the dirt, which Cossaco prances in the middle of. Jill smiles and waves to the crowd, patting her horse as assurance of a job well done on their way out of the arena. 

Jill with her horse, Cossaco at the National Western Stock Show

Through it all, both horse and rider remain cool and collected. The pair moves together so fluently they almost appear to be one, gliding seamlessly across arena dirt in a mesmerizing manner reminiscent of a dance. Cossaco carries his head high, ears pricked attentively. His powerful legs yield to each of Jill’s commands, which she delivers quietly and expertly. They trust one another completely – a crucial aspect of any performance, but especially of one involving elements like fire and high speeds.

Jill and Cossaco’s partnership make the act look easy. But a horse’s natural fear is fire, and the pair has been on a long journey to get to where they are now. Although bullfighting blood runs through the Lusitano’s veins, she describes Cossaco as a “sensitive type” who is finally on the path that he deserves. 

“He was originally owned by a breeding farm in Texas – they shipped him to me to show him and sell him and promote the Lusitano breed in Canada. I started doing shows on him and I thought, I can’t sell him, I can’t imagine him with anybody else. They say the Lusitano chooses their person, and when the farm first said they were going to ship me a horse, I knew exactly what horse it was.”

Jill made an offer to buy Cossaco in 2016, and they’ve been together since. That year marked the beginning of a long journey for Jill and Cossaco – one that required lots of patience, observation, and willingness to get back to the basics. Jill accepted the task enthusiastically. 

“I’m a horseman—or horsewoman, or whatever you want to call it—at heart,” she says. “I believe we owe it to horses to make them good citizens and help them go on to live long, successful lives. I want to understand them and fix them and help them go as long as they can, as confident as they can. When I got Cossaco, I had to go back to square one and just start over. I ranched on him and did a lot of low-pressure, open miles. I trail rode him and just let him be a horse.”

It was this attitude that helped Jill gain Cossaco’s trust, forming a powerful alliance and setting them on a path that has ultimately allowed Jill to travel and follow her dreams full-time. Jill considers both herself and her horse “lucky” to have found one another:

“Growing up, I always thought I’d love to work with horses full time and have that be my career, but it wasn’t ever really a viable path. That’s why I started on the traditional teaching path, but [the horse industry] just kept pulling at me and finding me. It’s neat because, without Cossaco and I meeting, I don’t know if my path would be the same. I know his probably would not be, so it’s kind of a star-crossed meeting if you believe in that stuff. It’s quite an honor to be able to live this life. I guess I am living the proverbial dream. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.”

These days, Jill and Cossaco spend lots of their time traveling. Most of their weekends are booked between competitions, performances, and clinics. 

“I’m as busy as I want it to be,” Jill says. “I travel to compete and perform, and I also judge Working Equitation. But my true passion is teaching. I have no preference as to levels of experience: as long as they want to learn and have an open mind, I’ll teach anybody. I love helping people understand their horses, and helping horses, one person at a time.”

Jill is a world-class competitor, performer, and teacher. But most of all, she is a learner. For Jill, developing horsemanship is a journey that never ends – which she says is the fun part:

“I love learning and knowledge, I am always attentive and trying to learn as much as I can no matter where I am.  I think as horse people we have to be that way. I run into a lot of closed-mindedness with horses and I’m like, ‘How can you not want to know more?’ The horse is the greatest teacher – all you’ve got to do is pay attention. I learn something every time I swing a leg over a horse.”

Cossaco and Jill are due to return to Denver for the 2024 National Western Stock Show. In the meantime, she has plans to keep learning from her career, traveling, and helping people cultivate bonds with their horses like the one she has with Cossaco.

“He’s a really special horse,” Jill says. “We have a pretty deep connection. I’ll have him until he dies or I die – he’ll be mine forever, and he knows it.”

Blog Post By:
Grace Skavdahl, 2023 NWSS Marketing & Communications Intern

Grace Skavdahl is a senior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she is pursuing a degree in English & Nonfiction Writing. At Brown, she is a member of the varsity Equestrian team and Athletes in Action. After graduation, Grace hopes to pursue a career in Ag Communications or Western Sports Journalism, advocating for the western way of life and bringing awareness of it to audiences of all backgrounds. This year was the first time she attended Stock Show, but it certainly won’t be the last!