In retirement, Ballard’s been able to fulfill the dream he’s had since childhood of working full-time with horses, training them to be the best horse they can be.

He does it with his voice and through a gentle touch and kind, but firm direction. The trusting eyes that follow his every move and the ears that flick in his direction are indicative of the bond between Ballard and the horses.

As he saddles up a mare for a demonstration of his techniques, Ballard continues to talk about his passion for horses and how he came to a second career of training horses for himself and his clients at his Southern Cross Horse Ranch near Forreston.

“I guess I was born loving horses,” said Ballard, who grew up on a farm in rural Georgia, where his family raised everything from cows to chickens alongside the crops.

“We had working horses, large draft horses and regular riding horses,” he said, recalling his first horse as a “little red mare.”

Growing up, he and his brothers would slip away and race some of the horses up and down the country lanes near their home, but, somehow, “Dad always knew,” Ballard said with a smile.

Texas always beckoned and Ballard, a genealogy enthusiast who has traced his lineage to relatives arriving in deep East Texas in 1821, himself moved to the Lone Star State at age 17.

“I was born a Texan,” said Ballard, who visited relatives often as a child, telling his family in Georgia he was “going to Texas” before doing so at the earliest opportunity.

Ballard completed college and embarked on an engineering career while starting a family, finding time as he could to work with horses.

“During as much of my spare time away as I had from my career and when I wasn’t needed by my family, I’d spend that time with horses, renewing my training techniques and developing my abilities to do more,” Ballard said.

Retiring about 11 years ago, Ballard has since filled his time with horses, bringing along his own as well as training for others.

He’ll have from two to five horses at any given time at his 45-acre place, where Ballard has set up his residence, a barn, a round pen and pastures.

“It’s comfortable. I get to do what I like to do most of the time,” said Ballard, a facilities operations manager for the SSC project before joining Northern Telecom in Richardson. “I had an opportunity for early retirement and jumped on it.”

Now, his days are filled with the horses he so cherishes. A firm believer in putting in the time and miles on a horse, he works with each about two hours a day, five days a week. He’ll have a good foundation on one of his client’s horses in from 30 to 90 days’ time, working with the owner to carry on with what he’s put into place after the animal goes home.

With his own horses, Ballard continues to work and refine beyond that foundation, estimating it takes him about a year to get one where he wants it to be.

Ballard’s not a horse trader. He buys horses to train for himself, but time and time again, someone sees him on the trail or in competition and makes an offer.

“They’ll finally reach a price where I want them to have that horse,” Ballard said with a smile, noting that horses he’s trained can be found from Washington to New Mexico to Texas. “When people find out I have one, they’re interested enough to pay me a good price.”

He’s sold a few horses in his day, all quiet, well-mannered mounts that know how to put in a good day’s work while keeping their riders safe and sound. For Ballard, it’s all about putting a solid foundation on a horse by breaking down whatever he’s trying to teach it into simple steps – a similar feat to what he did as an engineer.

“As an engineer, you think in the minutest of details, way down to molecule stuff,” said Ballard, who’s never had any formal lessons in horse training. “With horses, you do the same. You learn to watch them and observe – and horses will talk to you and tell you if they’re tight, upset, spooky, scared or just not comfortable doing what you’re asking them to do.

“A horse will tell you, ‘Look, fella, I have no idea what you’re wanting. Why don’t you stop and show me?’ and you show them what you want them to do in bits and pieces,” said Ballard, demonstrating with the mare how he teaches a horse – step by step – to pivot on its hindquarters. “You teach by going through the process. … It’s a cue you build on.”

Everything centers on a good foundation – just like with people and their education, Ballard said, explaining, “If you have a 6-year-old starting school, you’ll start him in the first grade. It wouldn’t be a good idea to start him at the university level. You start easy and work through the process so he comes out successful on the other side.”

With a good foundation, Ballard said, “A horse knows how to do everything he needs to do to be a good horse.”

The work starts on the ground, with Ballard teaching a horse to respond to cues and pressure to move forward, backward, to the left and to the right.

“I won’t do anything on a horse’s back until I can do it on the ground,” he said, noting that, at the same time he’s putting in the foundation, he’s also building a trust between horse and his handler – a trust that ultimately transfers to a rider. “Horses are claustrophobic. The training process teaches them that they can trust their rider to not let them get hurt. You ask them to do something and they’ll trust their rider to cross that stream or bridge, as an example.”

Ballard describes a good training session as “tremendously rewarding,” especially when “you get on that horse today and it’s going well when yesterday he might have been fighting you. … It’s just something to see them mature and see them develop.”

In combination with the physical training, Ballard is continually talking with the horses.

“I talk to them all the time, just like they’re another person,” he said. “They might not understand the words, but they understand your tone, volume and expression. Your tone tells them a lot of what you want them to do.”

He mostly works with quarterhorses, although he’s handled other breeds, including Tennessee walkers and Arabians. Regardless of the breed, the goal is a well-rounded horse that’s as comfortable in the show ring as on a mountain path or in a parade.

“I like to ride in different events,” said Ballard, who, along with his granddaughter Gail, can be found at a jackpot one night, back home training the next day and then participating in a cattle-sorting competition the next.

One of the biggest blessings for Ballard has been finding the same love for horses in his teen-age granddaughter. He babysat Gail as a child – and from the start, she was fascinated with his horses.

“She’d point and look. She’d watch them,” he said. “It was obvious she had the gene I had about truly loving horses. … She’s got a great love for them, just like me.”

The two pleasure ride, train and compete together. Their main competition horse at this time is Dusty Joe Moon, an 11-year-old gelding Ballard jokingly describes as “too big, too long, too heavy and too lazy.”

Kidding aside, the two have been successful with the horse in a variety of competitions, with Ballard saying, “He’s got a lot of things he can do well. He’s a pleasure to ride.”

Looking to the future, Ballard’s already purchased a couple of young colts – one for Gail, one for him – that he believes will form the foundation for a breeding and training operation the two are planning together.

“The game plan is to help Gail so she’s in a position to have her stable of horses, so she’s happy doing what she loves to do,” he said.