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Small-screen cowboy

A respected horse trainer gets in front of the camera for a History Channel special

When it comes to horses, Hollywood often turns to Gold Hill trainer Allen Hicks.

Usually working behind the scenes, the 51-year-old Star Valley Ranch trainer has found himself in front of the camera in the History Channel special, Wild West Tech debuting at 10 p.m. Tuesday.

It's a re-enactment of what it was like moving cattle before we had 18-wheelers, he said.

Horses are still used for herding or working a ranch. They can go places where these four-wheel deals can't go, he said.

But by and large machinery has replaced horses. Hicks said, Nowadays, people use them pretty much as pets.

Hicks and other re-enactment wranglers in the series show how difficult it was to bring cattle to market using basic technology and the horse.

You had to take enough horses in case some died or got lame, he said.

The series features scenes of what it was like sleeping under the stars around a campfire to roping and branding cattle.

It also shows tools some cowboys used to alter a brand so they could steal cattle. There were big cons and thieves like now, he said. It's just nowadays people use high- tech, but back then it was pretty much low-tech.

The series looks at the gear used by cowboys from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the last century.

Hicks, who lives in Gold Hill with his girlfriend Debbie Wold, brought her along for the filming last November near Bakersfield.

She was in awe because she had never been on a movie set before, he said.

Hicks has become something of a horse trainer for the stars, working with actors like Ron Perlman, who is in the new movie, Hellboy, as well as the syndicated television series Beauty and the Beast.

Hicks has also trained horses for use in movies and commercials.

Unlike some trainers he's known, Hicks doesn't think blood needs to be drawn to get a horse properly trained.

Horses learn one way and one way only, he said. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

He wears spurs, but instead of the familiar spiked wheel, Hicks has just a round ball on the end.

That's the wrong way ' to stab them, he said. The spur is a cue.

Hicks prefers to ease horses into learning new things, eventually making them as easy to ride as a car with power steering and power brakes.

Old movies that show a horse bucking as it's being broke is actually something you want to avoid, said Hicks.

You can't train horses unless you have patience, he said.

Hicks doesn't have much patience for the way he has seen some horses broke in only 30 days in Oregon, leaving them with scars on their sides and improperly trained.

To really break a horse in right, he says, it takes three months, which allows for a lot of trail time. I want to make sure they are good and safe to ride, he said.

While Hicks has a fondness for quarter horses, he gives the edge to Mustangs when riding in the wilderness.

A mustang on a trail is like a train on a track, he said.

Gary and Chris Frost, who own Star Valley Ranch, say they appreciate the way Hicks trains the horses.

He's been a breath of fresh air in this valley, said Gary.

His wife said, We never would have anyone here who mistreats a horse.

Hick, who lives nearby, said the ranch offers all the amenities needed to properly train and take care of horses, including miles of trails in the nearby hills.

Hicks has spent the past 30 years working with horses and has spent time in the rodeo, cattle ranching and teaching others how to ride.

When people ask me what's a black man doing in this line of work, I tell them that I was just like any other kid sitting around watching westerns on TV, he said.

When he got a chance to meet cowboy star Roy Rogers more than a decade ago, Hicks said, I stuck to him like glue.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail

Horse trainer Allen Hicks of the Star Valley Ranch in Gold Hill has been a longtime favorite of Hollywood, but it's usually been for his work behind the scenes. Mail Tribune / Andrew Mariman - Mail Tribune Andrew Mariman