Category Archives: Equitation


Sallie and Carlos and I sat on the front porch in swings and rocking chairs. Carlos was recounting some episodes of television cooking shows. We all agreed that the current trend toward rapid fire competition cooking bothered us in some way.

 It seems that the emphasis in many endeavors is speed. But, what about Kevin Browning’s melt in your mouth brisket that takes a whole day to slowly develop flavor and tenderness over oak and mesquite? Or consider the classic French Beef Bourguignon that simmers for hours blending the flavor of wine and browned beef and vegetables into a world famous stew? Some things just don’t happen in thirty minutes or less. 

Those of us who have demonstrated the poor judgement to engage in the art and science of colt starting have sooner or later paid the price for rushing the job or cutting corners. Our students don’t understand “hurry”, and being much bigger and stronger than us, we’ve ended up back on Mother Earth abruptly.

 When we don’t take the time to do it right, bad things happen to both horse and man. Ancient principle: a job worth doing is worth taking the time to do it right. Having been told this as a child, I’m still trying to learn it in my seventies! 

The old hackamore men of California considered two or three years in the bozál almost adequate amounts of time to prepare a horse to carry a bit in its mouth. We’ve all seen the amazing white stallions of the Spanish Riding School dance and perform awesome leaps.

 I’ve been told that the majority of those talented charges are old enough to vote! They didn’t learn those movements overnight nor by force.  It’s like the saying, “I had a big list of things to do today, but now I have a big list of things to do tomorrow!” Here in south Texas we use a Spanish word for tomorrow — mañana.

How to Rein a Horse with a Feather

Tom Lea, the famous artist and author from El Paso, Texas, tells about a horse trainer in his book, The Hands of Cantu. This was a bronc starter of the old-school, probably the late 19th or early 20th century. In those days, a horse was “used.” They had no infernal combustion engines, cars or trucks, so everything was done horseback or horse drawn. The “pure-quill” horse trainers were usually divided into amansadores or “gentlers” who did the initial training, and arrendadores who were the reinsmen, or finishers. The end result of the old Spanish method was a trigger-light stock horse. It could be reined by taking a hair of the mane, tying it to the reins and galloping to sliding stop, or a spin, while holding only the hair between the thumb and forefinger.

In this book, the trainer tells  the young amansador,

“There are only four qualities that a horse trainer must have, they are: perception, judgment, fine hands,and patience indestructible! To lack one of them is to lack them all!”

I have seen a few followers of this art; some still exist among the hackamore men, especially those west of the Rockies who train for the spade bit. It is an arduous long drawn-out process. It takes at least two years to get a horse in bit. That’s starting with four and five-year-olds. Then finishing can take a few more years. But those horses are as light to the rein as a feather. It’s like one trainer said, “Don’t wear a wrist-watch when training horses.” Probably you ought not to even use a calendar, especially if it has a horse show on it as a deadline.

Two Tracking Two

Back to the subject of “two tracking”, or lateral movement of a horse. I’ve discovered that people and horses both tend to avoid performing lateral movements of the horse’s hindquarters. The horses don’t like it because it’s hard to do, and they would rather do things easily and efficiently, rather than elegantly and athletically. People have a similar problem, because using the legs to signal a horse is difficult, but also because we seem to have a penchant for using our hands (even though most of us don’t spend a lot of time hanging from limbs anymore).

Watch a youngster or beginner try to open and close a gate horseback and you’ll see what I mean. First the horse won’t “parallel park” next to the gate to allow the person to reach the latch. Then, the horse wants to push the gate open with its nose.

Moving the hindquarters starts from the ground. When you are working with the horse at halter, stand near his shoulder, and with a stick or light dressage whip, softly tickle his ribs near where your leg would be if you slid it back from its normal resting position. If he doesn’t step over, get a little more insistent with the stick until he takes a step away from you. At that point stop asking him immediately, and stroke his neck with your hand. Now go around to the other side and repeat the procedure. Do this on both sides until he moves away from the touch of the whip as light as a fly landing on his hair. Every day when working with the colt do the exercise until it is so routine that all you have to do is touch his rib cage to move his hindquarters over as much or as little as you need. This is the flexion of the haunch, and is an important building block for collection, either in a cow horse or a dressage or dancing horse.

Considering the Pedigree 

OK, I’ll admit it, I get a little irritated with some of the ideas I hear and read about horse breeding. It seems that often decisions about what stallion or which mare should be used to produce the next generation are not based on useful information. As a rider and trainer, in fact a trainer frequently of last resort whose work might make the difference between a horse finding a useful life or work versus being shipped off to become “dog Tucker” as they say down under, I feel that my words need to be heard.

First I ask, what is a horse to be used for. If all we want is a pasture ornament, then you can stop reading here. However if you are a rider, or a driver, someone who puts his or her pink (or brown or black or yellow) body in the middle of their back or God forbid in a wheeled vehicle dragging behind them, I submit that you will find that there are a constellation of traits that need to be considered in breeding horses. 

Simply put a horse needs to be sound, that means sound of mind as well as sound of body. Additionally a riding horse needs to be smooth, whether a diagonally gaited horse or a laterally based gaited horse, no rider truly wants to be banged around and made uncomfortable. Unfortunately a horse can be made to look smooth by the way he is ridden. And horse shows can be misleading as a breeding selection criterion. Judges only have a short time to sort out a class of horses. Breeding decisions should be made slowly and deliberately, taking in all the available information, not just breeding to the “in vogue” national champion. 

Sound of mind also means trainable. Horses need to be friendly and willing to use all their wonderful power and speed to help us not to hurt us. Fear is a natural trait in a prey animal, but a saddle horse, and particularly a driving horse, needs to have self-control. Everything else is details.