Category Archives: Training Horses

Pokey

“What’s working equitation all about?”

“Well, go ahead and unload your horse and get saddled. Then come check cows with me.”

The visitor, we’ll call him Wade, saddled up and met the rancher in the corral.

“What are you doing now?”

“It’s called doubling, or nowadays, flexions. It’s like a preflight check, to see if my horse is listening to my rein aids. If he gives easily to both sides and ‘kisses the stirrup’ with minimal, or even no pressure, then I know he’s listening to my hands.”

“Okay, so, should I do that with Pokey here?”

“Absolutely!”

The rancher then began to slide his leg back toward his horse’s flank as his mount was bent around with his head relaxed at the stirrup.”

“What are you doing that for?”

“I’m getting him to move his hind feet away from my leg. Ray Hunt used to call it disengaging. When he steps away, I quit asking.That way he actually learns to do it off a soft cue. I’m wanting to educate my horse to work from signals rather than making him do things with force.It’s called lightness, and it makes my life easier.”

They started off together. The rancher side passed up to the gate, opened it, slid around it, and held it for Wade to pass through. then he sidepassed his horse to close it. They visited and joked as they rode along for the few minutes it took to get down to the creek crossing. The rancher’s mount walked easily across the concrete ford in about a foot of running water. But Wade’s horse stopped. 

“Just let him stand there looking at the water awhile. He needs to think about it.”

The horse finally let out a deep breath, and lowered his head toward the water.

“Now, back away from the edge, and turn him around both ways, using that leg to disengage him, and move those hindquarters. Then bring him back up to the edge and let him rest there. It’s called making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy.

This procedure was repeated three more times, then the horse stepped into the water,and finally walked across, lifting his feet high, but not bolting nor jumping.

“There, now, rub his neck and just relax. He did good. You did good.”

They continued on, crossing a rough field, pocked with hog wallows and shallow swampy sloughs. A deer burst out of the brush and Pokey spooked.

“Just flex him around both ways several times until his feet stopped moving. Give him time to calm down, then rub his neck. Don’t punish him, just use the flexions like a tranquilizer. Then ride on.”

They continued on down a dirt lane toward the cow herd. Then from behind them came the rancher’s son in a big tractor carrying a large round bale of hay. Pokey spun around, head high. 

“Flex him and disengage him ‘til he stops moving his feet. Keep him facing the tractor until it passes, then follow it. He won’t be as scared if it is moving away from him.”

Later, ducks exploded off a stock tank, and a white dog appeared out of nowhere from behind them, and Wade practiced flexions and ‘yielding around’ of Pokey’s hindquarters until his feet stopped moving, then he rubbed his horse’s neck. A chupacabra-looking burned out hollow log got slowly investigated until Pokey put his nose on it. Pokey was pretty apprehensive as they rode through the cattle, but with multiple flexions Wade made it through. 

“Little twenty seven has a new heifer calf!”

“I didn’t see anything.”

“That’s because you were busy with Pokey. But when you can, look up and out. Notice the new baby calves, listen to the birds, enjoy the clouds.”

On the way back to the barn, Pokey crossed the concrete ford easily as he followed the rancher’s big fleabit gray. When they had returned to the corral, Wade asked, ”Now, you never did answer my question, though– what’s working equitation?

A Good Mount Nowadays is Hard to Find

I stepped on my wife’s dog. I didn’t mean to, I was just so focused on my Ipad. My eyes were glued to the screen. I’d watched trick riders, roman riders, mustang makeovers, but this precision drill to music with about twenty horses rocked me. 

They were all carrying flags, galloping, turning, twisting, flying between each other so fast that my eyes couldn’t keep up with their movements. These fourteen to seventeen year olds were performing like professionals, narrowly avoiding collisions, and smoothly transitioning from one movement to the next, right with the music. It was beauty, freedom, and artistic expression!  

At the same time it represented a huge investment in work, practice, discipline, and horsemanship,to say nothing of time and money. It was thrilling to watch and I bet it was even more fun to ride. 

   Now, I have to tell you, my first thought was “Where in the world did they get that many GOOD horses?” Because in my sixty years of training horses, I have seen only a small percentage of willing, sound, kind natured riding horses. It often seems that those good old noble steeds have gone extinct. In their place are nervous, high stepping, even downright difficult knotheads. So in a world where “a good mount is hard to find” here were over twenty of them, all in one place!

   The great thing about these drill team competitions, as well as other horse related activities is that it gets these kids out of their school desks, outdoors, and involved with each other, their horses, and their adult mentors.

They are engaged with the natural world, as well as involved in human interaction, not a computer or cell phone. So I’m all for that kind of healthy activity. And for it to work we need horses that will safely carry beginner and amateur riders, be they fourteen or forty. 

   Looking back into the twentieth century we see since the Second World War the slow disintegration of the horse culture in this country. Riding and driving horses had been replaced by the infernal combustion engine. Cars, tractors, tanks, and airplanes took over civilian and military equine jobs. 

After the cavalry remount was shut down, horse breeding was no longer as lucrative as it had once been. A growing market for recreational horses allowed some breeders to continue a profitable existence. That’s the good news.

The big prices, however, came with “high performance” horses. These specialists who could “win the world” be it rodeo, dressage, reining, or cutting, among other disciplines, are often not the same horses as those good old easy going, user friendly, farm and ranch horses. 

Now we are having horse breeding decisions driven by judging in the show arena rather than by common sense, and knowledgeable breeding practices. Winning stallions are now producing more offspring than less well known but often more solid producers of colts and fillies who can be counted upon to give an amateur a safe ride without thought of injury. 

   The most frequent request I get is for a horse that can be ridden by a child or a woman of middle age who can now afford the horse she has dreamed of since her teenage years. These are riders who want to enjoy leisure activities without having to work at it “pick and shovel.” And I have to tell you those ‘ol ponies are few and far between. 

   What I’d like to see is for breeders to pay less attention to show placing and put more emphasis on satisfying the needs of riders. About ninety percent of the nearly nine million horses and mules in this country are horses used for recreation. Even ranch work requires a more “watered down” version of cutting and roping horses.

Most folks, however, want a trail riding horse, or an equine companion they can enjoy on weekends, or an occasional show, or a pony to quietly ride down to the creek to watch the sunset. As breeders I feel that our job is to study and become knowledgeable of conformation, soundness, and trainability.

As riders we have an obligation as well. We have now at our disposal teachers, clinicians, books, videos, and ,oh yes, YouTube to educate ourselves to become better riders and horsemen, and women. 

  Well, the dog has forgiven me, and I’ll just get down off this high horse, now. See ya down the trail!

Computer Games

I found myself watching children playing a computer game a while back. On the screen were characters moving through a labyrinthine setting. The goal of the game appeared to be to rack up points by quickly assessing the movements of these characters and countering them with your own actions. 

The tool used to do this was a device consisting of buttons and a joystick. Of course like any game there was a set of rules. The kids were doing quite well by the sound of it. Along the way they were learning important basics of how to utilize personal computers. The  games were controlled by artificial intelligence, somewhat like I remember computer chess used to be, only a good deal more complicated. 

  Back at the barn, while working with a young quarter horse, getting it prepared to be saddled, then ridden, I realized that this was my computer game. The horse, a herd animal, had its own set of rules programmed in by the predator-prey relationship. It was my mind against his. I was at first perceived as a predator by the horse.

I was racking up points by directing his movements in a way that would give me a win by gaining his confidence. His actions were controlled by a mammalian brain which was loaded with thought patterns and an ability to process information to come to a conclusion.

It got even more intricate and complicated after I had been riding him a few weeks and went to the pasture to work some cows. There I had to link my brain with his to counter the thought processes and moves of a cow, while working with added assistance, and sometimes hindrance of three canine brains. I guess I’ll market this game as Equi-Box!

The Third Times a Charm

“You gonna get on’im today?”

The question hung in the air like a challenge. It was as if a huge bell rang just over the trainer’s head. He took a deep breath and answered the best way he knew how.

“If he says ‘yes’.”

“Whaddaya mean, he can’t talk!”

“He’s telling me yes by staying near me instead of running right now. At first when I tried to get near him he said ‘no’ by running. Then as time went on I got more ‘yes’ as he discovered it was easier to stay with me and get rubbed, than to leave me and have to work.”

The trainer flapped the coiled lariat on the colt’s back. The colt snorted, raised his head and moved away.

“That’s a no. Now if I continue doing that, until he drops his head and relaxes, like that, I stop instantly. That’s when he learns. It’s not the pressure that he learns from, it’s the release of pressure.”

The trainer kept irritating the colt with the rope until the colt relaxed, then he immediately stopped. He did the same thing by lifting all four legs, and playing with the tail. He wrapped the lariat around the colt’s middle and sawed it back and forth until the colt licked and relaxed.

“Now he’s ready for the saddle. We’ll just rub this old Navajo blanket all over him. There, he’s lickin, head’s down, and he’s relaxed again. So I’ll just ease this ol’ ropin’ saddle on him, and cinch it up. But I want to warn you, this may get ‘western’!”

As he said this he pulled the cinch tight. The colt took three steps then broke in two with a magnificent high flying sun-fishing buck! He bucked and bawled like a rodeo bronc, then settled into a high lope around the pen. The trainer kept him going, turning him back both ways until he slowed to a trot.

“Now he’s saying ‘yes’ again. So I’ll ride him.” The colt sidled up to him, lowering his head for a rub.

“Holy crap, he just put on a triple herniated, wall-eyed fit! And you think you can get on him? You’re crazy!”

The trainer continued to work the colt, then quit as the colt came back and stood next to him. The trainer then began even more irritation by holding the saddle and hopping up and down beside the colt. Finally with his hand on the saddle horn he put a foot in a stirrup on each side.

“I’ll ask him if he can let me stand in the stirrup.” As he stepped in each stirrup over and over, the colt lowered his neck again and started to lick and chew.

“That’s another yes. So I’ll stand in this stirrup until he licks again. There, he’s okay with that.”

The trainer stood in the stirrup again, this time leaning across the saddle so that the colt saw him over his head with his right eye. The colt stayed calm, so the trainer got down. Then, to his friend’s surprise, he mounted the colt, putting his right foot in the stirrup! There was still no halter or bridle on the colt’s head. The colt stood for half a minute. Then he began to chew. The man dismounted.

“Well, not a bad first ride. He did everything I asked him to do, and stayed relaxed. All I have to do now is keep not asking for much, so I don’t overload his confidence and he’ll be alright.”

“I guess I can breathe, now.” Exhaled his friend. “I just saw your life flash before my eyes!”