by Laura Crum
The other day I heard a woman I know talk about working her horse “around” before she got on him. She meant working him on foot in a round pen. Now this wasn’t a colt with thirty days on him that she was talking about. It was a seven year old horse that she’d owned for four years. He’d never none anything particularly threatening. Yet it was her habit to work him “around” before she rode him…pretty much every ride.
I thought this odd. Then the fact that I thought it odd got me thinking about why I think the way I do. OK, that’s a convoluted sentence, but I’m sure you get my point. Once a horse is past the very green stage (like 90 days of riding or less) I was never in the habit of working the horse on foot (whether in a round pen or on a lunge line) before I got on him. Despite the fact that I’m old and stout and cautious, I still don’t do this. Whether I’m riding middle-aged Sunny, five year old Smoky, or my son’s twenty-one year old babysitter, Henry, I saddle the horse up and get on. I don’t dink around on foot first.
To clarify this—I don’t throw the saddle on, jerk the cinch tight, and step up. I tighten the cinch in three steps and I walk the horse a few feet between each “tightening”. If the horse showed signs he was going to have a conniption fit, I would rethink the climbing on part. I still wouldn’t work him on foot—I’d probably tie him up and let him “soak” with the saddle on for a few hours. If he still didn’t seem flat, I might repeat that procedure for a few days before I rode him. But I wouldn’t be inclined to work him on foot.
I don’t consider myself particularly brave. I don’t think I’m completely foolhardy, either. If I were to describe myself, I might even say that I’m a big chicken these days. But I still just saddle my horses and climb on, though I no longer choose to climb on anything too green.
I am constantly surprised by the number of people who don’t do this. When I bought my horse, Sunny, the former owner went on and on about how the horse did not know how to lunge when she got him, and, of course, she lunged all her horses to warm them up before she rode them. I shrugged. In two years of pretty steady trail riding, I have never done anything but saddle Sunny and climb on when I’m ready. I don’t know why in the world anybody would bother to lunge this horse first.
Back when I was riding a lot of horses, whenever I got a broke horse that was new to me, I saddled them and climbed on and rode them. Again, if I thought the horse looked snorty, I might rethink the climbing on part. I rode trading horses and rope horses for years. I must have climbed on several hundred horses I didn’t know. Not one of them did I “work around” first. Sunny is the last horse I bought. I had reason to believe he was broke. The first day I had him home to try, I saddled him, climbed on, and took him for a trail ride. My concession to the unknown was to take a friend with me.
If I was breaking a colt I would take it to the round pen, while I taught that colt to carry the saddle and respond to my signals. Lots and lots has been written about the many different ways people accomplish this, and I think anything I would say about how I did it has already been said (better) by someone else. But even when I was breaking young horses, it didn’t take me very long to get them to the point where I saddled them and climbed on without working them on foot first (by thirty days, almost every time). Maybe I climbed on in the round pen, if I was nervous, but I didn’t work them from the ground much once they knew how to carry me. To address a specific problem, sometimes. If I really thought they were going to dump me, sure.
So why is this? Well, its partly because I was raised in the horse biz by a bunch of ropers, and they would all have disdained to dink around with a broke horse, or even a reasonably gentle green broke horse, before they climbed on him. It just ain’t the cowboy way.
And its partly because I’m lazy. Its easier to step aboard than to do all that fussing around on foot.
But there is another reason or two.
First off, horses know when you’re scared of them. Honest—they do. (I put quite a bit about this in my book, “Hayburner”, in which my protagonist breaks a colt.) If you’re fussing around on the ground cause you’re scared to get on, the horse knows. Its not a positive scenario. Thus, even if I am a little nervous, I act like I’m not. (I guess I think I can fool them.) I don’t spend a lot of time dinking around. I saddle the horse and get on.
Once I climb on, I just relax with the horse. I’ll walk a horse until he’s loose, if he’s relaxed enough to walk. Back when I was riding colts, a lot of them needed to move, so I’d let them trot, or lope(if they felt flat), until that urge to move subsided. It’s the equivalent of “working them around” or lunging them, except I’m on their back. I’m not asking much of them, just letting them get the kinks out. So, what’s better about being on their back, you ask?
Actually, I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just really dumb. I’d sure be a lot safer on the ground, huh? However, I can’t think of a single time when a horse has dumped me during this warm up period, so I guess its worked OK so far. And, to quote a well known cutting horse trainer that I once worked for “If you dink around you make a dink.” This guy was very big on “just climb on em and go—don’t fuss with them,” and I absorbed a lot of his thinking.
Again, if I really thought a horse was liable to buck hard or bolt or dump me in some way (and by this I mean I knew the horse had done this before), I would probably take them to the round pen and work them on foot first. That or refuse to ride them. Nowadays (and for the past twelve years) I’d definitely refuse to ride them. But any horse that had never shown any big signs of wanting to unload people, it was always climb on and go.
The second reason I just climb on is because I think we can train a horse to accept our method, and I don’t see any point in training a horse to expect all this dinking around on foot that’s inconvenient for me. Once a horse thinks he gets to fart around on the lungeline or in the round pen before you ride him, why then he feels entitled to act up if you don’t work him on foot first. I don’t want him having that expectation, so I don’t create it.
I still remember when I got my son’s pony, Toby. This was a gentle, older pony, big enough for me to ride. The first time I lunged him (I intended to give my son riding experience on the lungeline) Toby acted like an idiot. My impulse was to set his little pony butt straight, but, just to be sure, I called the former owner and asked her if she ever lunged this pony.
Well, turns out she lunged him all the time. As, you guessed it, a prelude to riding, to “get his ya-yas out”. Toby figured lunging was when he got to act up.
I couldn’t believe it. This was a gentle pony. There is no way I ever bothered to lunge him before I got on him, and once my son learned to ride, I never lunged Toby before my son got on him either. In one short session (Toby was a smart little guy) I taught that pony that he had to mind his p’s and q’s on the lungeline, too. End of problem.
So what if your gentle, broke horse is “full of suds” some cool spring morning? Do you lunge him first? I know a lot of people think this is the thing to do. And certainly, Plumber, who I rode for many years, could be pretty silly when he was fresh. He didn’t buck or come unbroke, but he’d hop and bounce around, skittering, and even squealing a little. You couldn’t even really call it crowhopping, but he was pretty lively. And no, I never lunged him or “worked him around”. Even when I was riding with my three year old in front of me, I just climbed on. This may sound dumb, I guess, but I knew Plumber. I’d broke and trained him myself and I knew just what he would do or wouldn’t do. My little boy, too young to be scared, would giggle and laugh when Plumber “scooted” around. And then we’d lope a few laps and he’d be over it. I think this is the way to treat a broke horse. You don’t want to make it a bigger deal than it really is, or the horse will start to think it’s a big deal. And the whole thing escalates.
I find this hard to put into words, but by trusting a horse you allow him to become trustworthy. A horse cannot become “trustworthy” if you don’t trust him. Again, I’m not talking about a colt or a problem horse you are trying to retrain. I’m talking about treating a broke horse like he’s broke. Rather than treating him like some half-broke colt you don’t trust not to throw you.
What about a cold backed horse you say? My steady mount for many, many years was Flanigan, who I loved dearly. Flanigan was definitely a “cold-backed” horse. Meaning he was majorly cinchy. Every single time I saddled Flanigan, he had a big hump in his back. Flanigan bucked a number of people off when they tried to rope on him without warming him up properly first. My concession to this was to tighten the cinch very gently in stages, walking the horse between each stage, until his back flattened out. Took about three minutes. Then I climbed on him. He would usually walk with a hump in his back for awhile, felt like he was tip toeing around. I walked him until he flattened out. And I always gave him a long careful warm up before I roped on him, being sure to “break him out” (gallop him flat out) a few times before I backed in the box. Flanigan did buck with me once in awhile, but he never bucked me off. A better horse never lived. And I never once “worked him around” or lunged him before I got on him. He would have been insulted at the thought of it.
This brings me to my last point. Broke horses, horses who know their job, don’t like being dinked around with. They don’t like being retrained. They don’t care for having the snaffle put on them and being treated like they’re ignorant colts. They don’t like being worked in a round pen by some know it all who thinks he/she is going to “fix” their problems. I’ve seen this many times. Broke horses want and expect their rider to be competent and to respect the horse’s competence. They want their rider to climb on and go do something that makes sense to the horse. I have many times seen a good solid rope horse go dramatically backward in the hands of someone who began “retraining”, starting over with the round pen and the snaffle…etc. The “trainer’s” intentions are good; he/she is going to fix something they think is “wrong” with the horse, but it doesn’t usually work out well. In my experience, its better to meet a broke horse in the middle, let him do his job and concentrate on doing yours. If it isn’t workable like that, usually this isn’t the right horse for you and you’d do better to pass him on and try another one than try to retrain him.
OK. There’s my two cents worth, as my grandmother used to say. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Feel free to tell me how dumb I am not to work my horses before I get on them, and explain to me the finer points of this and why it works for you. Tell me why it’s a good idea to put that old broke horse in the snaffle and retrain him. I’m not too old to learn something (I hope).
Don’t forget about the book review offer for my new book, “Going, Gone”. Email Susan Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org and request your copy. You will need to send her your snail mail address, your blog address, and your agreement to review the book on your blog and email Susan a copy of the review. Review copies will be sent out on March 1st, approximately, which is also the deadline for this offer. I’m looking forward to reading your reviews.