by Laura Crum
I used my yellow horse to run the chutes at the roping arena yesterday. Running the chutes from horseback is a fussy sort of task. There are four gates which must be opened and closed—swinging, sliding, spring loaded…etc. Some gates require the horse to shoulder in, bending his head to the side to get it out of the way. Some gates try to spring back at you—a problem with a jumpy horse. Some gates require you to lean way out to reach them (especially if you have short arms, like me) and the horse must be willing to sidepass right next to them—without crushing your leg. The cattle must be moved through the narrow chute, sometimes with the cattle prod. When you pull the lever to let the steer out, the ropers and steer blast out as hard as they can run—right next to you-- and this can be a problem for a nervous horse. In short, running the roping chutes from the back of a horse is something that not everyone can do.
Your horse must be a good gate horse, steady and patient, because you open and close these gates over and over again—not just once. Many horses get frustrated with the endless-- take three steps backwards, now one step to your left-- over and over. Many horses are frightened by the springing gate, the running rope horses and cattle, the cattle prod used from their backs. In short, you need a solid, cooperative horse with good ranch horse skills to do this. And Sunny, my yellow horse, is that today.
Now I didn’t teach Sunny these skills. He came to me as a made horse. It’s my belief that he got his ranch horse training on the ranch in Mexico where he spent his younger years. However, when I got Sunny, he’d been owned for a couple of years by people with no ranch background, and his skills were rusty. Not to mention he had a lot of bad habits.
I bought Sunny about five years ago, and at that point, he would try to evade being caught—including by offering to kick, he was hard to load in a trailer (again would offer to kick), tried to nip when he was cinched, would try to bull through you on the leadrope, would balk and refuse to go forward on the trail including a sort of mini-buck/bolt routine, and acted as if he hadn’t a clue how to open and close a gate. He also threw a fit when he was fly-sprayed and paste-wormed. My friend/boarder, Wally, an experienced horseman, disliked Sunny, told me I shouldn’t have bought him, and called him “Small Nasty.”
Since I had known Sunny before his previous owner bought him, I knew that he knew better than to behave this way. I was perfectly aware that he knew how to load in a trailer and, as a former ranch horse/team roping horse, he had all the appropriate skills that these disciplines require. I knew he had once been a well-mannered horse. I did not need to teach him anything—I just needed to remind him that I required him to behave himself. And for the first couple of years I owned him, our interactions included regular come-to-Jesus meetings in which I walloped the crap out of him with the end of the lead rope. I didn’t try to “train” him, or show him what to do, as if he were a green colt. I just let him know he could not get away with any BS with me. Plain and simple. I’m sure that many of my kinder, gentler blogging friends would have decided that I was an abusive horseman if they had watched me beating up this poor, cute, little yellow horse who was “scared” of the paste wormer.
Believe me, if a horse was/is truly scared of something (like being wormed) and you wallop him for his behavior, he will only get worse about it. He will NOT get better. And for those who think that a horse won’t try to bluff you into thinking he’s scared of something (as an effort at dominating), well, all I can say is you’re wrong. Some horses WILL do this. Not all horses are trying to please. (Some are, some aren’t—horses vary as much as people in their individual personalities.) Sunny rather quickly decided that he’d stand still and take his paste wormer rather than be walloped. I rest my case.
Sunny and I understood each other. I knew he was smart and cold-blooded and needed me to prove that I could be the boss of him. I never once put a mark on Sunny, but I got his respect over time. He tested me less and less often. He was always a good trail horse, and he became even better. He gave up the balking, and the buck/bolt resistance move. He became easy to catch—meets me at the gate every time—and easy to load in the trailer. I can fly spray him with zero theatrics and he takes his paste wormer like a gentleman these days—sometimes I have to give him a pop with the leadrope first, just as a reminder.
Reading this, you may think that I believe that beating a horse up is the answer to everything. But this is not at all what I think. I have horses I never yell at, let alone wallop. It wouldn’t help them; it would only scare them. It would do no good to get after them as I got after Sunny; it would only do harm. It just so happens that Sunny is a horse that needed walloping. It didn’t take me too long to figure this out—and this is what a life spent riding/training many different horses will do for you.
And I didn’t just wallop Sunny as needed. I gave him a life that made him happy. He has plenty of room, grass hay three times a day, horse buddies to socialize with, the rides I take him on are well within his capacity, and I turn him out to graze and give him lots of positive attention and affection. Over the time I have owned him, I think Sunny has become a much more contented horse. His life/job suits him, and he likes having an owner he respects. Sunny does tolerate beginners, but he’ll push them around—and I think, like many horses, he feels safer with a rider/owner that seems tough enough to him to be his leader/boss.
The funny thing is that this overall happiness manifests itself in odd little ways. My friend Wally now says that Sunny has transformed himself into “a pleasure to be around.” And me, I noticed yesterday that the horse who acted as if he had no idea how to open and close a gate five years ago, allowed/helped me to run the roping chutes on horseback for two hours, quietly and cooperatively sidepassing, shouldering in, backing…etc to allow me to open and close a fussy selection of gates and move recalcitrant cattle through the chutes. I never once had to get off.
Its not that I somehow trained or re-trained Sunny such that now he’ll work gates again. Sunny has just thrown in with me, and whatever I ask him to do he tries to do. It’s that simple. Though I would have a hard time doing a credible sidepass or shoulder-in in the open arena (where Sunny wouldn’t see the point), he understands about gates, and having chosen to throw in with me, he sidles up to each gate as I ask him to, and stands such that I can open and/or close it as I need to do. I don’t give him any fancy, specific cues. I just bump him gently with hand and leg until he is where I need him to be. He gets the point.
When I got done running the chutes on him yesterday I took him over for a drink of water and rubbed his neck while he drank. We were happy with each other. What a great horse he’s turned out to be for me, in all his clunky, sometimes grouchy ways. He is EXACTLY the horse I need today. Isn’t it funny how when you are open to it… “you get what you need.” I needed Sunny—and I think he needed me.
And finally, I almost never have to wallop Sunny any more. A “growling” tone in my voice is almost always sufficient. Sunny and I are good partners. He trusts me, I think. I trust him. And guess what? He got that way through being walloped (at least partly.) Had I not been willing to be tough with him, I am quite sure that he would still be “Small Nasty” and I doubtless would have sold him, as I won’t have a horse that will purposefully kick people. So there’s my tale concerning the way that judicious walloping CAN (in the case of the horse that needs it) be the right path to a happy horse/human partnership.
I know not everybody will agree with this approach and I’m quite happy to hear dissenting points of view. Fire away.