by Laura Crum
This is going to be the last in my small series of posts about the way I learned to break and train ranch horses. I had meant to go on and explain the bitting up…etc, but I’ve run into a snag. A mental snag, anyway. I grew up on ranches and with ranch horses and I understand exactly what these methods can achieve when they are applied with skill by a good horseman. But in writing these posts I realized that I cannot impart this experience into words. As I said in the introductory post, none of this will work unless you can read a horse. No method is much good unless you can read a horse. If you respond to a fearful horse thinking he is challenging you, or a rebellious horse thinking he is fearful, you aren’t going to get good results. And so I find myself at a loss to explain how we knew when to push on and when to hold back. We read what the horse was feeling/thinking and responded to that.
These methods are very effective at producing broke horses, if you are a competent rider and you can read a horse. I learned them from competent horsemen who were good at reading horses. Not from a book, not being told a tale, but working beside these men and women, and under their direction. I learned by working with literally hundreds of horses. And this is the way to learn—not by reading my blog posts. Or by reading pearls of wisdom from horse gurus…etc. Someone posted a little quote from a well known horse guru the other day along the lines that you had to change your demeanor in response to a horse’s emotional state. I will admit that I rolled my eyes and thought “Duh.” Can you say “learn to read a horse?” All good horsemen do this, no matter their method of breaking and training.
I’ve become all too aware that I can’t really explain this to people in a way that translates to real life. I’m also aware that among the people that read these posts there is a small subset that have done quite a bit of breaking and training of young horses and have been around it their whole lives. In this group, no matter their specific background, there is real understanding of what I am talking about and how it might work—even if the person in question has used vastly different methods. But by far the majority of readers have not done much if any breaking/training. They may have ridden a green horse or two, and they may have participated in breaking/training maybe one or two colts. Their ideas about training are largely based on how they work with their already-broke-and-trained-by-someone-else horses. And, in fact, their thinking is often all about what was done wrong in said breaking/training such that their poor horse is not trusting. Sometimes they have a good point. And sometimes they are missing the point completely (in my opinion—obviously). But one thing is for sure, they haven’t been the one putting the first rides on a bunch of colts. Like everyone else, these folks are entitled to their own opinions, and I have nothing but respect for them if they are having a happy life with their own horses. But we can’t exactly discuss breaking and training methods on an equal footing. What works in theory is not always (or even usually) what works in practice. And the things I am writing about here are things I learned that work—and know this because I learned them by actually climbing on a bunch of colts and doing the work to set them on the path to being broke horses.
So I sometimes have a hard time with the sort of discussions that come up with people who actually have not climbed on a bunch of colts, but boy do they think they know how it should be done. Such people have in the past said/implied to me that these traditional methods are harsh and “kinder/gentler” methods work just as well. All I can say to this is that until you have actually done the work of breaking colts and produced some well-trained horses that stay reliable under pressure, you don’t really know what works and what doesn’t. By all means you should work with your own horses as you see fit and I wish you and your horses health and happiness.
The other thing that bugs me is the fear that someone will try this stuff in their own backyard, never having seen it done by a competent horseman, not knowing how to read a horse, and with no idea how badly things can go wrong. This haunts me. So I’ve decided not to talk about the bitting up and the later training that we did. There is so much potential for it to be abusive and for a real wreck to happen—even if the horseman means well-- but hasn’t had a lot of experience.
So far everything I’ve talked about is pretty straight-forward, though I will stress again that to get good results you have to be able to read a horse and respond appropriately to what he is communicating. This last post will talk about what we tried to get done in the first month of riding.
We rode a horse in the bull pen anywhere from once to half a dozen times, depending on the colt. But we always left the bull pen as soon as we felt reasonably confident that the horse had accepted the notion of being ridden. It is important to keep moving on and doing new things—it does not benefit a young horse to become bored and frustrated with being ridden. Boredom and frustration can be worked through with more tying. Riding should be engaging and interesting for the horse at this stage.
So rides are kept short—maybe half an hour if in the arena, and an hour at the longest—if we went outside. We went outside as soon as we thought it would work. Usually with an older horse along as a babysitter. Ideally we found a long uphill stretch and if the colt was “up” we trotted (the long trot is the gait of choice for colts) until the young horse really wanted to walk. Trotting a young horse uphill until he wants to walk is a wonderful lesson. The colt gets to stretch his legs, see some country, figure out he CAN relax, and there is no need to fight with him. The hill does the work. Deep sand will work for this, too. But again, not too long. As soon as the young horse was tired and wanted to walk we went back.
At this point I want to address a couple of common problems. The first one is spooking. Some horses are spooky—they just are. You won’t train this out of them. The way to deal with a spook remains the same from the beginning of a horse’s training until he is 20 years old. You are riding along with light contact and the horse sees something he doesn’t like the look of and spooks sideways. Some give a warning, some don’t. Some spook a lot harder than others. It doesn’t matter. You ride it the same.
I don’t know how people who ride in English saddles do it, but here is what we did/do. As you feel the horse begin to spook, or think about spooking, you maintain your gentle contact on the reins. You might increase it a touch, in a steadying way, but you darn sure don’t pull on the horse. You keep your legs out of the horse and very loose. You sit deep in the saddle and you grab the horn if you need to. You ride the spook (if you’d like to see what this looks like, watch a cutting run and observe the rider’s posture—you ride a spook exactly the way you ride a cutting horse), and when the horse is done with his jump, you pick up gently on the reins and bump him lightly with your heels and indicate that we’re moving on now. No big deal. You never make a big deal out of a spook. You more or less ride it and ignore it.
If the colt tries to throw his head in the air after a spook and scatter, you double him. Initially you just double him until you have his attention, as gently as you can, and then ask him to move on, using your broke babysitter horse to give him a lead. But if, as time goes on, the colt repeatedly tries to throw his head and bolt after a spook, you double him much harder and use the spur to make it uncomfortable. The message should be plain. You may spook, but you stay in my hand and you may not—ever—try to run off. Once again, the tying around that you did is critical here.
About the spurs—we usually rode colts with our spurs on. There were exceptions. A very sensitive horse, we’d take them off. I never wore them on the first few rides because I wasn’t totally confident that I could keep them out of a colt if he scattered, and it is absolutely the worst thing you can do to spur a colt by accident when he jumps because he’s scared. But in general spurs help to make the young horse light and responsive to leg cues. Properly used they are a blessing to both horse and rider. Most people who have trained horses will understand this.
And this gets us to the second common problem. The horse that is resistant, or “doggy” and doesn’t want to move out. Spurring such a horse doesn’t work very well. It just makes him mad. As I mentioned in the last post, the approach we used was to “over and under” the horse with the long reins—which had a popper on the ends. This caused the colt to jump forward and in the case of a doggy horse, this is what you want—that “forward.” So we would ask the horse to move out, very gently, with a soft touch of the spur, and if he did not do so, he was over and undered. If this is done consistently in the early rides and the rider does not get in the habit of thumping on the horse’s sides to get him to move, it is very much to the horse’s advantage in his future training.
We also used this “over and undering” on a horse that wanted to sull up and thought about bucking in a resistant way (rather than a fearful way). These horses were usually a bit “doggy” and when we would feel such a horse “balling up” (hunching his back as if he was thinking about bucking, while resisting moving forward) we would over and under that horse quick smart. The typical reaction to this is to jump forward with the head up, and, though it seems a bit counter-intuitive at first—it actually took a horse’s mind off of bucking pretty reliably. It also works well with a horse that wants to balk and thinks of rearing. It’s important to do the over and undering BEFORE the horse is actually bucking or rearing. You do it when you feel the horse ball up in a resistant, balky way. The idea is not to punish the horse, but rather to get him to move forward smartly in response to the leg cue and not to think about resistance.
There is one more potential problem—but it wasn’t very common in the QH type horses that I worked with. However I did run across it in a couple of horses I trained, so I’ll mention it here. This is the horse that doesn’t spook sideways when alarmed, but rather leaps forward. The forward leap rapidly escalates into a full on bolt. The trick with this sort of horse is to take his head and double him before he gets that first jump in. So if you even felt him think about making that jump, you doubled him.
Anyway, we rode outside as much as we could. The object was to get the colt to “line out” in a long trot. If at all possible we had the colt follow a broke horse in the early rides and then take turns taking the lead. The goal was to have the colt gain confidence in being ridden and to learn to carry the rider at steady pace. Following a broke horse on a jaunt through the countryside is overall pleasant work for a colt and to begin with, as the colt is getting used to being ridden, it’s important to keep it pleasant.
Any time a colt would try to bolt or buck, he was doubled. Any time he sulled up or balked, he was over and undered with the reins and made to jump forward. Mostly we just covered country. Again, rides were only about an hour. We did not want these young horses to feel exhausted or overwhelmed.
Once a young horse would line out easily and seemed pretty confident in being ridden, we would go back to the arena—if we had an arena—and work a bit on getting a “handle” on him. This would usually happen at about the sixty day mark. Again, if I was working on my own horse, I did things as the horse seemed to need them, with no time frame driving me. But when we were starting colts for a ranch or clients, the typical goal was to put 90 days of initial riding on the colt (usually a three year old) and at the end of these 90 days the colt would be “green broke,” and often would be turned out until his 4 year old year.
Green broke horses were still in the snaffle (or bosal, if that was your way), but definitely still in the two rein stage. They were supposed to be reasonably reliable about not bucking or bolting, though it was accepted that they would be “looky” as befits a youngster. They were supposed to know how to pick up the trot and lope when cued, collect a bit at each gait if asked, take the correct lead, and stop on a cue. Also back up, and turn easily to the right or left. They should understand how to move off the rider’s leg.
I’m not going to talk about the way we taught these things, for the reasons I explained earlier. Without watching an actual horse respond to cues, my descriptions just won’t tell you that much. And there is much potential for abuse and/or a wreck. Find someone you like and trust and work with/learn from them. Choose a person who produces calm, confident, relaxed, well broke riding horses that seem content and you won’t go far wrong. Hopefully this brief series of posts has given you an idea how we began the process of making ranch horses that were reliable throughout their lives and a pleasure to ride.