Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Issues...or Not?

                                                by Laura Crum

            The other day I had an interesting conversation with my horse trainer friend. He, like me, has ridden cutting horses, reined cowhorses and rope horses, and though it may seem to those who have not ridden such horses that they are all much alike, the truth is that they are very, very different. About the only thing these horses have in common is that they all wear western tack and work cattle.
            My horse trainer friend is going back to showing reined cowhorses after several years in which he only competed at team roping. He just bought a little cowhorse to show and has been riding him along with a local trainer who competes a lot in cowhorse events. “My God,” my friend said, as rode around the roping arena together, “now my rope horse feels like riding some old plow horse. I never noticed it for years, but now that I’m riding this cowhorse with a real rein on him…I feel like Red barely steers.”
            I laughed. “I know exactly what you mean,” I said.
            I rode cowhorses for several years, and my Gunner horse, trained to be a cowhorse, was broke to death. Would slide, spin...etc. When I first started roping, I was quite smug about how much better broke my horse was than the other rope horses.
            Come to find out, however, it wasn’t an advantage when it came to heading a steer. The stiffer rope horses with their somewhat rigid necks had a much easier time making a correct set and “picking up” the steer. I’ve watched many people try to rope on reined cowhorses over the years, and, especially when it comes to heading, the horses are at a disadvantage—because of the soft, flexible way that they yield.
And yet, in an overall sense, reined cowhorses are much better “broke” than rope horses. Unless, of course, you want to tie a horse solid for a few hours and then go out and round up some cattle in rough country. For this program you might want that not-so-well broke rope horse or ranch horse, because some (not all) of those reined cowhorses are rather touchy show ring prima donnas, who will not stand tied quietly and are too flighty to get much done out in the big, wide world outside the show ring.
            My horse trainer friend and I talked about this, and about how people sometimes buy flunked out cowhorses and re-train them to be rope horses and how this can work pretty well, depending on the horse and his overall personality and background. And another guy, who has never done anything but team rope, rode up to us and said he knew where you could buy some ex- cutting horses really cheap—and would they make rope horses.
            My trainer friend and I looked at each other and at the same time we both said, “Probably not.”
            The roper looked puzzled, so I explained. “I worked for cowhorse guys and for cutters, and in general the horses are trained really differently. Reined cowhorses are broke to death, and cutters aren’t broke at all, in the way we understand broke. Cutters know how to do one thing—cut a cow, and other than that, well, some of the best of them barely steer and don’t know how to pick up a lead.”
            The roper looked disbelieving, and my horse trainer friend laughed. “She’s right,” he said.
            “It depends on the cutter, of course,” I told him, “but the guys with the old school Texas type background will let a horse do pretty much anything he likes, if he does his job—cutting that cow—really well. I was loping a solid cutter for a guy when I started working for cutting horse trainers instead of reined cowhorse trainers, and I asked the cutting horse trainer if he wanted me to collect this very strung out horse. His response was along the lines of God forbid. You let him lope any way he wants to—including on the wrong lead and whatever.” I laughed. “And then I went out to gather the cattle with a gal who was riding a horse who won the open cutting division on the west coast. That mare became so unglued by trying to get the cattle out of a twenty acre field that the gal got off and led the mare back to the barn—couldn’t even ride her. You literally could not open and close a gate on horseback from the champion cutting horse. My horse was one thousand times better broke than this mare in any sort of working ranch cowhorse sense”
            The roper shook his head. Virtually all rope horses will allow you to open and close a gate on horseback. They will virtually all stand tied up solid to a fence or horse trailer as long as you want to leave them there. None that I know, once they are past being green broke, need any kind of lunging or round penning before you step up on them. Rope horses are not well broke in some ways, but they are real broke in others.
            It’s not an issue for the average roper that his horse won’t take the right lead (many rope horses are like this) or can’t be ridden without a tie down (many rope horses qualify here, too). Whereas these would be a huge issues for a reined cowhorse guy. What are issues in one horse-chases-cow sport are not issues in the other.
            My horse trainer friend and I have both only a slight acquaintance with endurance, but we both commented how endurance riders (in general) seem to tolerate what (to us) are incredibly pushy ground manners out of a horse. My friend had crewed a ride just once for a well known endurance guy (Jeremy something) and said at one point the horse was pushing right over him on the ground and he asked tentatively, “Is it all right if I get this horse off the top of me?”
            By which he meant what both he and I would do to any rope horse that had the bad manners to get in our space at any time—which is wallop the heck out of said horse with the end of the leadrope and let them know that behavior was completely not acceptable.
            He was met with the same aghast response that I got when I offered to collect the cutting horse. “Hell no. Leave him alone—he’s got fifty more miles to go.”
            My friend laughed. “As long as these endurances horses are raring to trot another fifty miles down the road, these guys don’t care how pushy they are on the ground.”
            This got us talking about stuff that is an issue in one equestrian discipline and not in another.
            Hunter/jumpers mostly can’t be ridden outside on the trail at all, according to our friend who trains them. Just too flight/spooky. They also cannot be tied solid and left there (in general). These would be huge and completely unnacceptable issues for any of us who ride rope horses, but this behavior is taken for granted in hunter/jumper world.
            I’ve noticed that endurance riders and those who mainly trail ride often have no idea how to get their horse to lope a decent circle or take the correct lead. They just have no need for this skill. And then there’s the manners thing. Again and again I read a description of a horse’s behavior and think, really? You put up with that? But the horse is doing well in endurance and the rider is happy…and that’s what counts.
            Barrel racers accept a degree of fairly psychotic behavior as their horses get ready to start their run; it looks absolutely ridiculous to me. Rope horses have to run just as hard but because they must “score” (start from a dead standstill) no such crazy behavior is tolerated. But barrel racers take this running sideways crazy stuff for granted; it’s not a problem from their point of view, as long as the horse runs a good pattern and “clocks.”
            I think it’s interesting that things that are “issues” in one equestrian discipline are taken for granted as normal in another discipline. Does anybody else have examples of this?


Funder said...

I have started letting my horrible, awful horse rub her head on me, which is the world's most annoying horse vice in my book, just because it must really itch, and she works so hard for me, and she's got X more miles to go and if she wants to scratch, well, I just can't say no. ;)

I can't fathom owning a horse that won't stand tied or one that "requires" lunging, though.

Anonymous said...

I think it's all in the handling and training - people just train to one objective and leave it at that - to my mind all those horses are badly broke since they're not well-rounded and easy to handle. Every horse can have good ground manners, learn to go on the trail and have basic skills like collection and taking the correct lead - but only if someone bothers to teach them. Horses have different temperaments for sure, but if they're nervous and flighty, it's often because of how they've been handled and trained and how people expect them to behave - some people think it's cool to have an amped up horse.

FD said...

Interesting. I know this probably seems unbelievable but I don't actually have many standout examples. I think maybe we tend to break our horses, then train them here? Something to do with the smaller industry maybe. There's polo ponies - they notoriously are all business and shirty about doing anything other than matches or fittening work and sometimes they're pretty bad for that. But they have to be supple balanced and responsive still in their work. Hunters can be a bit like that too (actual hunters not h/j, we don't have that discipline here) but generally they've had another job so first so not so much, and anyway a good hunter has to jump from anywhere so they have to be adjustable and balanced, jump from either lead and have brakes.
There was a phase where you got dressage horses who didn't hack due to cotton wool wrapping but because of the prima donna tendencies that produced most of them go out now and lots of them jump even.
Race horses - they often come off the track (if they got that far) not knowing a lot about general riding - but again they know a lot about being a good citizen usually, they clip, shoe, box, pony, blanket, tie, hack, vet & lead properly.

Mmm. Event horses have to do everything. Some get wound up in the start box but mostly that gets schooled out because it wastes energy. You can usually tell a showjumper because their canter will be better than their trot.
That's it really.

Laura Crum said...

Funder--Yeah, I understand that about endurance horses. If the poor darn horse must go 50 miles (or more), you feel you'd do anything to help keep them happy. I am 100% sure I'd be the same way.

Kate--I agree its in the expectations. Rope horses are not necessarily more phelgmatic than other horses, but there is an expectation that they will tie solid (patiently) and be sensible outside and lope relaxed warm-up circles and open and close a gate--and so they do these things. Many ropers don't care if their horse "has" a right lead (rope horses need the left lead to do a good job) and so there is no expectation...and many rope horses won't take the right lead.

FD--That's interesting. It sounds as if British horses are perhaps less prima donnas than American show horses (based on what I've seen and heard about around here). Will they all tie solid? That's one of my pet peeves. I expect to tie my horse to the horse trailer or fence and be able to leave him there for an hour while I eat lunch and there he stands peacefully until I get back.

Funder said...

I've got a slightly more profound thought (I think, it could just be the coffee talking)...

I think some of this has to do with what level you are competing at. Getting horses to be properly "broke", by whatever definition, takes effort and repetition. We only have so many hours to spend with them, and everything we ask under saddle carries risks. If you've got a good rope horse that knows and carries out his job, why the hell would you spend time and incur the risk of injury to drill him on a right lead canter? If you have a really great dressage horse, one who loves her job and wants to take you up through the levels, why would you ever canter down a forest trail with roots and gopher holes waiting to trip her? If you're at that level with that horse, it's because doing your sport is fun/all-consuming/important to you, and the other stuff (right leads, switching diagonals on a horse that rarely trots :blush:, calmly hacking out) just isn't important to you, and it runs the risk of injuring the horse.

Funder said...

(There's really no excuse not to switch diagonals, except that whenever I try these days she bobbles her legs around and swaps back to a rack or a step-pace so it's kind of pointless. I could drill her on a trot til we can trot on both diagonals but she's gaited, the trot is not very important.)

Laura Crum said...

Funder--I agree completely. I am now going to "re-say" what you just said (I think). But its the same thing I learned from those cutters years ago. If the horse could do a good job at his job (cutting a cow) they absolutely would NOT mess up his mind or stress him in any way. He got the shit spurred out of him if he messed up cutting, mind you, but he could lope on any lead and refuse to behave "outside" or whatever, and the cutter trainers didn't care. They taught me a lot. You have to CHOOSE what you care about, with a horse. And the more demanding the job you choose for your horse, the more you must cut them slack in other areas--or they will get overly stressed and become an emotional basket case--unable to do their job--or get crippled, just as you said in your comment.

If, like me, you choose an easy discipline, casual trail horse, say, you can be a bit more demanding about overall manners and the like because, essentially, that IS the horse's job. To be a pleasant, well-behaved obedient horse at a low stress activity.

FD said...

Pretty much yeah. I used to tie Grand Prix horses to the lorry and go off and collect numbers ect without worrying.
That's something that made me blink reading Andrea's (eventing gogo) blog - that western horses tie better than English. Because english English horses are expected to tie! You get the odd one, sure, amateur 'but Fred is a special/traumatised snowflake!' particularly, but in general it's horsey 101 and the vast majority of horses tie solid, even if we do use bits of string. Ground tieing now, that you don't see.
The other big one is traffic - the majority of recreational horses are ok to great in traffic, which I gather is not necessarily the case.
I think it's a space thing tbh - we dont generally do pens or corrals, or runs, it's stables or fields and limited yard and hacking space, and so non tying or traffic shy horses are a giant pain in the ass. I guess as Kate said, it's all about expectations. Also, our showing eg conformation/breed show horses are only solely expected to do that when juvenile - once mature, they generally have a job as well which cuts down on the pressure cooker, cotton wool factor.

Funder said...

Laura, you're more awake than me, cause you said it better I think ;)

FD, we as a culture are really big on pampering our special, traumatized, rescued snowflakes. :rolleyes:

Laura Crum said...

FD--Several folks I know who either train or show hunter/jumpers are aghast at the notion of expecting a horse to tie solid. They put them in the cross ties to talk up and at shows, as far as I can tell, they either hold them or sit on them. No way can the poor thing just be tied up and left there. These folks are almost all completely unwilling to make the prima donna horses deal with rustles in the bushes..etc. They simply don't ride them outside...ever. So I'm quite impressed to hear that their British counterparts are not such lilies. Or rather "special, traumatized, rescued snowflakes." (Great line.) And andrea pointed out that ROPE horses tie solid. I have met many western showhorses of various sorts that were just as impossible to tie as English show horses. Rope horses, on the other hand, will pretty much all tie--albeit there are those where you use that piece of string.

Well, Funder, at least we're on the same page...and I think it is a really worthwhile topic for discussion. It has had a big influence on how I train (or rather trained) horses.

Laura Crum said...

OOps I meant tack up, not talk up in the previous comment.

FD said...

Laura, I didn't see your comment before about what we put up wih from competition horses and actually I agree despite my earlier point - although I expected most horses to be good citizens at home it is true that they got more slack in terms of manners when wound up at a competition, because essentially their minds would be elsewhere and demanding they come back and focus on you could well detract from their performance. And it is also true that pro horses might have more eccentricities tolerated than amateur - it's just that in my experience, those eccentricities tend to be more along the lines of temperament than skills like tying. Does that make sense?

Laura Crum said...

FD--I guess what I take from that is similar to what Funder and I were saying. The better a horse gets at a discipline, the more slack an educated rider will cut that horse when it comes to life outside the discipline--since the horse endures a certain amount of stress by putting out so much effort and concentration in order to win, its important not to add any stress by unnecessary nit-picking. Is that what you meant?

Dom said...

And this is why I'm so big on cross training!!!

I loved everything about this post. The woman whose horses I competed last year let them get away with the most atrocious ground manners and I couldn't STAND it. My endurance horse gets to rub on me during a ride, but not at home. He can still lead like a gentleman and had better not be dragging me hither and yon at a ride or otherwise.

I was having a discussion like this with one of my clients.

We have spent close to a year getting her horse sensitive to her aids and really responsive. She can make him turn on a dime or back up with a slight touch of the reins. Her husband got on for a ride last week and nearly came off because he's a novice rider and the horse was confused by all the accidental mixed messages the husband was sending.

I explained to her a bit about how a well trained horse and a beginner safe horse are not always the same thing.

My lesson pony can be trusted with toddlers, rank beginners, and those who have little control over their aids. Don't ask him to do any kind of refined movement! His ability to ignore 'white noise', which makes him super as a lesson pony, is highly undesirable in... say... a dressage horse!

It's so important to know what job you want your horse to have and what skills are important for that job! Then, you have to train for those skills! As you know, I'm very big on letting horses pick their own career paths. If I have a brave, forward, fast horse, I'm likely to make him into an eventer or jumper. If I have more of an ole reliable, lazy type, he's more likely to go for trail riding.

Dom said...

I should add that this is not to say that a dressage horse can't tote beginners around, or that a lesson pony can't be refined, or that a trail horse has to be lazy, or that a forward horse can't be made into a hunter. It's just that building a well rounded horse takes TIME and DEDICATION and a well rounded rider/trainer.

Laura Crum said...

Really good points, Dom. Thank you! I do think that most of the time a horse that is able to tolerate beginners and tune out their mistakes will not easily be able to be a very sensitive high level horse. Its just hard to combine the two skills. But I once had a rope horse that was very competitive at a pretty high level with a tough hand on board, who would also reliably pack little kids or enable a green roper (which I was at the time) to compete on him successfully at low level events. He (Flanigan) was pretty much the best of both worlds.

Jan said...

I love this topic. I have been involved in many different disciplines and have seen the generalizations everyone is talking about.

I have always insisted on "broke" horses and decent ground manners. Even my race horses, with one bat shit crazy exception, were expected to be solid citizens.

There was one main reason I always wanted broke, versatile, mannerly horses. I knew I wouldn't be able to keep every horse I owned or have a continuing say in every horse I trained. I wanted all the horses to have the best chance at fitting into any situation they were sold into. People like broke, mannerly horses, even if they won't go to the trouble to produce them themselves. So these horses overall have an better chance to end up in a good situation. Happy horses, happy people, everyone wins.

I was raised back in the day when horses weren't so specialized and were expected to have a good brain. I knew they could be that way so I didn't question it. Just did it. People who produce "special, traumatized, rescued snowflakes" are not doing the horses any favors. Just like people who raise spoiled, entitled kids aren't doing them any favors either.

Laura Crum said...

Jan--I could not agree more. I think it does take a certain amount of skill to choose horse personalities that CAN become solid citizens. Like your crazy mare, some horses are just not cut out to be sane--let alone reliable.

Val said...

I never knew there were those kinds of differences between roping and reining horses. I definitely prefer the flexible horse, but I think I can understand why a horse who is more rigid would be on autopilot in a way and how this would benefit roping cows.

I see good manners as something that every horse should have. I think it makes them happier horses (even if an endurance race is not the place to teach a horse lessons). Happy horses tend to be happy in their jobs as long as they are well-suited. They are also easier to sell, which could save the horse's life.

Laura Crum said...

Val--Rope horses and reined cowhorses are (in general) about as different as dressage horses and jumpers. You do (say in eventing) find horses that can do both, but the average show ring jumper has very different manners/skills/training from the average dressage horse--or so I am led to understand.

I think in an overall sense, as Jan also pointed out, the better manners a horse has, the easier he is to sell and the likelier to find a happy home. The exceptions (as Funder pointed out) are when horses begin to excel at a sport, and then it is their ability to excel that is valued and poor manners in other areas (if this is how the horse is) are accepted and tolerated--because of that winning potential.

Dom said...

Those horses who combine both worlds are one in a million. I agree! I love the discussion on this post. SO many good points :)

Funder said...


is it better for the horse's resale value for it to be good at its job, with the common flaws of its discipline, or one that's dead broke?

Laura Crum said...

Funder--I would answer that with slightly different wording. A horse that can "win" (do well) at its chosen discipline (chosen by owner, not horse, of course), will be valued for that and the horse's faults more or less ignored. (The faults will be ignored in exactly the proportion to which the horse is successful. The more successful the horse the more faults in behavior will be tolerated.) The horse who can win at high level (and even an intermediate level) has value. If a horse is not truly competitive at any event, it is far better for the horse to be dead broke than kind of/sort of a rope horse (or reiner or whatever). The dead broke horse is more likely to find a good forever home than any number of half broke horses that "sort of" were competitive at something or other.

That's my answer. Now everybody else have a go.

Dom said...

I think that depends on the buyer! Someone looking to compete in X discipline may be willing to overlook certain flaws. Someone with confidence issues looking for a steady eddy mount may not care if the horse can excel at whatever sport. Both types of horse can go for a ton of money.

Jan said...

A great horse and a very good horse, in any discipline, can get away with holes in training and or manners. So there is always a market for them.

Like Laura said, a so-so horse better be dead broke to find a decent place in the horse world.

Another aspect to this is so many high level horses end up with soundness issues. They might still be competitive at a lower level, but fewer people will put up with, or be able to deal with their holes. Dealing with a soundness and a training issue makes the horse much less desirable.

I sometimes read various equine forums and in the giveaways there are so many former stars that now can't even find a free home. If your older, slightly lame horse only fits into one specific situation, it can be very hard to find a buyer or even give them away. What is tolerable for one person might be a deal breaker for almost everyone else.

If you aren't absolutely sure you can provide your horse a forever home, then your horse needs to be as well broke and mannerly as possible. None of us expect divorce, job loss, medical problems, etc., to put our horse life at risk. But it happens every day and it just makes sense to give yourself the best chance to sell or giveaway your horse. And it is certainly in the horse's best interest.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

I also think that the higher level competitive horses have a bit more sting to them than lower-level competitors--it's what makes them win. Mocha's dam apparently won a lot of competitions with Bob Loomis, but man, was she ever a snarly grouch and screamer in the barn. When she had foals, humans and horses alike couldn't go by her stall without her bellowing. I am so glad Mocha doesn't have her temperament!

One reason I keep the showing low-key is because I also value that steady, calm mind. But at a show I'm going to cut her some slack--she's working hard, and it's my job to take care of her both physically and mentally. She can get pretty tough in the show pen and it's that toughness that makes her a competitor.

Even if (sigh) she still doesn't like walking downhill under a rider, and the sight of a herd of elk makes her do an Arab emulation (sans pronk). Highest I've ever seen her head go!

GunDiva said...
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Val said...

Jan made a really good point about the winning horse becoming difficult to rehome after he can no longer perform.

I knew a horse who hated having his feet trimmed. He was desensitized multiple times but it never stuck. He was not a winning show horse, so he does not completely fit the discussion here, except that he was most definitely not a horse that could have been sold or given away.

Would a high level performance horse be worth as much if he could not handle farrier and/or vet care? I am pretty sure that competitive race horses are dead broke in these areas.

Laura Crum said...

Val--I've never had a horse that couldn't learn to have his feet trimmed. Some are more work than others, but a competent horseman and farrier can usually prevail over time, with patience, persistence, and the ability to do what it takes. That word "desensitized" lifts my hackles every time. Its usually, not always, the mark of someone who isn't what I'd call competent (in a traditional horsemanship sense). Just my prejudices showing. That said, there are horses that are a pain in the butt to trim or doctor, no matter who owns them. These are the "crazy" ones. They do exist--and they are very lucky to find a home.

FD said...

Good question Funder! Answering it as is; a difficult but really seriously talented horse unquestionably has a higher resale value. However, a difficult and only fairly talented horse has zip in resale value - an acquaintance got stung this way recently. Bought a horse who is generally nice to handle, nice looking and quite a talented jumper: but he turns out to buck like stink. Not all the time but enough to make him completely unsuitable for anyone who is not posessed of a pro standard sticky seat and more importantly, pro standard nerve! She's looking to give him away but because he isn't talented enough no pro wants him and finding an amateur who she can in conscience let have him is a difficult task.
The other big however is Jan's point: the really competitive window even in the soundest animal only lasts a fraction of a horse's total lifespan. For the above reasons however talented a horse is I'd always attempt to produce them as a well rounded individual regardless of how talented they are or what they are intended for.
I do think that it is unfair to expect the majority of horses at a very high level to be able to easily switch gears; some can, like Laura's example, but most don't seem to have the brain space. That doesn't mean that I don't approve of cross training - I do, I just think the best time for it is in the early stages of the horse's education. Done that way you're not introducing a stressor in the same way, e.g. a dressage horse who learned to jump as a 4-5 year old will more readily accept the incorporation of some jumping to keep him mentally fresh as a high level 12 year old than one who did not. I think its something to do with the mental rule set the horse has to work from - entirely new rules are far harder to adapt to than modifications of existing ones and high level horses have much more tightly defined operative rules.

Re serious flaws like feet. Having to sedate a horse to do feet would essentially put horses out of the competitive sphere here - given the withholding period for most sedatives and the regularity of a shoeing schedule it would be incredibly difficult to make work. I have never seen an affiliated horse need sedation for feet, although I have for clipping. I have only seen 2 horses total who never became accustomed to foot care; one later started to display some form of degenerative neurological disease and the other was as suggested above, describable only as crazy - she killed herself by galloping into a tree in broad daylight! She may have had a health issue too but we could never find a convincing diagnosis.

Laura Crum said...

FD--I really agree that the time to turn a horse into a "well-rounded" animal, who is reasonably broke to deal with whatever you ask him to do is when the horse is young and green and beginning his overall training. In my own experience a talented cutter or rope horse, say, who knows his job and knows he is good at it, is apt to literally resent being asked to do something he isn't accustomed to. I swear, they act like they find it demeaning. As in, "For God's sake, I'm a total pro at my job and now you want me to start over and be a beginner at...(insert new discipline of choice)?!!?"