When I refer to the foundation of training I am talking about teaching a horse the fundamentals of body control. We hear this a lot but, why do we go through all of this work if all we want is for our horse to understand stop, go, left and right? For the most part it is because once we get proficient at these things we usually want to expand our ability and our horses ability.
So why is the foundation so important? Why does it take so long for a trainer to take a horse from first saddle to 4th level dressage? Or why does it take me two years or longer to get a horse ready to show in reining? I guess it is the same reason that it took you 8 years to start learning algebra. You first had to learn the basics.
If you look at it in another context, one that we are more familiar with like yourself, it becomes easier to understand. I often times explain training by comparing it to math. Mostly because everyone has taken math in school, and have an understanding of the multiplication and division. Think back to how long it took for you to learn your numbers and a basic understanding of addition and subtraction. It took longer than 90 days. If it took only 90 days then our summers would have been longer. Instead, it took years for us to understand all of the numbers and have it solid. That is not to say that some of us were able to count to ten before we even started school, but did you really have a firm understanding of what that number represented. Sure you could count and have an understanding of numbers by seven, but could you be held responsible for getting correct change for a twenty dollar bill?
Often times people watch me ride a young horse and see that he can side pass early on and possibly work a little spin. But the real question is does that young horse have a firm understanding of the cues or does the rider have a lot more knowledge in order to help the young horse. It is kind of like the young child when asked how old are you and they look to their parents while saying three. With help and assurance they will get the right answer but if left to figure it out on their own it is a 50/50 chance.
The other reason that it is so important to have a solid understanding of these basics is later on in training, you as a rider can help explain to your horse how to do something better. Lets take stopping for example. While teaching a three year old horse to stop and slide twenty feet. I sometimes have one that will have trouble staying soft on his front end and walk while keeping his rear end in the ground. If he does not have a firm understanding of shoulder control or can not collect and drive into the bit with leg pressure, then I have to go back and teach that. To compare it to math. I am trying to teach you multiplication. You have all of your times tables memorized but are having trouble with memorizing your times tables for the number seven. If you do not understand the value of the number seven, then I as a teacher will have to go back and teach you the value of the number seven. Then I will have to teach you the value of adding the number seven, before I can continue. The benefit is that later on when I am trying to teach you algebra and you start to have problems then I can revert back to your basic understanding of the value of numbers to help you understand algebra.
This is the reason why we put so much importance on the basics. This is why I do not teach or train with short cuts, because it will hurt me and my horse in the long run. It is also the reason why the basics or the foundation of training is the same for every event. Five apples is five apples whether you are in Texas or Japan. In some places you may not want to eat those five apples, but there are five of them none the less.
In addition to explaining the fundamentals of reining, I would like to explain the required maneuvers of the sport and how it is judged. At events such as stock shows, many people not familiar with reining attend the horse events. I hope that this article will give you some idea of what to look for in the event of reining. I will break it down into the various maneuvers and explain how each one should be performed. I won’t explain all of the penalties, but I will give you a brief overview.
Patterns call for a combination of 3 circles loped in each direction, including two fast cirlces and one small slow circle. The order of fast and slow is dictated by the pattern being run. All circles should be the same size. This means small, slow circles to the right should be the same size and shape as the small, slow circles to the left. This same rule applies to the large, fast circles. The horse should also be willfully guided in the circles (as well as through out the entire pattern). Deductions are given for a multitude of reasons, including running off or resistance to the bit shown by an open, gaping mouth.
The stop is judged not only on the actual stop, but by the entire approach–the stop, rollback, and departure. The approach should be a gradual increase of speed ending with a complete stop. The horse should willfully roll back over its hocks, loping off in the same tracks. Deductions are given for a gaping mouth, running off in the approach, falling out of stop (or not stopping), falling out of rollback too soon, resistance in the rollback, and trotting into the lope.
Lead changes are to be done in the center of the arena when the pattern calls for it. Deductions are given for a late or early lead change, refusal to change, kicking out in a lead change, and dragging a lead change. Deductions also result from changing on the front but taking two or more strides to change on the rear legs.
Depending on the pattern, most will call for 4 spins in each direction with the exception of a few calling for 4 ¼. The spin should start off smoothly, with no resistance from the horse, and build speed. The spins should stop with the horse facing the designated direction. Penalties are given when the horse does not stop facing the designated direction. If over or under spun by 1/8 of a spin then a penalty is applied. If you over spin by more than ¼ then a 0 is applied to the entire run. Penalties are also given for any hesitation by the horse or freezing in its spins.
I hope that this information will make reining more enjoyable for the first time observer of the sport. For a more in-depth look at the rules and point scale, please refer to an AQHA handbook or an NRHA rule/pattern book.
When I take a horse into training I am not only being paid to ride and train the horse, I feel that it is my job to also evaluate the horse to see if it is going to meet the needs and wants of the owner. For many I am training the horse for them to take to the show pen themselves. For some it is a business and for others it is for the competition and the want to win and excel in a sport.
Taking into consideration the wants and desires of the owners, it is my job to see if the horse that they have chosen has what it takes to meet the goals of the owner. Whether it is the competitor or the one who wants to show and have fun, many of the criteria are the same. The one deciding factor is the horses ability to do it well or excel in his sport. The one thing that does not work for either is a horse that has the ability but lacks the desire to please or the want to do the event that we have chosen for it. If I reach this point in the horses training that I have decided that the horse lacks the want, desire, or ability it is my job to inform the owner that they have a decision to make. Either you change your discipline or you change horses.
This can be a difficult and hard decision for an owner to make. Compounded by the fact that I usually recommend that at this time you cut your losses. Which means make the horse a quick sell which usually means sell it for a loss. It is in your best interest to cut down the price now and take a loss and move on rather than stretch it out and cause a greater loss in the future. Believe me, I don’t like to be the one that tells you that you are going to take a loss on your investment or that you are not going to make as much money on this horse as you thought, but someone has to stop the bleeding.
Let me take a minute and make an example. If you have a horse that you have put 6 months into training and the horse is not going to work out. You have decided that I am right and we need to sell but you have invested 6 months at $800 which comes out to $4,800 and you purchased the horse for $3,000, so you want to sell the horse for $7,000, even though the horse is not working out. You are wanting someone else to purchase a horse at 7K that has some obvious issues to work out and still needs quite a bit more training even if their weren’t issues.
It is at this time that I recommend that you fold’em and not invest more into a loosing proposition. It is not what many want to hear but it is the best thing for most. Lets say that you are stuck on selling for 7K when I recommend that you sell for 5K now and move on. You are going to have to continue to train this horse in order for it to hold its value and if it has some undesirables they are not going to sell fast. Lets say that it takes only two months and it sells for 7K. You have spend another $1,300 in training and another $75 in shoeing along with a commission to the trainer of 700 dollars. You have come out even and have lost two months worth of time that you could have spent looking for another prospect and getting back on track with your goals.
Let me take a minute and address the issue of commissions on horses, cause it is a bone of contention with some. It is common practice in the horse industry that there is a 10% commission on horses that are bought and sold through trainers. I get asked at times why is it that I have to pay you a commission to sell my horse when I pay you each month to train my horse. That is because you pay me each month to train your horse. When it comes to purchasing a horse for one of my clients or sell a horse for one of my clients the commission covers my expenses along with the use of my good name and my good judgment along with the use of my contacts. Not to mention my ability to make the horse look his best when being shown to a possible buyer. You would not ask for your Realtor to forgo a commission on the sale of your house nor would you expect for the car salesman to not get paid for the work he does for the dealership. Sorry I will get off my soap box.
There are two things that go through my mind when choosing a horse for someone. If it were my horse would I mind owning him or her for a long time. And the other is does this horse make me excited to ride. If I have a horse in training that makes me want to ride and that likes what I am doing as much as I do, then I know that I want to hold. It is the same thing that we all want and that is a horse that is a willing partner in the games that we play.
It is also important to not rush to a judgment on young horses and give them a chance to prove themselves. Not all horses show you their talent in just 6 months. Some take some time to develop. It is my job to bring it out and see that talent sometimes before it surfaces. There is also a benefit to having ridden a lot of horses cause some of the bad ones teach you just as much as the good ones. The good ones are easy it is having ridden some of the tricky ones that make you think that you can get that something extra out of them that just never surfaces. Those are the ones that teach you what you don’t want. Sometimes that is more important to know than the other. Mostly cause you don’t want to go down that road again.
I had a good friend in the horse business tell me once a saying that has stuck with me and at times I repeat it to myself when looking at horses. I would rather want something I don’t have than to have something I don’t want. And that about sums it up.
Have you ever heard someone say they just have not learned what buttons to push on their horse to get a certain maneuver? I heard it again the other day. I was being told by someone that their horse had a so many buttons that they just needed to learn which one to push. I think that what these people are trying to say is they do not know the basics.
We hear and read all the time that it is vital for a horse to have a solid foundation. I, along with many others, have written articles explaining just what a solid foundation is, and how important it is for a horse to understand in order to progress into more difficult and advanced maneuvers. What I think that we leave out in this equation is the importance of the riders understanding of the foundation. If more riders had a solid foundation there would be a lot less confusion and misunderstanding when it comes to the advanced maneuvers.
First, we have to understand how we teach the foundation to the horse which is exactly the same way that we teach the rider a solid foundation. I teach a horse the basics by repetition and consistency. From the first day a horse comes into training, (assuming that it is already able to be ridden ) my leg pressure on his right side means to move away from this pressure to the left. This does not change in any way from day one to the last day that I ride him. The more that we practice this the better and more consistent the horse gets.
This concept is the same for the rider. If you practice your riding once a week for twenty minutes, do not expect to become proficient at riding for quite a long time. Nor should you expect for yourself to become familiar with how to use your legs, or strengthen your legs, much less become comfortable using your legs while trying to become comfortable sitting in a saddle. Many riders have to understand that your basics or foundation as a rider is just as important as the foundation that your horse has. This is why so many trainers say that it is best that a first time rider purchases a horse that is more advanced. This is the same reason that you would send your horse to be trained by someone who is more advanced. Someone has to know what they are doing in order to learn.
Example: Your horse does not know math. For the example, you do not either but you both want to learn together. You may get your understanding of the numbers down by seventy percent but eventually you get to addition and subtraction. The other thirty percent of the numbers that have not been learned correctly has grown by ten times. By the time that you have reached multiplication your little problem has gotten so out of control that you have a serious problem and the only way to fix it is to go back and fix your foundation and start over. In order for training to work, one of the two participants has to know what they are doing.
A basic foundation or the fundamentals of training are the same for every event, it is called horsemanship.
My father has built me one of the coolest tack rooms around, and when I am showing it off to someone new the first thing that they say is “Man you have got a lot of bits”. This may not sound odd to you, but it is because they notice this first before they notice that my tack room. It also has a full sized old time western bar in it! Not to mention the beaded wood ceiling and sky light along with the whole thing done in old barn wood. Thanks Dad!!
I have to admit that I am somewhat bit crazy. I just love bits and understanding all of their functions. I probably will not be happy until I have at least a couple hundred bits. So I decided to share a bit of my bit knowledge and their functions. Where better to start than with what I use to start colts.
Typically I will start horses out in their first week or so in the bosal, hackemore, or just a halter and lead rope. This allows me to give them their first ride with little or no pull from me. I will continue on with a halter or bosal for a couple of weeks or until I feel like they are ready for a snaffle bit. I usually make this decision when the colt feels like he is comfortable with me being on his back.
What snaffle bit to use? There are a ton of different snaffle bits out there and all work the same basic way, which is to teach lateral movement to your horse. In my opinion the kind of mouth piece that the snaffle bit has is for the horse and the kind of rings or attachment points are for the rider. What I mean by this is that you can get a snaffle bit that has regulation mouth piece, or one that has a twisted wire, textured, copper inlaid, hinged in the middle to create leverage. All of which come in contact with the mouth and effect the horse and his feel in the mouth. Regulation snaffle is a broken mouth piece being a minimum of 3/8 inch in diameter from the corners, with a gradual taper ending in no less than 5/32 of an inch at the middle of the bit. So, all the twisted wire or textured snaffle does, when used properly is create more feel in the mouth and a faster response for a quicker understanding. This is all based on the fact that a bit is only as harsh as the hands that use it.
The other part to the snaffle is the rings and they come in several different designs which are in my opinion for the rider. You can get O ring, D ring, gag type, and about a hundred different others. For me I prefer the D ring that has a bearing or type of hinge that is made out of stainless steel. I prefer the stainless steel because it lasts longer and does not corrode. The D ring gives me a flatter and more direct pressure to the bars when being used. More so than the O ring. I have also had some O rings that pinched the lip after being used for some time. Also a common mistake that I see being made when using a snaffle is the chin strap. This should be attached below the reins, if attached above the reins it gives leverage against the chin but not an effective leverage. More often it just confuses the young horse.
The snaffle bit in my opinion is one of the more important bits. It is just as important as the condition of the horses mouth. It is extremely important to have your horse’s teeth floated properly, without a comfortable mouth no bit will be comfortable. It is especially important during the young years when the horses mouth is changing so much. A good rule of thumb is to have your horses teeth looked at every 6 months.
Some people have no desire to go to the show pen and compete with their horses. Yet some do nothing but eat, sleep, work (as little as possible) and go to horse shows. Why? What is the lure of the show pen? Besides, it is all about how much silver your saddle has and how expensive your outfit is, right? Not really.
In my eyes the show pen is to make me a better horseman, and to help me make my horse more competitive. If you ride your horse at home, and practice at home, then what reference do you have to judge your progress and your horses capabilities.
I often have people come take a couple of lessons to help them reach the next step in their horsemanship. Often times what they find is that they have actually become so stagnate in their abilities, we have to go back to their basics and redefine those points first, before we move on to the next step.
It is like you are playing tennis with a ball machine and not getting any help or guidance from an instructor. You hit balls with the machine three times a week and feel like you are doing pretty good. But, in reality you do not really have a good idea as to where your game is at until you actually put it into play. That is where you will find your real weaknesses. The same goes for me as a trainer. I have horses in training that I am expected to take to futurities their 3 year old year. I may ride them everyday for a year and feel that they are very good. It is not until I take them out and put them in the show pen with other three year old horses that I really know where they stack up against the competition.
Competition should inspire you to become better and practice more. It should give you goals and levels to reach. There are so many arenas to compete in with horses now days that you can compete at any level you desire. Here are a couple that come to mind; open shows, breed shows, event specific shows. You should start at the type of shows that complements the breed and type of horse that you have. Then pick the type of show environment that suites you as an individual. Let me give you a list of association shows that I compete at and why. This will give you an idea as to how they are set up and what about them draws me to them.
In the last article we talked about some of the tools of the trade, one being your brain and seeking knowledge and the other being the martingale. In this article I would like to talk about another piece of tack that is sometimes overlooked as a source of a problem. That would be your saddle and pad.
An improperly fitted saddle and pad that is uncomfortable can lead to a lot of discomfort in your horses back. This will show up in dry spots after riding and eventually soars on the area around the withers and down the back. This effects not just the comfort level of your horse but also their performance and attitude towards training. Lets think about it in human terms for just a second. If you had a soar spot in your back and could not tell a single person about it, yet your boss continued to work you. Lets say that your job is picking up boxes and you start to arch your bad to compensate for the pain but that lead to you putting to much stress on your knees and eventually your knees hurt along with your back. Eventually you just quit from the pain and your boss sends you to the doctor cause your knees are bad so he fixes it but sends you back to work with the same bad back. There are a lot of times that we have to look at our horses ailments a little deeper than just the surface.
The saddle may fit you well but may be very uncomfortable for you horse. If this is the case and you do not want to go through the hassle of finding one that fits you both, there are pads that you can get that are molded to fit your horses back which makes him comfortable and also allows you to be comfortable too.
It is also important to use protection boots on your horse if you are working them in a performance manner or teaching them to learn a new maneuver.
While trying to come up with a subject for this months article I was struck with inspiration from some of my horses. I have just started hauling a couple of the young horses that I have in training. They are just getting out for their first couple of trips to town. So I felt like it would be a helpful subject to discuss for this issue.
It is very important to make the trip for first timers very enjoyable and not stressful. You are introducing a lot of new things, and the only thing constant at this time is you the handler. If their first time out is to a show, I like to make sure that I get there at least a day early to help them get acquainted with the new surroundings and new neighbors. Another thing to keep in mind, is that you keep as many things normal as possible for their first trip. Don’t let someone talk you into trying some new tack, or get caught up in pushing your horse to do his best today. You have to remember that the first couple of times out are not necessarily for you, but for the betterment of your horse. Your job is to take care of him or her and make this new place a home away from home.
When I first get them into the warm up pen, I expect them to look around and check out the new sites. I first want to take them on a tour of the new facility on a loose rein. I will take them and make a lap around the arena once or twice in both directions so that they can see everything from both sides. Once we have taken a look at everything and I feel like they are starting to relax a bit, I will start with the same routine as I always do at home. I will begin with flexing each direction, and make sure that they are moving off of my legs at the shoulder and the hip. If I feel like they have forgotten, or are to in tune with the other distractions, I will go to some exercises that they already know and get back the control that I am looking for. At this point I make sure not to try to over bridle or require them to give me undivided attention. Instead I want for them to be able to take everything in and also do what it is that I am asking.
From this point I will ask them to move into a trot and wait for them to fully relax. My way of knowing that they have relaxed is that I look for them to give me a deep exhale. At that time I have a good feeling that my horse has come back to me. When I move into a lope I will continue to let them move out freely continuing to let them look. But, I make sure when I do pick up my hand and ask for direction, they give to the bit and pin back their ears to check in with me to make sure that I am not asking for more.
Next, I will start to ask for the an occasional stop, spin, or lead change, making sure that I am not rushing anything. You can expect for the horse to only perform at a fraction of what you have at home. It is important that you spend time building his confidence and not get caught up in trying to push him to perform as good or better than he does at home. If you break his confidence and get him worried at the show pen, you will have to fix it at the show pen. I also like for their first time out to be a two day show cause it allows them to time to settle in and not leave just as you are getting started.
Remember, when it is their first time to town, you are the only constant thing that they have. If you fall apart, or get upset and discouraged, they can loose confidence and learn quick ways out of what they perceive as trouble. I will not expect to push one in the show pen until they have shown me that they are ready. I will try out pieces while I run a pattern and after three or four shows they will tell me how much and when.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are setting the stage for what is coming in the future for this horse in the show pen. You have spent the time to build confidence and knowledge in your horse to compete in the show pen for years to come. More often than not, I have spent around a year or so just to get to this point, and the objective is not to go and win my first time out. Rather it is to finish my work so that this horse goes on to be productive for years in the show pen. It is my job to make going to town fun, kind of like a trip to the movies and pizza. It has to be a place they want to go.
To execute a proper rollback, we need to first discuss the fundamentals of body position and what your horse needs to know beforehand.
The first and most important thing is that your horse has a good understanding of following his nose. By this I mean that he not just follows with his head but with his entire body. A good indicator of this is when you pull to the right is the horse’s first step with his front right leg toward the direction in which his nose is turned? Once he does this, can you get him to follow with both shoulders and the ribcage, causing him to set his rear right leg ( if going to the right) and pivot on that leg? You need to have the horse doing this on a consistent basis.
You also need to have your horse yielding to leg pressure from the outside leg. This is something that is sometimes overlooked. It is much easier for a horse to be bent to the right and pushed out with the right leg. This is where we begin to teach yielding to leg pressure, but outside leg pressure must also be taught and is just as important. Outside rein pressure is nice to have at this time, but is not yet a must as it is used more in finishing the rollback. However, direct rein pressure is a must.
I first teach a rollback from a back up rather than from a standstill. The reason for this is because I can dictate which rear leg is used to pivot on. If I work from a stop or a standing position, both rear legs are planted and holding weight. However, this is not the case when backing up. How this is used to my advantage is like this ( put your thinking cap on and visualize): When backing up, feel with your seat which rear leg is stepping back. If I am going to rollback to the right, I will feel for the horse to begin to step back with its rear right leg and at that time I will pull with my right hand, only guiding with my left. Don’t do this quickly–rather make it smooth, pulling your right hand first towards you right rear pocket. Once the horse has pivoted 90 degrees, your right hand should be pointing in the direction in which you are wanting him to leave the rollback. Your weight should start to shift forward and your left leg should be encouraging him to push through and into the correct lead.
Once again, I must add that you as the rider should be looking where you are going next–not where you’re at. Look in the direction that your horse will be leaving the rollback, which is 180 degrees from where you started. If you are looking at your horse’s ears, he has no way of knowing where he should be going next. Remember–just like the spin, the rollback is a forward motion maneuver and cannot be performed properly if he is held back in the rotation and sling-shot out at the end. This is the reason: when a rollback is used to work a cow on the fence, in order to not lose ground on the cow, the horse has to keep forward momentum in the stop and through the rollback–if not, precious ground and time is lost trying to catch up to the cow. If forward momentum in maintained, the horse approaches the stop with the inside rear or rear fence leg planted deeper in the ground and is following the cow with his nose. He continues to walk on his front legs, rolling across with his front end and driving out of the maneuver with his rear end. This is different from the cutting rollback because the objective is not the same. In cutting, you want the horse to pivot on the opposite rear leg.
Simply put, collection is when a horse is encouraged to elevate his back and drive with impulsion from his hind quarters. Normally the only time that a horse does this naturally or on his own accord is when he is gaining speed or launching himself in one direction So how is it that we can ask for our horses to work collected? Well first I want the horse soft on the bit and giving at the pole. More importantly is that they are understanding leg pressure. I want my horses to understand that the leg pressure means something beside go. I will start my horses by teaching them that my legs have a pace or cadence and that they need to match that cadence. This way I can ask for not only a walk but a slow or fast walk with out having to give speed control by pulling on the reins. From there I will teach it at a trot and then a lope so that eventually they are comfortable enough with my legs that when I drive up for speed that they will lower their head and respond to the bit because I am driving them to the bit rather than trying to bump their head back to me. Pulling or bumping their head, without using your legs for impulsion causes the opposite reaction than what I am trying to obtain.
Let me explain that more with an example of teaching a horse to not lean or drop a shoulder. Rather than concern myself with the dropped shoulder I will concentrate more on the collection and impulsion. If I continually work on lifting the shoulder by turning his head in and using my inside leg to lift the shoulder up I am not teaching the horse how to lope properly rather I am just temporarily moving him over. If I drive the horses rear end underneath his body causing him to collect and elevate his back, his shoulders will level out and he will lope without leaning. By doing this you will have taught your horse to lope correct with his body centered.
Collection is needed also when teaching your horse to spin and stop. If my horse does not spin collected he will get sluggish on his front feet and eventually fall out of his spins. The reason why is that a horse carries around 60 percent of his weight on his front end. When you collect your horse and teach him to utilize his rear end more you transfer more of his weight onto his hind quarters which makes his front end lighter and easier to maneuver. That is also the reason that most reiners stop on the rear and stay free on the front end. They are collected at a stop and not pulled to a stop.