Just as the sport of rodeo grew from cowboys bragging about what ranch jobs they could do better, the western performance horse industry grew from similar origins. Vaqueros once sat around bragging how far their horses could run and slide while ranchers and cowboys boasted about their horses’ precision and ability to swiftly cut cows from a herd.
While these traditions have grown into high profile and (sometimes) high paying competitions, our horses have been bred for specific traits for various disciplines. Because of this, the stakes are high for performance horses. Trainers spend hours in the arena in order develop and improve their natural abilities and perfect the most precise movements.
The end result?
The performance horses of today aren’t the same performance horses we saw just twenty or thirty years ago. Today’s horses are out maneuvering their predecessors and setting new athletic standards. Events like the AQHA’s 2 year old Western Pleasure Stakes and National Reined Cow Horse Association’s Snaffle Bit Futurity for 3 year olds, showcase horses who’ve been started younger and have been asked to perform more demanding skills than ever before. There are some who argue against starting horses so young while others point out that selective breeding has allowed horses to develop skills at a younger age.
Navigating today’s performance horse industry has become difficult and finding your way through the process can be daunting.
As trainers and industry professionals, how do we maintain the integrity of our respective associations while ensuring horses sound in mind and body? The goal should not be to win at any cost but, to create well-rounded horses that can excel in and out of the arena. Anytime we are working with a horse, it’s important to establish a foundation of communication, patience and persistence. When you reach a wall in training and things aren’t working, it’s easy to become frustrated and lose sight of the big picture. Horses can only learn so much at one time, especially a young horse. So once you reach a goal or have a breakthrough, acknowledge the accomplishment by granting your horse a release.
Timing the Freedom
Allowing frustration to set in while training can cause a domino effect of bad actions. Losing your temper can often lead intimidation or becoming overly critical and possible causing the use of excessive force. These behaviors are counter-productive and can create fear and resistance which can be difficult to overcome. If you find you’re getting stuck with your training, take a break and go outside. If you find yourself bored – change it up! Chances are if you’re uninterested, so is your horse! In an effort to avoid stress, exasperation and boredom incorporate a release into your program. Find creative ways to teach your horse the same principle. You both may need a training time-out. A sort of mental break. By adding variety to any program, even if it’s just a trail ride through the woods, you both will find the release you need.
The Working Break
Taking a “break” from training and riding outside the arena or varying your program doesn’t mean you have to stop working. I recommend applying the same training techniques you’re working on in the arena when you’re out of it, whether it be on the trail, in a pasture with cows or just walking down the road.
Give your horse an incentive to learn. When we give our horses a reason to do something, it encourages them to learn for themselves and helps them understand and retain the knowledge. By giving them a chance to solve a problem in a new environment, you’re changing the dynamics of their training and they’ll be in a new space both mentally and physically, which can lead to less resistance. If you try a maneuver out on the trails or in the pasture and you’re met with opposition, it just means there’s a gap in communication. This can be a valuable experience because it’s presenting a new opportunity to problem solve and communicate.
For example, if I’m asking a horse for better carriage and I want him to work off his hind end, I might lope collectedly up a small incline, so he is lifting his shoulders and carrying himself correctly. Or I might ask my horse to stop his forward motion going down a steep hill. He’ll have no choice but to sit down on his hocks and use his hind end. If you’re a mounted shooter and working on speed between balloons, try practicing rating your speed on the trail between markers like trees or fence posts. You can also try maneuvering around trees and bushes, instead of cones, so your horse can work on his agility while still responding to the same cues you would ask for during competition.
By incorporating a “working break,” or release in your training program, you’re giving your horse a purpose reminiscent of where they came from. Take full advantage of this type of release by catering your lesson around their specialized skills and don’t be afraid to get creative! As a team roper, it’s a great experience to ride quietly through a herd of cattle in a pasture, making your horse handle the cows more slowly. Try taking your cow horse out on a long trail ride, giving him a reason to guide around a bush or navigate tricky footing. All these can help take the edge off in the box. Your horse will certainly appreciate the break and you’ll enjoy it too!