I’ll give you a description of the day’s events and then I’ll break it down into an assessment of what I was looking for, seeing and came away with!
At 11:30 in the morning the horses were presented in hand and “inspected” by several veterinarians for soundness and overall health.
After a few times of (ideally) gently turning the calf back, the rider then drives the calf down the fence line in an attempt to show the horse working at speed to gain on the calf, get ahead of it, and then turn it back down the fence line. This may be done a few times; it’s up to the rider. They then build a loop in their rope and rope the calf, trying to show the horse’s ability to haze the calf, his comfort with being tied off to the calf, and then his ability to “drag” the calf- all things that would be asked of the horse in a “working” lifestyle. This individual demonstration would range anywhere from five to 10 minutes.
I tend to get frustrated watching many “mainstream” competitions whether it be English or Western disciplines due to the lack in quality of the horsemanship and the “holes” in the partnership between horse and rider. People in competition seem to get so focused on winning- with too many times the rider pushing the horse “at all costs” for a performance the horse may not be prepared for. As I tell my students, the show is not the place for TRAINING your horse and introducing new things unless you are using it as a schooling experience. The show arena should be a place that the rider and horse can confidently demonstrate their abilities. The show is also NOT the place to “try something for the first time.” I tell students they should be riding at a more difficult level comfortably at home, than the level they are planning to compete at.
So in the case of watching the ranch horses perform I was looking to see how these real life work horses “performed” in an arena scenario. Here are a few of the factors I was watching:
• Rider’s skills (finesse, softness of aids, “quiet” hands/seat/legs, etc.)
• Clarity of Communication between rider and horse- Was the rider just “suddenly” demanding things of the horse? Did the horse “know” the plan ahead of time because his rider prepared him for what was going to be asked of him?
• Horse’s maturity- Many of these horse were young and I find for a lot of horses it takes a while for their mental and emotional maturity to catch up with their physical maturity
• Horse’s work ethic- Where was the horse’s brain? Did he WANT to participate or was he tolerating what was asked of him?
• Equipment- What was used on the horse, was it effective?
So now I’ll break down each part of the rider and horse’s performance using examples of riders who in my book would have scored ranging from a nine or 10 and at the bottom end of the scale, a two or three.
One of the best horse and rider combination of the day was the first rider out. The problem with this is that they set an initial “standard” – which I think many of the spectators didn’t appreciate until they saw some of the other horse’s performances and realized just how quality the first pair was. I like to tell students the more quality your ride, the more boring it should look.
What I mean by this is usually the “dramatic” ride is not a quality one. This first pair did exactly that. The rider came out with a big soft curve in the reins between his hands and his horse’s mouth. His lope circles displayed the horse’s soft body with him looking attentively around his circle, creating a light and balanced gait. His flying lead changes- which most riders incorrectly think “rushing” or gaining speed before asking their horse will help- looked almost slow motion and with just a slight skip in his step he’d easily switch from one lead to the other. You could see the rider tell the horse to prepare for the new direction, and not until that horse was committed to the new direction, did the rider ask for the lead change.
The quick stops were not “jammed” down the horse’s face with dramatic rein communication, instead you could see the rider again “tell the horse ahead of time” the stop was coming. This allowed his horse to prepare and softly stop with the majority of his weight correctly on his hindquarters and his top line relaxed.
On the other end of the scale, more horses than not, would look like they had the “emergency brake” pulled as they were literally slammed in the face for a “quick” halt. To me, that’s scary. The horses would stop so hard and so unbalanced, that they would “pop” forward a few steps to try and regain their balance from the abruptness of their “surprise” halts. The horse’s mouths would be bared open and gaping, trying to avoid the severity in which the bit was being used.
Because the first rider could ask the horse to shift his weight onto his hindquarters, the horse’s forehand was “light.” This allows the horse to easily move his front end around his hind- such steps are used in spins, quick and balanced turns such as what one would use in a rollback.
In other horses you could see where left and right (literally) still weren’t clear to the horse. There was no association with a certain aid from the rider having a clear meaning to the horse. This caused many horses to “push through” their turns for several reasons.
First, the horse never even looked to where he was about to step. Next, because he wasn’t looking, his weight wasn’t distributed in a way that the shoulder closest to the direction he would be asked to turn could step. So because he was unbalanced, he’d have to make the first step with the opposite shoulder- causing him to “walk out of” his turn. It would take two steps forward to achieve one lateral step. The “drag” that appeared in the horse’s response was due to lack of clarity. A lot of the young horses looked like they didn’t have a clue.
This is where there is a fork in the road in some philosophies in training. For me personally, no matter the discipline, I want my horse to be clear on left, right, forward, stop, back, moving portions his body independently, and having a sliding scale of the energy he moves with. This became very important to me after years of surviving riding “slightly out of control.” I was jumping horses over pick up trucks without having steering or brakes!
Today, whether I’m educating a green horse or re-education a more experienced one, I always start with the basics. To me, without the foundation of clear communication and the basics- it just typically becomes a fight between the horse and rider as the difficulty in performance is increased. If I don’t have these established “tools” to use when working with my horse, I don’t feel I am “armed” with enough options to help my horse, especially when he gets into an uncomfortable spot.
A lot more common theory on educating a horse is “wet saddle blankets.” This means that miles and miles of riding and surviving real life will give the young horse enough exposure that eventually he’ll “know his job.” I have a hard time with this theory because I find that there are very few talented riders who can still balance this theory with “helping” the horse as he learns.
More often than not, it winds up with the rider “pushing” the horse mentally and emotionally, until he physically wears out and “gives up” by not showing any physical resistance even if he is mentally stressed. To create this feeling in a young horse in my opinion can leave for a lot of years left of riding a horse that will absolutely do his job, but is mentally shut down towards the rider.
So it all boils down to what is the rider’s goal and his ability to balance that goal with his horse’s mental, emotional and physical well being throughout his education. In the case of this show, you could clearly see the horse whose attempts were “good enough” and those where the rider had prioritized clear basics.
So with the first horse you could see he had been taught to look (literally) to where he was going- again another way the rider can “tell the horse” ahead of time what the plan was. So between shifting the horse’s weight to his hind end, asking him to look, and then being able to move the horse’s body independently (hindquarters separate from the ribcage separate from the shoulders,) the rider could ask the horse to step his front end around his hind, demonstrate a quality spin.
You may be wondering why a horse needs to be able to spin if he’s working on a ranch. Well for the next part of competition, the horse had to be able to show his ability to turn back and sort a calf. If your horse isn’t watching the calf, he isn’t prepared for a quick turn that may be demanded of him in order to “cut” the calf’s movement. Take this a step farther would be when the horse is hazing the calf down the fence line, there has to be a balance in the level of energy and where that energy is directed towards that calf. The horse needs to be able to adjust his speed, movement and spatial pressure, which will affect the speed, movement and direction of the calf. This way the rider and horse can “influence” what the calf is about to do, rather than react to what the calf presents. Here of course you can imagine timing and finesse separates the mediocre from the quality horse and riders.
This ability then prepares the horse to be able to “softly” follow a calf at speed that is not being “driven” down a fence line, but rather is in the “open” and the rider has to rope it. Soft and balanced turns and lead changes are crucial to help set the rider up in the ideal position to rope the calf.
Once that calf is roped, the horse must be balanced to “sit” or sink his weight onto his haunches to bear against the weight of the struggling calf. The horse also needs to be able to quickly relax mentally and emotionally after the high speed “chase” as soon as that calf is roped. In real life the horse may need to stand on his own keep the rope tight against the calf, while his rider doctors, brands or cuts the calf.
Too many times we’ve all seen or experienced that horse that “once you get him going, you can’t get him relaxed again.” In a real life working scenario there isn’t room for that- the rider on the ground has to have full faith in their horse as their partner and “tool” to help bet the job done with as little stress to the cattle as possible.
The less educated or clear horses “sloughed” their way through their turns and spins, which was magnified when “real life” with the calf was happening. The calf would stop and turn back, and there’d be a delay in the horse being able to find his balance to turn back and move with the calf. That delay would allow the calf to get “ahead” of the horse, so then the horse would have to race at a faster speed to catch up. But because the horse was moving so unbalanced, the faster he went forward, the more dramatic his stops, the less balanced his turns. As you can imagine, it can quickly evolve into a chaotic and stressful situation.
This is the point when the rider’s emotions tend to interfere, and feeling the “pressure” of not moving the calf as desired, the rider winds up over riding his horse, causing more stress which never helps a horse’s confidence and certainly not his performance.
The other thing that was interesting was to watch how many horses only wanted to lope on one lead on their figure 8. But when they were hazing a calf or attempting to set up their rider to rope it, when the horse’s brain and attention was on that calf, the horse “all of a sudden” had no problem changing leads as necessary to follow the calf. That is such a great example of why I’m constantly asking riders to focus on getting their horse mental availability. If your horse isn’t thinking his way through the ride, everything presented appears to be a “surprise.”
There was an extreme case of that with one of the coming three year olds performance. As one rancher watching said, “that horse doesn’t even know there’s a calf in that arena.” And he was right- the horse was literally looking out over the arena at EVERYTHING except what he was supposed to be focused on.
The quality horses and riders always easily stand out, no matter the discipline. At this point I will mention that the first rider happened to be 12 years old. Yes, that’s right. I jokingly tell my adult students that if they rode with the intention and commitment that teenagers tend to ride with, so many of their horses would be clear on “the plan.”
On a funny note the calves won the “high jump” award of the day. As I mentioned there was a mechanical shoot that would let each calf out. I also mentioned part of working the calf was to show sensitivity to the “pressure” created by horse and rider. Well a few of those calves got real smart, real fast. They began to realize what the “routine” would be and by the time the rider would get to the roping portion, if the calf felt too much pressure, he aimed straight for the 4 ½ ft tall solid wall of the arena and would jump it- and clear it- to get back to his herd. There were only about six calves that were rotated through and about four of them had figured out an “alternative” to being roped.
I’ve always told my jumping students that cow could jump a fence three foot fence from a soft trot and that the horse did not NEED a lot of speed to clear an obstacle, it was all about balance of his movement when the jump was presented. The calves that proved my point!
So the return trip I played tourist in Prescott, which is home to the “world’s oldest rodeo”- although that statement has been contested several times. This was again another fun and educational road trip. Do you have a fun or unique horse event in your area? Let me know!Sam