Ask Our Expert - Mozaun McKibben
This Month's Expert
Mozaun McKibben is a New Mexico native who now lives in Whitesboro, Texas. In March, he rode Lil Ruf Catalyst to earn the American Quarter Horse Association's Versatility Ranch Horse World Championship.
McKibben buys, sells and trains versatility and stock horse prospects. He also has shown in reining, cutting and working cow horse competition. In the June issue of Western Horseman, McKibben talks about why he enjoys stock horse events and how Lil Ruf Catalyst (pictured here) has become a great equine partner.
Q: I have a young horse that stops short on me when I'm either roping or turning back cattle on the fence. It feels like she shuts down too early. Do you have any tips on freeing her up? I use a snaffle on her.
Matt, Colorado City, Texas
A: To be honest, I would rather have this problem than its opposite. Essentially, what you're experiencing is the result of your mare anticipating a stop. She knows you're going to ask her for one, but she's giving it to you too early and when she decides it's best. First, you'll need to work on increasing your sensitivity to the signals she gives you before she actually stops. If you pay close attention, you will be able to feel her starting to shut down on you. Anytime you get the sensation that she is about to sit down and stop, push her forward out of her stop and back to that cow.
That said, my biggest advice would be to set up situations where you are focused only on breaking this habit, rather than being distracted by trying to rope, etc. Track a cow in the arena or in a round pen, and focus on getting your mare to rate the cow. Soon you'll see that she becomes focused as well. Once she's concentrating on the cow's movements, she will not be anticipating the stop. And every time you discourage the stop by pushing her into forward motion, you will be freeing her up to stay on that cow until further notice.
When you do ask her to stop, you always want the stop to be your idea, and never hers. She should be ready to stop when you ask, but she should assume that until you do, she is to continue to move with the cow. Remember, be sensitive about the signals she gives you before she actually stops, and be proactive about pushing her up through her breakdown and back to that cow. You may need to revisit this exercise with her once in a while, taking the focus off the overall task of roping or working cattle, and gearing her attention once more toward that cow with complete forward motion.
Q: The trainer I was with was helping me teach my 4-year-old palomino to do flying lead changes. He would have me lope around the arena and then cut across at a diagonal. I'd push her over hard, like side passing, and then switch my cue leg. She changes, but it is not very smooth. I recently saw a video on lead changes—just a bit of it, I missed most of the lesson—that taught the horse to change without pushing so hard or having their body position change. I want my mare to change with a straighter body position, because now she throws her hip in. How can I work with her to straighten her position but still get a lead change?
Kathy, Manhattan, Kansas
A: I think the trick to teaching a horse anything is to make the right thing easy for them to do. This doesn't mean you always go easy on them, exactly, but you want to set up a situation where your horse is yearning to give you whatever it is you are planning to ask of her.
Changing leads on the diagonal in a figure-8 pattern can be helpful for the rider because it gives a clear definition of where the direction change occurs, and therefore where the lead change should occur. However, it is not always the most helpful for the horse. Too often, when we try to hold ourselves to accomplishing a certain maneuver at a specific point in the arena, we end up sabotaging our own efforts. The added pressure we put on ourselves and our horses to achieve that lead change right in the middle of the arena has the potential to distract us from the bottom line. At this point in your horse's training, the bottom line is not to get a lead change at any exact spot. Instead, the bottom line is simply to achieve an easy, smooth transition from one lead to another. To do this, you must first move your focus from where the lead change happens, and focus instead on how it happens.
My first advice would be to practice your counter-canter. Use a figure-8 pattern, like you have been, but when you change directions, keep your mare in her original lead by using pressure from your inside leg. Circle her around a few times, and then change directions on your figure-8 again, allowing your mare to come back to the correct (and much more comfortable) lead. Do this a number of times on both leads. Soon, you'll most likely feel her longing to switch directions, and searching for that correct lead.
Counter-cantering is hard. By creating a situation where your mare has to carry herself at the counter-canter, you create a situation in which she begins to crave that lead change.
Now, try switching leads once you've established the counter-canter. Be as smooth and quiet about the transition as you want her to be. Just let her give in to what she wants, by allowing her to slip into the correct lead. All you need to do is release the pressure on the inside, and switch it to your outside leg. Be patient, and she should change straight.
Again, don't focus on the lead change itself; focus more on creating a situation where your mare wants to change her lead. Make it easy for her to understand what you're trying to do, and make it something she wants to do. Then she'll do it correctly, and eventually she'll do it wherever you ask (including the middle of the arena as you switch directions in a figure-8 pattern).
Q: My 2-year-old gelding has always been very gentle, but lately he has started acting up. He's gotten hard to catch in the pasture and he tends to rear up if I'm leading him and he doesn't want to go. It seems like he's getting resistant and stubborn. He'll stand tied quietly and otherwise is easy to handle. He's not started under saddle yet, but will be soon. How can I deal with these problems he seems to be developing? Is it likely he's just seeing what he can get away with and this behavior will improve when he gets in a steady training program?
Deborah, Little Rock, Arkansas
A: First, let me say that every time you work with your horse, he is in a training program. What makes it a steady training program is the addition of frequency and consistency. Even if you plan to send your horse off to a trainer, the foundation he learns with you will be crucial for his continued development. Although every colt does go through a period of perpetually testing whatever they can get away with, not every testing period includes rearing while being lead. This behavior is usually an indication that he has already tested certain other behaviors and gotten away with them.
It is important to try to be more aware of the little behaviors that your gelding exhibits before these more serious behaviors arise. When you notice him starting to act up in those little ways, redirect his attention with more constructive alternatives. Try asking him to suddenly turn or stop and back up. The trick here is to be a micromanager for a while; if you're consuming his every thought it doesn't leave much room for him to have thoughts of his own. Remember, too, to be encouraging when you get a positive response to your requests. Because you'll be micromanaging him, he'll need some extra inspiration to keep complying with your repeated demands, and a little encouragement can go a long way. That said, if you're met with a severely negative response, such as rearing, meet it with a clearly negative response from yourself.
Surprise him however you can, with sounds, gestures, etc. Scare the dickens out of him for a few seconds, and then wipe the slate clean. Give him a chance to try again.
Horses are herd animals. They are used to being told what to do, and they feel most comfortable when they don't have to worry about being all on their own. The more you show your gelding that you are taking on the position of leader, and that you expect him to follow orders, as a good lower-ranked horse should, the more comfortable he will be, and the more enjoyable he will begin to view your time together. Always keep in mind that you are working to create consistent boundaries for your horse. You want to be sure that your responses are black and white (for both good and bad). The more clear his parameters, the more comfortable he will become within them.