Ask Our Expert - Tom Curtin

This Month's Expert: Tom Curtin

Trainer and clinician Tom Curtin of Madison, Florida, hosts clinics and camps all over the country. His goal is to share his knowledge of horses, teaching what he’s learned from legendary horsemen, such as Ray Hunt and Buster Welch. His years of experience working on notable ranches, including the Four Sixes, King Ranch, Johnson Ranch and the 7D Ranch, have given him expertise in cow work, colt starting, horsemanship and ranch work.

Q: My 4-year-old gelding is very quiet and has a lot of miles on him, but not a lot of formal training. He’s willing and easy to get along with, but he’s also lazy. I have trouble getting him to pick up his right lead and stay in it. The only way I can get him into it is to stop him and do a rollback to the right, and then he picks it up 90 percent of the time. Sometimes he’ll break down into a trot, though, and when he starts loping again he’ll be in the left lead. I want to show him in ranch pleasure, so I need him to get more consistent and pick up the correct lead from a walk, and stay in that lead at a lope. Do you have any suggestions?

Marilyn, Ohio

A: To start with, what I would recommend is working on getting his haunches to the inside, or to the direction of the lead. You need to be able to move that horse’s hindquarters over and pick up the right lead without his front feet moving. First, get him doing that standing still. Get him to where he can move his hindquarters over to the right without his front feet coming untracked. Once you’ve worked on that, start walking and get to where when you take his hindquarters to the right, his head and neck are straight or tipped slightly to the right.

To move his hindquarters, you’ll have to step that horse over to the right with your left leg. Where you put your leg all depends on the horse. You might have to exaggerate it a little bit, or you might not. You might just be able to roll your left heel and that horse will step right over. Then just keep working that hindquarter over until you get that real good at a walk and a trot. Then that horse will step off into the right lead. What you’ve got to do is get the horse to where he’ll walk on his right lead. If he can’t walk on his right lead, he’s not going to canter on it.

Make sure when you’re doing that that you’re sitting on your left pocket. Sitting on the opposite pocket, or seat bone, of the lead you want is really important. If you want the right lead, you’ve got to be sitting on the left seat bone. If you’re sitting on the right seat bone, that horse is naturally going to move away from pressure, so you’re going to automatically move that horse off into his left lead. You want to load that outside hip—the left one in this case—so that horse moves away from the pressure and steps off into the right lead. That horse is naturally going to move away from that pressure if he has the option. If there’s a door closed and he can’t take that path of least resistance, there’s no way you’ ll get that right lead. But when you take your seat and leg on the left side and apply pressure, everything you’re telling that horse is to move that hip away. When he moves that right hip away, he leads with that side.

The other thing I recommend is, when you do canter, make sure you can canter in a long straightaway starting out so he can get on that lead and hold it. If possible, don’t be in an arena. If you get in an arena, that horse is on a diagonal through the corner and that’s when he’s dropping that lead. A horse naturally travels on a diagonal. We have to teach him to travel on an arc, and you haven’t taught this horse to travel on an arc yet. When he falls to the trot is probably when he anticipates a corner coming, and he’s got to try to get through that corner at a diagonal, which is difficult. That’s when horses do what people think of as dropping the shoulder. But a horse doesn’t drop his shoulder; he kicks his hindquarters out, making it feel like he dropped his shoulder. When his hindquarter kicks out that’s when you lose that lead or he breaks to a trot. Once you can hold your lead in a straightaway, then I recommend starting to canter big symmetrical circles, like 150 feet or 100 feet in diameter. It’s easier with a larger circle that keeps him on a slight arc all the way through it.Tom

Q: I have a gelding that has always been laid back and never caused any problems, but he’s started kicking in the trailer. He kicks after I load him and sometimes he will kick again when I stop, if he has to stand in the trailer for any time at all. He doesn’t seem to do it when the trailer is moving. I’m afraid he’s going to kick the horses around him. I’ ve checked the trailer to be sure there’s nothing in it that could be bothering him. He’s never had a bad experience in the trailer and it’s a three-horse slant with plenty of room. Why would he have started doing this, and is there a way to get him over it?

Cheryl, Arizona

A: I’ve been in this situation and can feel for you. This problem could be created by many things. I’ve seen situations where a horse will get unsettled because there was a change in his herd mates. If you’ve taken a horse out of there or put a horse in and changed the pecking order, that could cause a change in your gelding. I’ve seen a horse get miserable and go to kicking when that happens. If he’s kicking in the trailer, his attitude probably has changed a little bit even when he’s not around the trailer. If you’ll take notes, something has changed where this horse doesn’ t feel as significant to you as he used to. It’s kind of a frustration on his part. He’s not understanding why he’s in the situation he’s in. A horse doesn’t really get mad or protest intentionally. A horse gets scared or frustrated. People say a horse gets mad, but mad is premeditated. Horses don’t premeditate. A horse gets frustrated real easily. He doesn’t understand, so maybe some of this behavior starts coming out in him. You can put kicking chains on him, but the thing I would recommend the most are two choices. You can load him on the back, which might not make him feel any better about it but would keep him from hurting another horse. Or, the other option and the one I would try first, is wherever you haul him, front, back or middle, load him and turn him around and haul him backwards. Turn him around, close that slant on him, and tie him short enough where he can’t reach over and bite the horse next to him on the hip. I’ve found that with a horse that might be borderline claustrophobic, if you turn that horse around and haul him backwards, it will clean that right up. That’s what I’d do. It’s going to open up that horse’s view a little bit. You can find somebody to put a little D-ring in the corner for a place to tie him. You wouldn’t want him loose facing that direction. You said you haven’t had any trouble with this horse, but something has triggered it. If you don’t see these situations you can’t say for sure, so all I can do is give options. He might have been hauled in that trailer for 10 years and done fine, but now he’s not doing fine so you’ve got to change something. Tom

Q: My mare is nice to ride, but when I ask her to lope she wants to speed up. I have a hard time slowing her down and sitting in the saddle when she’s going fast, and I don’t want to keep pulling on the reins. What can I do to make her slow down?

Holly, Oklahoma

A: When these horses are maybe not going the speed that I would like, or they may be a little faster than I’d like, what I do is I offer that horse a chance to slow down. And I have to be slow. If I don’t slow down, then I don’t bring that energy down. It’s not going to come down in that horse. If I can get that energy back down in myself, and get that horse where it’s real relaxed and feeling of me, I can get that horse to slow down. That’s what you need to do with your mare. If I offer that to that horse by sitting down in the saddle and relaxing, and he doesn’t quite understand that, I’ll resort to my reins. I’ll pick up the reins and get to the horse’s feet. That’s where I’m working at, is slowing the horse’s feet down. But I have to keep my energy down. As I increase my energy, I want his level of energy to come up. But if I want that energy to come back down, I have to bring my energy down. If your energy is up, it’s not going to work. You’re going to be mashing on that horse getting him to go faster and you’re going to be pulling on those reins, and you’re not going to be able to get to that horse’s feet. So it’s important to me that you have that energy in yourself brought down and you’re not necessarily fitting that horse at that faster pace. She’s going to come looking for that and she’s going to find that, and she’s going to get herself brought back down. Tom

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