A legendary horseman speaks about the five most important things a horse must have to make the cut in the Californio culture.

Cooperation between horse and rider is essential when throwing a big loop like a figure-eight. Photo by Shannon Lawlor
  1. I want to see a horse that has a thin neck, because it helps for a good headset.
  2. I want to see high withers and a nice back — not a “hog back,” which is a ridge running down the backbone.
  3. I want to see slope to the shoulders and hips.
  4. I want to see a little set to the hocks and straight front legs. Another thing is the colt has to have good bone in the legs, and feet that aren’t too small. By small I mean where he’s poking holes in the ground every time he walks, like a kid on a pogo stick went by. He must have good feet. That helps keep hoof problems down.
  5. I want to see a ribcage that’s been flared out. Now, what I mean by that is that the colt, by the time he’s weaned, starts to fill up with hay or grass. There’s a reason to feed for a good ribcage that flairs out. If the colt’s belly stays full with grass or hay, it causes that ribcage near the flank area to flair out and grows that way. That’s why the Californio could have a saddle with only one cinch. He didn’t need a back cinch, because it wasn’t going to do him any good anyway.

A saddle fits, because you feed for it to fit. Find a horse weaned and fed like that early, and it’ll grow that way and stay that way rest of its life. Good grass and hay are best, whereas if you use hot feed, such as the feed they give racehorses, the horse will not grow the same. Those young race colts have to be fed hot feed so they can stand up and keep going out on the track. Because of that, those colts get “one gutted”— it doesn’t get the bulk and therefore its ribcage never flairs out. Then it takes a breast collar, a back cinch or something like that to keep the saddle on. I don’t like that. I don’t have a need for a double-rigged saddle, because I watch what I’m doing and I watch how I feed. If I’ve found I had to ride a horse that’s one gutted, I’ll just pull my saddle back off of him and find another one that it’ll fit because I don’t use breast collars.

I guess those are some of the main things I look for in a candidate of that sort. Find me a horse like that, and they’ll stand the gaff. A horse I ride won’t see a lot of pavement, so he has to be good in the mountains, the brush country, over rocks and everything else a fellow might find himself covering in a day’s work. I’ve had some good horses. They may be gone now, but I can still remember every step we took.

To learn more about Ernie Morris, visit elvaquero.com.

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