Training Colts with ranch work is essential and practical.

checkingwindmill webWe often ride colts to check windmill and fences. Giving the colt a job make him a more willing partner. If he knows he isn’t going to be worn out riding all over the hills all day long, his attitude will be positive and willing the next time he is ridden out on the job. Photograph by Ainslie Nielson (Wilson).

Colts are a part of everyday life on the Wilson Ranch in Arthur County, Nebraska. Since I began working for Brad Wilson, my life has revolved around horses of all ages and at all stages of training, both outside colts and those bred here on the ranch.

Up to date Brad has started around 3,500 head of outside horses, including Quarter Horses, Morgans, ponies, Percherons, mustangs, Walkers, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, and many more. The horse is an essential part of life on the Sandhills ranches, as he is all over the West. He is used in every aspect of ranch work on a daily basis, from checking heavies during calving, sorting cows, feeding and fixing fence, to dragging calves in the branding corral.

Training a colt is a progression through stages. The colt starts with groundwork in the round pen. He learns to face and join up, and is then saddled and left in the round pen to get used to the feel of something strange on his back and to the squeak of leather.

After Brad mounts a colt a couple of times, we have worked the colt in the 130-foot round pen, and the colt’s been ridden outside, he’s ready to be put to work.

First Work

The first job a colt is given is to wrangle the horses. This is especially good for young horses who have been raised in a stall or any other small area. The wide open spaces can be a little overwhelming the first time or two, and the colt may not want to go.

Wrangling the horses encourages a colt to move out into a lope and not wander from side to side or go around in circles. Green horses tend to drift and leak out to the side, like pushing a rope uphill. When they see the other horses, they realize their feet can move forward, and it becomes their idea to go.

When it becomes the horse’s idea to move, his mind focuses on going, instead of on being afraid, and his feet free up. If he wants to run off, Brad bends him around until he slows, then lets him move out again.

We also ride colts to check windmills, fences, and heavy cows during calving. If we have a purpose and a destination in mind when we leave the barn, the colt can pick up on this and move out better. Instead of riding aimlessly around the pasture, we ride somewhere, do what needs to be done, and ride home.

Giving the colt a job makes him a more willing partner. If he knows he isn’t going to be worn out riding all over the hills all day long, his attitude will be positive and willing the next time he is ridden out on a job.

We prefer not to trailer the colts. Instead Brad saddles up five or six and ties them together to lead, or we will trail them. Nothing can substitute for the miles you put on a young horse when it comes to getting him broke and gentle.

Cattle Work

If there aren’t windmills to be checked or cows calving, there’s usually some cattle work to be done, either pairing out, moving cows to a new pasture, or gathering heifers to run through the chute for vaccinating. The colts are right there working alongside the seasoned ranch horses, doing their part in pushing the herd and working the gates.

Occasionally Brad has a colt who’s never seen a cow before, and the first time can be scary for that colt. Gathering a herd not only accustoms the young horse to the presence of cows, but also gets him to bend, flex, and move out.

A colt usually goes on to sorting from gathering, whether we hold the herd in the corner of the pasture, which is sometimes more practical, or take the cattle to the corral. Brad works on getting the colts to stop, back up, and turn over their hocks to sort a cow. Even the greenest of horses can be helpful if he is in the right place at the right time.

Brad sorts cows on a colt the same way he does everything else on a young horse, in a calm and relaxed manner that asks and rewards. It doesn’t matter if the colt misses a cow or turns a little too late. Brad can always get the cow back, but not always the colt’s mind. If the colt is rewarded for making a move in the right direction, he will try harder next time.

Asking a colt to go out around a cow that has escaped from the herd is another way to get him to line out and to bend and rate. Brad often uses this opportunity to get the colt focused and begin tracking a cow, and to become accustomed to the feel of something on the end of a rope.

Branding Work

authordraggincalves webThe author drags a calf to the branding fire on a colt almost ready to go home. Calm among the branding commotion, the colt had a solid training foundation and was ready for any type of ranch work. Photograph by Ainslie Nielson (Wilson).

During April and May we help neighbors, friends, and family brand calves. If it isn’t practical to ride to the branding, Brad trailers a load of colts to help gather, sort, and drag calves.

When a colt is moving out well and giving to the bit, Brad ropes on him in the branding corral. He takes the colt into the big round pen beforehand to swing a rope on him for the first time. If the rope bothers the colt and he tries to move away from it, Brad bends him around in small circles until he is no longer scared of the rope whizzing past his head.

Brad also drags a tire or a log around the arena so the colt can get used to the weight and feel of something dallied and dragging along behind.

Brad never drags more than four or five calves on any colt the first time. He keeps the colt in a walk in the herd, and lets him pull the calf at whatever speed he is comfortable. Brad’s Wade saddles have mule-hide horns so he can let the rope slide a little, which makes it easier for the colt to pull.

The branding corral is an excellent training tool in small doses for colts. It might be hard to quit when a colt is doing well, but that’s when Brad changes horses. It’s too easy to overdo it and get a young horse stirred up and unwilling to pull.

When Brad uses colts to doctor cows or calves, he wants them to watch the cow, to rate, and, with the more experienced colts, to hold the cow while he doctors her. Brad will not push the colt any faster than a slow lope to catch the cow. If the colt stays calm and the cow doesn’t get stirred up, Brad can always get the job done. It might take him a little longer than with an experienced ranch horse, but he achieves far more than just getting the cow doctored.

Team Work

Drivingthewagonteam webBrad drives the wagon team with voice commands while he rides a colt. He has more colts ties to the wagon so he can changes his mounts later. Photograph by Ainslie Nielson (Wilson).

During the winter and spring we feed with a team of Percheron work horses named Sodbuster and Silver. They respond to voice commands, allowing Brad to ride a colt and work the team at the same time.

There are usually two or three other colts saddled and tied to the wagon so Brad can change horses down the road somewhere. Occasionally we take along a colt who has never been ridden, just for the experience.

We cake the cows, check windmills, and pair out along the way, the type of work the colt will be doing when he goes home. Jobs requiring just one person are an opportunity to get the colt used to being by himself, and the earlier it’s done, the better.

Riding out alone away from the wagon and the other horses to check a windmill is a big accomplishment for a young horse. He might be unwilling to leave the other horses the first time or two, but it’s very important that he is ridden through this or it could become a problem later on.

Brad also starts colts to drive. Anything and everything from saddle horses and mustangs to half-ponies and Tennessee Walkers have been harnessed to the cake wagon.

Sod and Silver have been hooked up beside so many green-broke youngsters they’ve learned to give the occasional nip when the colt gets out of line or isn’t pulling his share. After a couple of days if Sod or Silver so much as gives a colt a sideways glance, the colt shapes up and pays attention.

Finishing Work

During the final stages of training, Brad often uses the colts who are almost ready to go home to start the colts who have just arrived. He works a new colt in the round pen from horseback until the colt faces and joins up. Then Brad saddled colt has a calming effect on the youngster, and Brad achieves the same result as if he had worked the new colt from the ground.

Using colts for ranch work during their training is essential and practical. Most colts will be used to work cows and ride pastures after they go home and have to be comfortable with a swinging rope and with pulling a calf.

It’s as important at the end of 30 days of training to make the horse our friend as it is to be able to saddle him. When we go out to the barn in the morning, our horses are waiting at the gate for us, ready for the day. It doesn’t take long for the colts to figure it out; in a day or two they have their heads hanging over the fence ready to be caught.

There’s nothing better than a good horse with a lot of heart and a willing mind who will give 101 percent if you ever have to ask for it.

trailingcolts webTrailing colts encourages them to think. Since there’s no rider telling them what to do, they have to figure out for themselves what we’re asking of them. Photograph by Ainslie Nielson (Wilson).


This article was originally published in the October 2001 issue of Western Horseman.

Ainslie Nielsen grew up on a ranch in Victoria, Australia, and worked on cattle stations after high school before attending Agricultural College in the Northern Territory. She moved to the United States in 1996 and now works in Nebraska, where she helps Brad Wilson start colts and is a member of the Wilson Cattle Company ranch rodeo team. 

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