This Month’s Expert Sandy Collier
Trainer and clinician Sandy Collier is a multiple National Reined Cow Horse Association and American Quarter Horse Association world champion, and is an NRCHA and AQHA judge. Riding Miss Rey Dry, she was the first and only woman to win the open at the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity. Collier was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2011 and the NRCHA Hall of Fame in 2012. Visit sandycollier.com for more information.
Q: My horse was previously shown in working cow horse and is very “cowy.” However, I’d like to focus more on reining, and whenever we enter the arena to compete, he gets very anxious and anticipates a cow. How can I calm him down and keep his attention on me?
A: Cow horses sometimes have a hard time going in to do the reined work because they think there will be cows behind the gate. If I have horses like that, I enter paid practices. It’s really the only place you can go and sit in the middle without worrying about wasting a judge’s time.
If your horse wants to fidget around in the center of the figure eight, back a little circle with his nose and hip tipped to the inside. Make the maneuver be work, but quieting and suppling work. Then drop your reins and ask him to stand. If the horse squirms, back into a circle again, and drop your reins and ask him to stand. You might spend five minutes doing that.
Once you start doing the pattern, many horses will get quiet again. If your horse gets anxious or starts to run off, use the paid practice time to school him.
When the pattern is complete and [the horse realizes] there’s no cow, get off in the middle of the pen, loosen the cinch, take his boots off, and walk out. That is the reward. After you do that a few times in a paid practice, pretty soon the horse won’t think, “Oh my gosh, there’s a cow behind the gate, and I get to work it soon.”
You can do this exercise anytime a horse gets nervous, whether it’s a barrel horse waiting to go into the arena or a cow horse waiting for the cow to be let out. It works for everyone. Just be sure you’re in a paid practice when you try it.
The key is that your horse has to really work hard if he decides to move. After backing him into a circle, he’s more supple and quiet, and that’s why I like it. After a while, the horse makes the choice to stand because the alternative is so much work.
Q: I’m a 60-year-old woman, and I have been taking lessons from a great trainer. She trained my horse from a foal, and he is coming on 9 years old. I go in the “young at heart classes” at the show, and while my horse is trained, some horses aren’t, and I’m worried about the domino effect in the warm-up pen. Is there anything I can do to keep my horse and me safe?
Peg, New Hampshire
A: This is one of those things that you have to work around. Like people, I’ve had horses that got nervous being in the pen during fencing—or running to the fence and stopping—which can be dangerous if you’re not paying attention. Some horses couldn’t handle a horse running toward them. Some people get nervous being in a pen with advanced, open competitors who ride at a faster pace. However, there are ways you raise a horse’s tolerance to other unruly horses, just as you can raise your tolerance.
Your nervousness may mean you have to get up earlier, maybe in the middle of the night, or practice during a different time of day, until you get accustomed to being in the pen with other horses of varying levels of training.
Start by going to a smaller show that may not have a lot of competitors. Then progress up to bigger and bigger shows, until the thought of being in there with other riders doesn’t make you nervous. You can train yourself to be more aware of your surroundings and spot an accident before it happens. By then, maybe your horse will have reached the point where he doesn’t get nervous either. Maybe he was nervous because he could feel you were nervous. Start at the littlest, most grassroots-level show, and make sure your trainer is aware of your concerns so she can help you through it.
A lot times it will be really busy in the practice pen, and you can learn a lot if you hang out and sit in a corner where you’re out of the way. Sometimes riders have to go to their class or change horses, and then there will hardly be anybody in the pen. In the meantime, your horse has had to stand around a lot, which is always a good thing, and then you get your chance at riding in a quiet pen.
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