This Month’s Expert Mike Major

Mike Major

In 2006, Mike Major rode Smart Whiskey Doc to a working cow horse championship at the American Quarter Horse Association Select World Championship Show. Then, in 2009 and 2010, he and the stallion won the AQHA versatility ranch horse open world championship. Major rode Black Hope Stik, a daughter of Smart Whiskey Doc, to win the 2010 Project Cowboy and the 2012 AQHA versatility ranch horse open world championship. Major and his wife, Holly, have a training facility in Bowie, Texas.

Q: How do I make my horse transition from doing a simple lead change to a flying lead change? My mare has been taught before, and I want to make sure I don’t confuse her when I ask.
Kent, Wisconsin

A: I never do simple lead changes on my horses. I break my horses into three body parts: their neck, shoulders and hips. I want the horse’s body parts broke down to where I have control of each one independently. This will make transitioning leads easier.

Make sure you have control and keep the neck, shoulder and hips soft, so you can move them right or left. A lot of the things I ask when performing a sidepass are to get control of the horse’s body parts. If you get to where you can half-pass or sidepass your horse, then you should have the body control to keep the horse’s momentum going during a lead change. You’re essentially asking the horse to sidepass in a lope from the left lead to the right lead.

The biggest problem you’re probably going to have is the horse trying to break gait when you ask for the change. What happens when you start doing simple lead changes on your horse is you break her down [a gait] and then she hollows out. From the trot, you have to gather her back up and ask for the lope again. It’s the worst thing for a horse to do. Your horse needs to be kept collected and move her hip over.

Make sure you keep that horse loping [forward]. If you have to go into a counter-canter—loping on the right lead in a left circle, for example—keep that horse loping and keep her shoulder picked up. Keep the forward momentum, and if you’re going into that right lead, make sure you pick up that right shoulder and move it to the outside and push the right hip into the direction of the lead.

Usually, riders do not have their horses adequately giving their hips and aren’t able to pick up that shoulder. If you’re moving to the right, move that hip to the right make sure you keep that right shoulder picked up so you don’t drop her shoulder into the lead.

Q: What is a safe, effective way to teach a horse to ground-tie? I think it’s an essential skill for an all-purpose horse to have, but I’m not sure how to start the process.
Sam, Idaho

A: I teach all my horses to hobble, especially if they’re on the ranch. But if I get a new horse who has never been hobbled, I need to start teaching him to ground-tie. I will not attempt to teach a horse to ground-tie unless he is tired at the end of a workday. At the end of a workday, he’s pretty tired and not wanting to go [forward]. He’s content standing still. That is the best time to start on your ground-ties. Pretty soon it gets to where you can drop the bridle reins, and the horse is like, “Yes, I’m just going to stand here forever.”

First thing in the morning, a horse will be full of energy and wanting to go. If he ever starts to learn to walk away, you’ll end up teaching him to walk away. Once he learns he can walk away, it’s really hard to break that habit.

When I come in and unsaddle a horse in the evenings, I’m going to lead him to the middle of the barn, drop the bridle reins, give the verbal cue “whoa,” and move away from him. It’s important that it’s a place where he’s comfortable, where he’s used to being saddled and unsaddled.

If the horse starts to move and take a couple steps, I’m going to put his legs back to where he was standing. All four of the horse’s feet should be evenly placed. If the legs are standing off-balance with one leg cocked or placed a half step forward, the horse is going to shift his weight, which will cause him to take a step. But, if you have all four feet set up, he has to make a physical movement [and effort] to make that move.

If you’re not going to be far away from your horse and you can be attentive, try dropping the reins. If your horse takes a step, walk over and make him stand back where he was, say “whoa” and drop the reins again. Don’t pet him, but instead walk away or walk in a different direction. Walk toward his back end and then away so you’re not drawing him to your body.

At the end of the day, I’ll work with a horse until I can walk all the way around him. When saddling in the morning, I’ll drop the bridle reins or lead rope, unless I have to walk far enough away to where he can get away and I can’t see him.

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