Preparation is key when it comes to successfully starting a colt. In this article, California clinician Richard Winters, winner of the 2008 Road to the Horse colt-starting challenge, explains how to direct your colt to his full potential without pushing him over the edge.

 IT WAS AN AFTERNOON of evalutation. Ojai, California, horseman Richard Winters had trailered to Ted Robinson’s barn in nearby Oak View for some honest feedback and constructive criticism.

With nearly 30 years of experience, Winters was beginning to focus more on a discipline for which he’d always had a passion: reined cow horse. He had a couple of futurity prospects he’d been working with, and Robinson was the perfect person to assess his work. The most successful rider in the history of reined cow horse competition, Robinson has won seven National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity championships and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles.

Winters’ challenge had been finding a bridge between horsemanship and performance.

“I’ve been playing sandlot baseball with my horses for 30 years,” Winters says. “But there’s another level. It doesn’t need to be a contentious level, but when you leave the sandlot and go to the major leagues you’re insisting on excellence.”

Richard Winters leading a colt.
Now a full-time clinician, Winters’ upbringing made him somewhat of an unlikely horseman. Raised in the suburbs of Fresno, California, his parents were non-horse folks who worked in town. The most contact he had with horses as a boy was through John Wayne movies and his toy collection.

Itching for more, 12-year-old Winters pedaled his bicycle to a local stable and pestered the owner until he got a job tacking up a dude string and guiding tours. In high school, he landed a job wrangling horses at a kids’ camp south of Yosemite. The experience gave him the confidence to track down a local horseman and ask for work.

He ended up on the doorstep of Troy Henry, an early proponent of natural horsemanship and a bridle-horse trainer. Winters was looking for an opportunity to start colts, but was instead asked to muck stalls. Eventually, he got to ride.

“Looking back, I probably didn’t have any business riding some of those horses,” Winters says. “But it gave me a taste for what higher levels of horsemanship could be—what a fine bridle horse felt like and what it felt like to be in front of a cow on a horse that was truly broke.”

He’s since dedicated himself to horsemanship, and finding ways to bring out a horse’s potential through feel, timing and understanding. He’s spent hours in arenas with horses and handlers, helping them better understand one another. It’s his sense of “doing what’s best for the horse” that’s made Winters’ transition into the competitive arena so hard, Robinson says.

He’s a horseman, but to step it up to that show level is difficult for him,” Robinson says. “Richard keeps saying, ‘They’re 3 years old, and this is where they should be,’ and he’s correct. But it’s not that way when you’re trying to win something at a horse show.”

Winters is careful to not push too hard or too soon. He’s cognizant of his colts’ minds and bodies. He seeks perfection, but offers understanding. He admits that perfect balance between horsemanship and showmanship is still difficult to achieve, but in the end, his experience offers something much greater: a solid foundation for either.

“Any of the top guys could get on one of Richard’s horses and win something,” Robinson says. “He has an eye for an individual.”

Here, Winters provides readers with a “colt-starting compass,” a guide to gauging how prepared you are for the process, and tips on how to direct your horse to the strong foundation that can unleash his potential.

A colt is often unsure of himself, and needs leadership to guide him to his full potential.
A colt is often unsure of himself, and needs leadership to guide him to his full potential

I’M NOT MECHANICALLY INCLINED, but suppose I decided to save a few bucks and install a new truck engine myself. I’d work diligently for a few nights in my garage until I had parts scattered all over. Then I’d realize I’m not qualified for the job. I’d call a real mechanic, who’d see all those scattered parts, then tell me that he can put the engine in for me, but wishes I’d never started the job myself.

I’ve seen this scenario time after time with those who thought that—either to save money or experience the process personally—they’d start their own colts. Many of these well-intentioned folks quickly realized they were in over their heads.

Almost anyone can be a rider. Riding is simply the art of not falling off. Horsemanship, however, is a more elite club, reserved for those who want to do more than kick to go and pull to stop. The aspiring horseman recognizes there’s a lifetime of knowledge and understanding our horses can give us if we’re willing to invest in ourselves. For those who are serious about horsemanship, only some are up to the challenge of colt starting.

Over the years, I’ve taught many colt-starting clinics. With proper guidance and support, many folks are able to support their colts through the first saddling, mounting and riding. Yet, invariably, there are some who aren’t up to the challenge. To lead a colt, we must be mentally, emotionally and physically fit. Older, broke horses can often be there for us, but young colts can’t. Without leadership, colts are left to their own devices and self-preservation instincts. Someone has to be brave and self-confident. It’s not going to be your colt, so it had better be you.

People also need to consider the time commitment involved in colt starting. We don’t send our kids to school on Tuesday and then again on Friday. Colts, like children, need the routine and consistency of daily lessons. A couple of sessions a week isn’t going to cut it if you’re trying to build a solid foundation. I try to ride my colts at least five days a week, and with that kind of consistency they progress nicely. Still, on Monday, all the colts feel a little fresh and a little rough around the edges after two days off. Believe me, that spirals downward with a more erratic schedule.

Don’t get me wrong—colt starting can be a rewarding,

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