Professional horsemen boost their technique and their horses’ performance by sharing knowledge across disciplines.
When barrel racer Michele McLeod won two rounds at the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo on Slick By Design, she was quick to give credit to reined cow horse trainer Ron Ralls for his role in the stallion’s success.
Ralls’ earnings in the cow horse arena are approaching $1 million. So what was he doing warming up a barrel horse at the NFR and helping McLeod and the stallion head down the alleyway into the Thomas & Mack Center arena in Las Vegas, Nevada? It turns out that McLeod and the stallion’s owners, multiple American Quarter Horse Association champions Jason Martin and Charlie Cole of Highpoint Performance Horses in Pilot Point, Texas, enlisted Ralls to help give the already successful horse an extra edge.
Slick By Design added $138,346 to his earnings at the NFR and helped McLeod finish fifth in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association standings. And although Ralls hasn’t swung a leg over the horse in awhile, the partnership was proof that it’s not just amateur riders who can benefit from collaboration with a trainer. The pros rely on it to increase their knowledge and up their training game.
For Ralls, it’s led to a new slate of barrel racing/horsemanship clinics across the United States. He currently has more than a dozen scheduled, and they fill up fast. The Whitesboro, Texas, trainer says the crossover between barrel racing and reined cow horse isn’t as odd a pairing as it first sounds.
“Good horsemanship is not broken down into different disciplines,” Ralls says. “A horseman can teach the mechanics of a horse and how a horse is made to help someone understand what it takes for it to excel at any job it’s asked to do.”
Western Horseman asked leading trainers C.R. Bradley, Todd Crawford, Casey Deary, Michele McLeod, Ron Ralls and Boyd Rice about their experiences riding with other professionals, how it has benefited their programs and changed their outlooks on training.
What made you seek advice from a trainer in a different discipline than your own?
C.R. Bradley: I’m looking for different ideas and things to try with my [rope] horses. I usually go to cow horse trainers, because the way they ride transfers to all of the other disciplines. Their horses are very broke.
Todd Crawford: Each of the events that we do [in reined cow horse] is quite specialized. As tough as the combination of all three events—reining, herd work and fence work—has gotten, you need to be as specialized as you can in all three.
There are so many different ways of doing things. Take horse racing, for example. The way [racehorse trainers] take care of a horse’s legs or the way they feed a horse might help me with something that I encounter. A pleasure horse trainer or Western riding trainer might help with something I need later on. It’s a constant learning experience. It’s beneficial to have these things in your bag of tools in case you need them someday.
Casey Deary: I think that when we quit learning, we start going backward. A lot of times we get in a pattern of knowing a horse’s habits and routine, and we don’t look at what we’re currently doing. I’ve had friends like [ fellow reining trainers] Jordan Larson and Franco Bertolani, and I’ll say, “Watch this, tell me what it looks like and what you think.” Because what I’m doing may not be working.
I think that anybody who thinks they have it figured out and kind of puts their blinders on to what’s going on around them is at the point where they start to go backward.
Michele McLeod: I’ve been basically self-taught, so I wanted to go ride with other people. One year I had to lay “Slick” off for a little bit. When I was bringing him back, a mutual friend of Ron said I needed to ride with him. In particular, I wanted to learn to counter-canter better. When I had to leave and wasn’t able to take Slick, I thought the best place for him to be was at Ron’s, and he continued to exercise him and keep him traveling correctly.
I also ride with C.R. Bradley. He is a great horseman in his own right. I’ve done a couple of clinics with him. I rode a horse for his wife, Rosie, years ago. C.R. had broke this horse. This was a huge gelding, and C.R. had him so broke and gathered up, you could lope a tiny circle. So I’ve always bounced things off of him, as well.
I think each discipline has people who stand out as true horsemen, who really look at the whole realm of the horse and not just the discipline.
Boyd Rice: When I started doing the cow horse [in 2002], I rode with Todd Crawford. He was trying to get better in the cutting, and I was trying to figure out the reining and the fence work. We fed off each other. The cutting deal came natural to me because that’s all I ever did. The reining was so foreign to me. It took awhile for all of it to start sinking in. It was a challenge.
What are the biggest differences between the disciplines you’ve competed in or studied?
Deary: Probably the most beneficial person from another discipline that I have ridden with was Troy Oakley, who rides and trains Western riding and pleasure horses, and he is an expert at the lead change. Those [trainers] have a lot more control of their horses at every stride. They have the ability to manipulate each and every stride. My reiners are a little more free-moving. But if you look at it, the things that they have the ability to do, the way they teach those horses to change leads and carry themselves, has a lot to do with what I’m looking for in my reining. I feel like I have control, but it’s at a higher speed and a little more of a natural stride [than in pleasure horses].
McLeod: There’s a fine line between the barrel horse and other disciplines—the barrel horse needs to balance its nose out there a little more [than a cow horse or reiner]. The cow horse and the reining horse can get a little bit too behind the bridle for what I prefer. The barrel horse has to run out there and find the balance on its own. The horse needs to be driven up into the bridle and give to the bridle, and driving from behind and not pulling from the front, but with a barrel horse it’s okay if it sticks its nose out just a little bit.
Ron Ralls: The cow horse has to excel at or master three events, where a barrel horse has to be excellent in just one. A cow horse is called on in competition to be its very best in the show pen for approximately five minutes in a run, where a barrel horse needs to be its very best and precise for approximately 20 seconds at a high rate of speed. I’ve found with both disciplines, the broker the horse, the better the performance.
What’s been the most surprising or the best thing you’ve learned from a trainer in a discipline other than your own?
Crawford: [Cutting trainer and National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame rider] Shannon Hall taught me about teaching a horse and making the horse think that the cow did it, rather than having a horse depending on me all the time, and that has made a big difference in the horses that I’m training now.
Deary: It’s hard to narrow down, but I think there is a set of rules that applies to horseback riding, period. A horse has to be able to yield to the left and right bridle rein, and yield to the left and right foot, and yield to your hand when you take ahold. That crosses over into every discipline. But I’ve learned there’s a lot of universal information out there, but a million different ways to relay it to those horses.
McLeod: What’s worked the best for me that I’ve learned through Ron and C.R. is both the counter-canter and how they turn a horse around. I don’t necessarily need to have my horses able to do a full spin, but I have watched both of them and how they make a horse step back and turn around, and for my style, I really like that. With Ron, that’s what stood out. He gets his horses stepping back on their hind end and stepping around, and that works in my program. I haven’t totally mastered it, but I try to put it on my horses—even the finished ones that I get. Even if my horses can step around and do a quarter-turn correctly, that plays a big part in putting them on the barrels.
Ralls: The most surprising thing I’ve had to learn or had to teach is patience and consistency. Most people want instant results and don’t want to take the time to build a solid foundation.
Rice: Maybe just how much there is to learn about a different discipline, and how much it takes to perfect it. It takes a lot of work. But it’s probably made me a better horseman all around, just learning what makes a horse work, getting them softer, having them more broke.
What’s been the hardest thing you’ve had to learn, or the hardest thing to teach others?
Crawford: To slow down—that’s what I get all the time! Probably the hardest thing to do is to be able to slow down, yet still do enough to be competitive, to where you really have the horse’s confidence in what you want to do.
Deary: Early in my career, the lead change was fairly difficult for me. I can remember [working at reining trainer Clint Haverty’s] and having the ability and the timing, but maybe not spending enough time getting the body control that I needed. Working with Troy [Oakley], it became easier for my horses to understand what I was after. He came down to my place and did a little mini-clinic on lead changing. I had all my help there. A lot of stuff we already knew and did, but the way he explained it made more sense and gave us a little different approach.
Ralls: Probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do is break down and put into words what I feel when riding a horse to teach others why I train the way I do.
How has working with other trainers benefited you and your horses, or changed the way you ride and train?
Crawford: It gives you a chance to try something different. I’m the kind of person who likes to tinker with horses, and experiment to try to make a better horse, so when working with other trainers sometimes you get just a small change in the program that makes those horses better.
With 3-year-olds, it gives you an opportunity to haul them somewhere, and they need a lot of hauling. And it gives you a chance to have another set of eyes on them. That can help you advance a horse. Each horse is an individual, and sometimes you can’t take the same approach that you are used to in training. You have to treat them like individuals and try to figure out what makes them work better—and what makes them work worse, so you can avoid that—and sometimes making small adjustments to your program can enhance a particular horse’s ability.
McLeod: Years ago I was able to ride with Sunny Suttle, who trained “Stitch” [Sixth Vision], the horse Brittany Pozzi won the [WPRA] world on. He was pushing me to ride a little more forward than I was at that point in my career. I went to extremes and started riding too forward, and had to work on that. I chose to want to learn and adapt, and I open myself up to try things and change. Now that I’ve started some clinics, I see that most people are so against change that they are holding themselves back. I try to constantly progress and move forward, and be a better horseperson, and ask how I can benefit my horse each and every day.
[Most trainers] have things that have worked over and over, and then you get that one horse where they don’t work. Are you willing to be open-minded and adapt? Even with Slick, he was winning but there were things I was feeling that I thought we could improve on. Working with Ron and C.R., we fine-tuned his footwork.
What does every horse need to know, no matter the discipline?
Bradley: They all need to be broke, no matter what discipline we’re doing. I want a horse to be willing and want to please and do what I ask. And I want control of the horse’s whole body so I can teach it to do anything I want, whether it’s barrels or roping.
Michele and I have done some clinics, and have one in Ohio in April. I don’t actually train horses on barrels, but I ride a lot of barrel horses, getting them broke and getting control of them. Michele and I have a lot of the same ideas on what a horse should be like. Barrel racing and roping are different, but we still want an athletic horse that’s willing to do its job. We have the same style of riding, and it’s all about balance. Balance of the horse is most important, from right to left and front to back. If we can control the horse and its balance, and the horse is willing, we can do anything we want with it.
Crawford: Every horse has got to be able to naturally stop. At our level [in reined cow horse], if a horse can’t stop you’re wasting your time. And no matter what the discipline is, they’ve got to want to stop. If you have that, then you have a big piece of it.
Deary: If a horse understands those four things—move from my left rein, my right rein, my left foot, my right foot—I think you can do anything you want to with it. Obviously I’m not going to take a hunter-jumper and make a great reining horse out of it. But across the board, if you spend time teaching a horse [those basics], that horse is a little more versatile.
McLeod: I think every horse needs to know how to carry itself balanced. We skip steps and we want to hurry. If they can’t trot correctly, how are they going to be able to lope correctly? If they can’t lope a circle, how in the world are you going to be able to run barrels? It’s the same in any discipline.
If you skip a step it’s going to show up when you need it most. So in general, any horse needs to be able to carry itself in a balanced way—broke in the rib cage, shoulders up, driving up in to the bridle.
Ralls: I believe every horse, no matter what discipline, needs to learn to be collected and soft in the body and face to be the best possible athlete it can be, with good, willing forward motion.
Rice: A horse needs the basics of suppleness, where it will drive off its hind end and pick up its shoulders. Those horses are pushing with their hind end, but their front end is controlled and they’re collected. If you can teach them that and teach them to do it in every maneuver, when you put your hand down they’ll be better horses, no matter what you’re doing.
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Western Horseman.