Craig Cameron sets up his young horses for future success with early instruction that lasts a lifetime.
Training horses is most successfully done in layers—teach one step and build on that until the lesson is complete. Texas horseman and clinician Craig Cameron likes to begin that process early by teaching weanlings and yearlings lessons that are the foundation for future training.
Cameron, who with his wife, Dalene, raises a few foals each year at his ranch, starts by handling his horses before they are weaned.
“I believe in being there, if I can, the day they’re born,” he says. “I don’t want to overdo it, but I want to fit naturally into their lives, like their moms, the birds, the sky, the sun, the wind. From there, I like to let them be horses and be with their moms. But I do like to get them up from time to time and put my hands on them. I want them to know that two-legged creatures on this ranch are never going to hurt them.”
He also finds that time spent post-weaning and leading up to the first ride can have an important impact on a horse’s future.
“Everything we’re doing with these young horses is going to make it so much easier, not only for me but for the horse, when he’s old enough and mature enough to be ridden,” Cameron says. “All of this preparation goes a long way in making a nice horse. I believe preparation is the key to success.”
In the first installment of this two-part series, Cameron offers tips on handling weanlings and yearlings on the ground. Next, he will demonstrate ways to further a young horse’s training while working from the back of another horse.
Cameron first handles his young horses when they are still with their dams. Introducing a horse to a rope and halter at this age, when the horse weighs only a few hundred pounds, is much easier than wrestling with a 600-pound weanling or yearling that has never felt a human touch.
“The best time for me to put a halter on a colt is when he’s still with his mom,” he says. “I don’t separate them. I put them both in a small pen, and go in with my 50-foot lariat rope and catch the colt quietly. I don’t ever fight him. I work my way up to where I can touch him and handle him, and then ease a halter onto him. Although I take off the halter when the lesson is over, I want him to feel it and begin the process of him learning how to give to pressure. That’s where it all begins, and it makes such a difference later.”
Accordingly, Cameron doesn’t ever get into a pulling match with a colt.
“I don’t suddenly pick up, snatch or jerk the rope,” he says. “I slowly pick up and hold. The colt will set back and fight a little, but pretty soon he learns that when he gives, I give. When he yields, I yield. When he’s soft, I’m soft.
With a 14-foot lead rope attached to the halter, he continues to reinforce those lessons on pressure and release. Once a colt grasps that concept, Cameron begins to run his hands over the colt’s body, from his head to his legs.
“It’s a process of gentling those horses, not only physically but mentally and emotionally—mind, body and spirit,” he says. “People will ask what I mean by ‘spirit.’ What I mean is that I allow the horse to be a horse. I realize he’s not a human. I allow him to make what we as humans might call mistakes because that’s how he learns. I let him run into a little trouble, and then let him realize that he’s only putting pressure on himself and that he can give to that pressure and find softness and release.
“I make sure there’s always something in it for him.”
These early lessons set the stage for the colt’s continuing education as a yearling.
After a colt is weaned, he is turned out with a buddy to help ease the transition from weanling to yearling. Initially, Cameron brings his colts up at least every two weeks. As they get into the summer and fall of their yearling year, he handles them more frequently to get them accustomed to a routine that will lead to riding.
One of the most important lessons is learning to stand tied. It reinforces the pressure-and-release lessons, and helps teach patience.
“When a horse stands tied, all he’s doing is giving to pressure,” Cameron says, “and pretty soon he figures out that if he sets back he’s only putting pressure on himself.”
He cautions to always tie at least withers height or higher. Tying lower puts the colt at risk of getting a foot over the rope or other situations that can lead to injury.
“The old technique of tying a colt to an inner tube that has stretch in it isn’t a bad idea, either, because these young horses are going to set back until they learn to give to pressure,” he says. “We need to be careful where and how we tie them so they don’t get in trouble. I always tie them on dirt to start out with—never on concrete—and if I can, up against a solid wall where they can’t get into trouble.”
He cautions to never tie an unprepared horse to a fence as you would an older horse, expecting a colt to understand what he should do.
“You’re asking for trouble if you do that,” Cameron says. “Before I tie a horse, I do a lot of work on the ground and teach him to give to pressure. Without that preparation, he could set back and hurt himself or you.”
“And when you do tie a colt, don’t make the mistake of tying him too short, which can make him claustrophobic because he has no release, or tying him too long, where he can get tangled in the rope.”
When a colt willingly stands tied without setting back, showing that he understands pressure and release, Cameron advances the lessons.
“At this point, I believe in putting my hands all over these horses, in more of a rub than a pat,” he says. “Pretty soon I’ll use a soft brush. Brushing really gentles a horse. And I want that colt gentle from the first whisker on his nose to the last hair on his tail.”
Cameron works with a colt until the horse accepts being brushed all over, including down his legs. But he starts cautiously with the legs, knowing that a horse’s instinct will likely cause him to react the first few times his legs are touched.
“If a horse can’t see something, a lot of times he’s going to try to kick it,” Cameron explains. “So I don’t want to stick my head and hands down by his legs. I start with a cue stick and touch a colt’s legs with it first. If it really bothers the horse, one thing I do is take it away before he can kick at it, in an approach-and-retreat style. Pretty soon he’ll get conditioned to feeling something on his legs, so I can rub him and brush his legs, and can take a rope up and down his legs. Then I’ll start picking up his feet with the rope.”
Once the colt accepts the rope around his legs and pasterns, and will pick up his feet with gentle pressure on the rope, Cameron uses his hands to pick up the horse’s feet.
“I never just reach down and grab the horse around the fetlock,” he says. “I always move my hand down his leg really slow, scratching him all the way so he knows I’m there. Then I ask the horse to give me his leg. And in the beginning I don’t hold it too long, and I don’t drop it. I pick it up and set it down gently. By doing that you’ll find that a horse will really gentle up and give you his legs better. They become more willing.”
At this stage, he also introduces the colt to a saddle pad.
“I love using a saddle pad with these young horses because it’s a foreign object to them,” Cameron says. “I start with a small pad because it’s easier to handle. I want to swing it up on his back and rub it all over him. I’ll put it over his neck, run it over his back and take it o over his hindquarters. I’ll toss it on his neck right behind his ears, and run it down over his shoulders and down his legs. It’s all about getting that horse quiet and gentle.”
ADVANCING TO THE ROUND PEN
When a colt is ready for the next step, Cameron moves to the round pen and uses a rope and a flag to continue gentling the colt and also encouraging him to move. He builds on the earlier handling by rubbing the horse all over with a coiled rope, from head to toe. He then builds a loop and tosses the rope across the horse’s hindquarters and around his legs so he learns not to be startled by the feel of the rope. Cameron then uses a flag on the end of a cue stick.
“A lot of people are too aggressive with the flag, but I want to present it in a way he can understand,” he says. “When I first present the flag to a horse, I start by folding it in my hand and just rubbing him with it. Then I keep it up high where he can see it and get used to it. He may need to move away from it in the beginning. His self-preservation instinct is millions of years old, and you can’t take that away. You have to allow him to use that instinct until he realizes the flag is not going to hurt him. But when he does move away, use that great horseman’s philosophy of making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy. Work the flag in a way that allows him to figure out that the easiest thing he can do is stop and accept it.”
Cameron’s goal is to have the horse stand quietly while he moves the flag all over his body. Once a yearling is accustomed to the flag, Cameron adapts the pressure-and-release technique to teach him to move around the pen. It’s all about “following a feel,” he explains.
“We want to teach him to give to pressure on the ground and on his back,” he says. “I start with the halter, and I don’t pull on him. It’s more of a bump, or signal. It’s like somebody tapping you on the left shoulder; you’re going to look to the left. That’s what I’m saying to that horse: Follow that feel. When he gives to pressure, the pressure goes away. Whether we’re leading a horse, working him on the ground or riding him, it’s all a matter of following that feel. The way we present it needs to be quiet, soft and easy.
“The horse will tell me how much or how little pressure I need to use. You need to listen to the horse. He’ll tell you where he’s good, where he’s bad and where he needs help. A relaxed horse will lick his lips, blink his eyes, wiggle his ears, drop his head, and let out his breath.
“And don’t forget that every horse is going to be different, and what we do with one is not necessarily what we do with another. As a horseman, you adjust to fit the horse, the situation and the circumstance.”
At this stage of training, apprehension on the part of either human or horse can cause problems. Cameron cautions that the way you present lessons can have a huge impact— either positive or negative—on a horse’s development.
“A lot of people are very quiet around horses, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “But at some point, if you keep tippy-toeing around a nervous, apprehensive, unsure horse, that horse is never going to make a change and get braver. So you have to do what I call ‘breaking through.’ You have to be a little more assertive, make a little more noise, and present a little more to that horse so he begins to advance.
“Progress is a function of time and intensity, and you must find a balance of both. I always wait until the horse is ready, and present things in a way he can understand. I’m not afraid to go slow, and it’s okay to make a mistake, but at some point you have to break through so he can make those important forward steps we call progress.”
Even a horse that is fairly confident and unafraid may have moments of uncertainty, he says, and that can work to your advantage.
“I realize that a horse might have to get scared to realize he doesn’t have to be scared,” Cameron says. “For example, in the beginning when we present a bareback pad or a saddle to a horse, I’m aware that he might have to buck to realize he doesn’t need to buck. And that’s okay. That’s called learning. It takes time. Learning is a response to a demand to grow, to do something you haven’t done before.
“So much of the time these horses haven’t done these things we’re asking of them. We’re asking something of the horse; he isn’t asking anything of us except a good deal. The way we present it makes a tremendous difference to the horse.”
This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of Western Horseman.