Before working a young horse on cattle, Wayne Robinson makes sure he’s built a relationship with that horse.

There’s a lot of pressure to get cutting horses prepared for a futurity, but Wayne Robinson has found plenty of success by staying out of the fast lane. 

The Millsap, Texas, trainer has learned that there’s little point in starting a horse on cattle until it has connected with him and is comfortable allowing him to control its feet.

Wayne Robinson on tank dam
Wayne Robinson uses the natural terrain, such as this tank dam, to help his horses learn to use
their feet correctly. Photo by Christine Hamilton

“A lot of people just go work a cow, but they’re just [a rider] on a horse in the arena with some cattle, and they’re really not getting much done,” Robinson says.  “The horse is still scared and not comfortable with himself.”

“Each colt is different, but to get one where I can put him on a cow, I need to first get him with me, in between my reins and my legs. I want him to look to me for security. A colt has to learn that wherever you take him, you’re not going to get him in trouble.”

Giving a 2-year-old the confidence and skills needed to work cattle requires plenty of time with that horse, but slowing down pays off in the long run.

“My job is to get these colts ready for the rest of their lives,” he says, “and that’s important.”

Guide the Feet
Before teaching a horse to work a cow, the rider must be able to control all four corners of the horse, so to speak.

“You have to be able to control his feet, because you’re going to need that on a cow,” Robinson says. “He’s got two front legs and two hind legs; which corners aren’t working?  They’ve all got to complement each other.”

To gain the control he needs, Robinson spends a lot of time riding both in and out of the arena, and takes advantage of obstacles to help the horse.

“I use whatever I can find to teach that horse something, and get him to where I can move the front end, move the hind end, teach him how to back up, teach him how to move each of his feet,” he says. “There are a lot of obstacles out there; you don’t have to be in an arena all the time. I like to go out and about, and make it enjoyable and interesting for the horse.”

horse on low wooden bridge
Using a low wooden bridge, Robinson can teach his horses to respond to his cues to move
their feet. Photo by Christine Hamilton

For example, Robinson crosses a small wooden bridge to work on stopping, stepping up and down, and backing. He can easily gauge where the horse’s feet are and if there are trouble spots. He also uses a pond bank to help the horse understand how to turn on its hindquarters.

“You have to figure out which foot isn’t getting out of the way,” he says.

One essential part of Robinson’s program is to connect the horse’s head to its feet.

“I don’t want to over-bend the neck and leave the feet behind, welded to the ground,” he says. “That’s probably one of the worst habits you can get a colt to do. I bend the head and neck to teach him how to move his feet.  The feet need to go in the same direction as his head and neck. When that head starts coming, the front feet need to start coming. A horse that just bends his head and neck can run off; the head, neck and feet have to work in conjunction.

Stay Straight
On their first rides, many colts tend to wander and drift. As soon as he gets control, though, Robinson wants to keep his colts on a straight path.

“I’ve figured out that as soon as I can add straight and forward [movement], a colt really likes it,” he says. “He gets comfortable. And at that point, you haven’t really got much else on him. You can’t really slow him down and you haven’t taught him to back up or turn. But when you get him going straight he’ll get comfortable. When he starts getting crooked in his body, and he’s got more kinks than a cheap garden hose, look out!”

Straightness will pay off when you do start a horse on cattle, Robinson adds, and ask it to push a cow. And it is the basic point from which other maneuvers begin.

horse with cattle
Once a 2-year-old is started on cattle, he works to keep the horse correct. Photo by Christine Hamilton

“Straight and forward will fix 80 percent of your problems,” he says.

Offer Support
Young horses are like young children; they require encouragement to be successful. Robinson wants his colts to quickly learn that they can turn to him for support.

“I’m concerned about a colt until he starts checking back with me for security,” he says. “You have to learn to feel when he’s getting unsure and where he needs help. If he gets scared, does he take off instead of letting you support him?”

Learning to recognize a young horse’s insecurity is paramount, and must happen before that horse ever works a cow. The trainer offers assurances through pats on the neck and slow, steady movements, rather than rushing or pushing the horse to do something beyond its capabilities.

“You want him to be comfortable. You don’t want it to be a bunch of drama every time he sees a cow,” Robinson says. “You have to help him, so it’s not all up to him to figure it out. When he gets a little bit scared or insecure, you’re going to be there to support him. Remember, if he’s having trouble getting stopped or slowed down, or moving his front end or rearranging his feet away from a cow, he’s going to have the same trouble working a cow.”

Getting overly critical at this stage does more harm than good, too.

“It’s okay to be particular, but don’t get critical,” he says. “As soon as you start getting critical you’re going to scare him, and you’ll take out a little bit of try and a little bit of trust.”

At the same time, Robinson says it’s okay to let a horse show uncertainty; it’s the only way that colt will learn.

“I don’t mind one drifting away from what he’s scared of,” he says. “Drifting with support is not leaving. I don’t try to hold a colt when he’s scared. I let him move. But as soon as he thinks about leaving, I say, ‘no, you come back to me.’ I let his feet move, because in doing that I can teach him how to move his feet. I don’t try to contain him. If you try to contain a horse [that’s scared], that energy is going to come out somewhere, and it’s not going to be pretty.

“So I get away from what he’s scared of and then bring him back. Pretty soon those colts will get a lot of security knowing that if they get scared of something, they can drift away and then go back to it.”

Keep it Simple
Trying to do too much too fast leads to confusion for a young horse, Robinson says. He likes to keep the lessons slow and simple so that each day builds on the one before.

praising horse
Giving encouragement and ending on a positive note is important to Robinson, who says it
makes a difference in the way the horse reacts to him the following day. Photo by Christine Hamilton

“With these colts, for example, you have to teach one how to stop,” he says. “A lot of people say, ‘I want him to stop, draw, and get right across a cow right away.’ But that’s the last thing to get. First of all, you have to teach him to slow down, then to put a little effort into slowing down, and then get him to stop. Break it up for your colts. Take the confusion and frustration out of it.”

Doing so will not only keep a colt progressing, but prevent problems that can occur when a young horse gets confused or scared by a rider who gets in a hurry, kicks or pulls too heavily on the horse’s mouth.

“Some colts, when they don’t understand, it doesn’t really bother them,” Robinsons says. “But some get a little confused and man, it bothers them. They will buck you off or run off with you. So you want to take that frustration out of it to help them.” The same goes when you add speed to any lesson. “You have to take the colt to a point where he starts to get a little unsure and then back off, and then take him back up again. You just keep building,” he says. “You have to start right to finish right. He has to get comfortable. A lot of people can get one going somewhere, but that colt is going with a tightness, a scaredness. I want him to eventually be able to go wide open as comfortably as he just stands around.

“You want a colt’s attention. A lot of times people get his attention, but it’s in a bothered, worried frame of mind. If he’s worried, you’ll never trust him and he’ll never trust you.”

End Positively
It doesn’t matter to Robinson if he encountered training problems on any given day. He still wants to leave a colt in a positive frame of mind.

“I was taught that they learn what they live, and they live what they learn,” he says. “So each day, whatever I’m doing, I want to leave him in the best possible place mentally as I can. That way, each day will be better.”

“I might walk him around a bit and get him where he’s content. Even if he relaxes just for a moment, I’ll get off,” he says. “I’m amazed that if you leave him in a good spot, how much better he gets after just 90 days.”

Article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Western Horseman.

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