Monte and Stoney Jones use cow work and performance- horse maneuvers to produce versatile ranch horses. Here, they outline the five skills every ranch horse must have, and tips to achieve them when starting your colt.
Monte Jones and his son, Stoney, have spent most of their lives horseback. While working on several West Texas outfits, they’ve become known for their low-stress approach to starting ranch- and working-cow horses.
Monte got his start more than 40 years ago, day-working with his uncle on a ranch in Stonewall County, near Aspermont. At the time, sound horsemanship principles weren’t emphasized as much as they are today.
“I came from the old school, where you didn’t take time to supple a horse,” Monte says. “You just pulled him around and used him as a slave. You could get a horse broke that way, but he sure wasn’t light in the bridle by today’s standards, and it didn’t always make the horse like his job.”
Through the years, Monte realized that by taking time to supple and gradually expose a horse to different elements, he could get the horse working faster and more willingly than if he forced the animal to do something. This is the training philosophy Monte instilled in Stoney, who was riding with his dad by age 4 and doing a full day’s work by age 8.
“Stoney and I believe in taking a lot of time with our horses, letting them learn from their mistakes,” Monte says. “We don’t like to force horses to do anything. We’d rather ease them into things slowly, so in the end they’ll be more correct and solid than if we rushed them.”
This contemporary cowboy horsemanship philosophy has helped the Joneses produce handy horses that excel on the ranch as well as in cutting and ranch-horse versatility competition.
In 2000, Monte was the Ranch Horse Association of America year-end world champion, and the next year he trained the RHAA reserve world champion horse. Both years he had the high-money-earning senior horse.
Stoney’s proficiency with a rope and at the reins has earned him two top-hand and top-horse titles at the Working Ranch Cowboys Association’s World Championship Ranch Rodeo, as well as RHAA money.
For the past seven years, Monte has been semi-retired from cowboying, which has allowed him to focus on breeding and training horses at his Jones Horse Training facility in Old Glory, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Carla. Stoney helped with the training operation until he became a full-time ranch hand at Tongue River Ranch in Guthrie, Texas. There, he and his wife, Sammie, are raising their three young cowboys, Casen, age 5, and 7-year-old twins Cutter and Cooper.
Stoney starts Tongue River’s horses and campaigns them in American Quarter Horse Association, Ranch Cutting Horse Association, RHAA and WRCA competition.
Here, the Joneses discuss the five skills they find most valuable in a ranch horse, and explain how they teach a horse to develop these abilities. Keep in mind, it’s hard to find a horse that can do all of the maneuvers, but if you have a horse with athletic ability, cow sense and a calm demeanor, it just takes time and patience to make his strengths shine.
Skill #1: Flexion
Starting a young horse can be a test of patience, but the Joneses take things one step at a time to prevent unraveling the horse’s mind. They see colt-starting as a challenge, and the reward is seeing how far they can take their horses.
The horsemen start colts as 2-year-olds, riding them lightly and slowly in snaffle bits.
“We try not to scare them or put more on them than they can take,” Stoney says. “We focus on one thing at a time and introduce it slowly. Slow work keeps the horse’s mind on you. If you throw too much at a horse too soon, you’ll push him too hard and blow up his mind.”
The cowboys begin the colt-starting process with suppling exercises to develop a horse’s flexibility, which provides the foundation for all other maneuvers and encourages a horse to be “light in the bridle,” or responsive to soft cues.
With that end in mind, the Joneses recommend a simple system of pressure and release to flex a horse to each side and at the poll. At a standstill, with both hands on the reins, pick up the left rein to saddle-horn level and lay it against your horse’s neck, applying pressure toward the withers. When the horse brings his nose to the left, release the pressure as a reward. Then repeat the drill, asking the horse to give a little more each time, until he brings his nose toward your knee. At this point, adjust the cues and perform the exercise on the horse’s right side.
“Most horses are stiffer to one side than the other,” Monte says. “You just have to work more on the stiff side, but be sure to reward the horse with a release when he gives to the pressure [so he associates yielding to the pressure with the release].”
It’s also important to give the horse a break after a few repetitions so he doesn’t get frustrated and start bracing against the pressure.
Once the horse flexes side to side while standing still, add forward motion and begin working on poll flexion, also known as vertical flexion. As the horse walks, make light contact with both sides of the bit, while driving the horse forward with your legs. At first, the horse will bob his head slightly in response to the pressure. When he does, release the pressure and allow him to walk on a loose rein.
Each time you make contact with the bit, hold the pressure a little firmer and longer, asking the horse to gradually lower his head and tuck his nose toward his chest. Whenever the horse softens to the pressure, reward him with release. Before long, the horse will flex at the poll in response to light pressure.
“All of this takes time,” Monte says. “But developing your horse’s flexibility gets him broke more quickly than if you just get on and start pulling him wherever you want to go.”
Skill #2: Circles
Once a horse starts bending and following his nose, you can start riding circles, using inside leg pressure to arc the horse’s ribcage.
“Riding circles helps keep a horse light and listening to you,” Stoney explains. “We don’t want a horse scared, but we want him to be ready to work when we ask him to do something.”
While walking a circle to the left, keep your inside leg against your horse’s side, which moves his ribcage and hips to the outside of the circle.
Apply just enough inside rein pressure that you can see the horse’s inside eye.
As the horse starts to respect the cues, ask him to arc his body a little more on the circle with light rein and leg pressure. This comes in handy when you start showing a young horse.
“When you take a young horse to town, he sometimes gets distracted and looks around the arena,” Monte says. “But if you’ve done your homework, you can cue him to get him collected and focused on you.”
The Joneses begin and end each ride walking their horses.
“I don’t believe in getting on a horse, loping him for a while, then getting off,” Monte says. “I want a horse to be able to trot, lope, then drop to a loose-rein walk at the end of the session.”
To keep things fresh, vary the circle size and the speed at which you work the horse. The more energetic the horse, the smaller the Joneses advise making the circle and the more contact you should have with the horse. That way, you can quickly establish control of the horse if he becomes aggressive. As the horse relaxes, increase the circle’s diameter and loosen the rein contact.
Stoney also advises adding a degree of difficulty to the circling routine by riding in figure eights, saying doing so is a good way to practice lead changes.
“Our main goal is to ride at any speed on a loose rein,” Monte says. “I’ve had people ask me how we get our horses to move on such a loose rein, and I tell them it’s something we practice all the time, whether we’re riding in the arena or doing ranch work.”
When the cowboys are day-working, they just ride, have fun and do their jobs, saving their training for the practice pen at home. This keeps their horses fresh and willing to work wherever they’re ridden.
A rollback makes pen and fence work more efficient, and it’s a critical maneuver in ranch-horse competition. Furthermore, it’s the precursor to a turnaround, one of the hardest maneuvers to teach a horse correctly.
“Old-timers used to tell me that a horse didn’t need to know how to turn around to watch a cow,” Monte recalls. “They’re right, but if you want a broke horse, one that can do anything you ask of him and move in a moment’s notice, he needs to know how to do it all. That’s the kind of horse I want.”
To teach a horse to roll back over his hindquarters, take him into an arena, large round pen or a soft, level spot in the pasture. Establish a long trot. As the horse moves straight and consistently, sit deeply and apply backward rein pressure, asking him to stop. Then, back him a couple of steps to set his inside hind pivot foot. Immediately apply inside leg and rein pressure to turn him and drive him forward out of the turn.
Once your horse can perform a fluid rollback, return to riding the horse on circles, gradually spiraling into a turnaround or spin.
“If you tip the horse’s nose to the inside and hold his hip in place, he’ll start to plant his pivot foot,” Stoney explains. “Start with a quarter-circle spin, then advance to three-quarters and a full spin.”
Skill #4: Stops
Of all the maneuvers the Joneses teach a horse, stopping is the most important for control.
“If a horse can’t stop, he can’t do anything,” Monte says. “If you’re going to rope, work a cow, or do anything else with the horse, he must know how to stop.”
Before a horse can stop, however, he must respect your rein and leg aids, and be flexible through the poll.
“I like a horse that will lower his head get behind the bridle and really drive his hocks under his body when he stops,” Monte explains. “And do it without me having to pull on the reins.”
To achieve such softness requires consistent training in and out of the round pen and arena. The Joneses incorporate stopping into every aspect of training, as well as when working cattle.
Their basic cues are applying backward pressure on the reins and sitting down in the saddle, signaling the horse to stop. When the horse halts, ask him to back a couple of steps to keep his weight on his hindquarters.
As the horse becomes more responsive to the cues, begin asking for faster and better stops, building to a sliding stop.
“We like a horse to have stopping on his mind,” Stoney explains. “He has to stop if you’re turning back or roping a cow. You can make up for a lack of cow sense if your horse handles well.”
When the Joneses are ready to start a colt on a cow, they track a slow cow around the pen in 30-minute sessions for a couple of days. To move the cow forward, they ride toward the animal’s hip or head. Next, they ride beside the cow and allow the horse to set up and stop it. Then they step toward the hip or head again to send the cow forward.
“I like to keep the horse a couple of feet behind the cow to develop his confidence,” Monte says. “Wherever the cow goes, I guide the horse. As the horse starts to follow the cow on his own, I move closer.”
When the horse is tracking the cow at a walk, vary the speed at which you track the cow to keep your horse’s attention. You can also swing your rope to accustom the horse to the rope’s sight and sound.
“We take our colts to brandings, where we heel a few calves at a time, giving the horses a break from the round pen,” Stoney explains.
“Horsemanship plays a big part of working cattle in the branding pen. Things happen a lot faster, and you must be able to control your horse and know when to give him a break so he doesn’t get tired of it.”
Stoney emphasizes the importance of working a horse slowly, selecting the smallest calves and taking time to get the horse into position to rope the calves without stressing the horse. The horseman adds that if your horse becomes nervous, dull or resistant, it’s a sign that he needs a break.
After about three weeks of riding, the Joneses introduce their prospects to the mechanical cow. The benefit of using a mechanical versus a live animal when starting a colt is that you have complete control of the cow’s movement and can adjust the speed and difficulty as your horse builds confidence.
“Even if the horse doesn’t have a lot of cow, a mechanical cow can help him learn to lock on to the cow—it’ll just take a little more time [than if the horse has a lot of cow sense],” Monte says. “Working a mechanical cow also gives you a reason to stop and turn your horse beyond dry work.”
In the beginning, set the mechanical cow on the slowest setting, allowing your horse to gain confidence stopping and turning with the cow. As the horse learns to work the cow on his own, with little to no cues, you can speed up the action, challenging the horse and keeping his attention.
Both Stoney and Monte agree that a big part of being a horseman is knowing how much pressure to put on a horse and when to do it.
“We don’t work the horse too long on the dummy,” Stoney says. “Whenever a horse makes a few good turns, we quit and do something else for a while, and come back to it. If you work too much on the mechanical cow or ask for too much too soon, your horse loses interest. Whatever we’re doing with our horses, we try to keep them willing and liking their jobs.
“These days, many horses are asked to do too much too soon, and that’s how you blow up a young horse. That’s why it’s important to be slow and consistent in your training.”
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. Send comments on this story to [email protected].