A big hill and deep snow provide the ideal training ground for young horses on the Van Norman Ranch in Northern Nevada.
My legs were heavy, weighed down by the wet snow that had almost of out nowhere accumulated around photographer David Stoecklein’s truck. The cold air made it nearly impossible to catch my breath, despite the fact that the morning’s low temperature was above seasonal averages.
We were 10 minutes into digging out the vehicle on a mostly deserted highway in Northern Nevada, and I was experiencing firsthand the benefits of working 2-year-old colts during the region’s harsh winter months.
For as long as anyone cares to remember, folks at the Van Norman Ranch have put Old Man Winter to use in training young colts. Even the most rambunctious colt can’t put up much of a fight when he’s tromping through snow drifts that reach nearly to the underside of his belly.
“If I have a horse that’s a little touchy or a little goofy about things, I can take him out in the deep snow and sure get him in the right frame of mind pretty fast,” says colt starter Nick Dowers. “When he’s sucking wind, he wants to renegotiate the contract. So, yeah, I really enjoy having the snow to ride in.
“It’s easy to be a bit more brave when working in deep snow because the horses have to work so hard to cause any problems in that stuff. And if you do get bucked off, at least it’s a soft landing.”
Snow isn’t the only reason colts are started in the winter. Cattle are fed in the morning, usually from December through early spring, and the rest of the day can be spent working with the colts. Considering the ranch is still mostly a family operation with few hired hands, it’s important that colt starting comes when time is available.
For seven years, the Van Normans have brought in Dowers for a couple of weeks each winter to assist in starting the colts. He and the rest of the crew will put 10 rides on them—usually 20 to 25 colts each year—and then turn them out until late summer. Then, Dowers comes back to work with the horses again for a few weeks to prepare them for the Van Norman and Friends Production Sale in late September in nearby Elko, Nevada.
“We’re a family operation, so we’ve always started our own colts,” says Ty Van Norman.
He and his wife, Ronda, live and work on the ranch full-time. His dad, Bill, oversaw the livestock operation until his death. Ty’s brother, Troy, is a veterinarian and helps on the ranch when possible. Ty and Troy’s sister, Tilly, also works on the ranch.
“But the family keeps getting smaller these days,” says Ty. “And with the horse sale, we were having trouble getting everything done.”
Veteran horse trainer Bryan Neubert cowboyed in the area for 13 years and developed a close friendship with the family. Neubert recommended Dowers when the Van Normans went in search of help with the colts.
“Nick’s really fit right in,” Ty says. “We didn’t have to do anything different from the way we’d always started colts. But then he’s been able to add to it, too. Nick has spent time with a cutting trainer and a reining trainer through the years, so he can bring new things to the program. It’s been a real benefit because we have buyers who are looking to take these horses into performance events.”
Van Norman horses have breeding tracing to Colonel Freckles, Peptoboonsmal and Smart Little Lena, among others.
“They are just nice using horses,” says Dowers. “They have some great ranch horses, but I could take a lot of them to town and win money on them in the arena, too.”
The family’s breeding program received high honors in 2001 when the American Quarter Horse Association presented the Van Normans with the Best Remuda Award.
There was a time when starting colts in the winter meant spending long days in a slick or snow-covered pasture. Sometime in the 1980s, the Van Normans built a barn next to Bill’s house, allowing everyone to escape the elements for a few hours a day. The building gets cowboys and horses out of the weather for early training, such as sacking out the horses and introducing hobbles.
Temperatures inside the barn aren’t dramatically warmer than those outside, and the area’s howling wind often seems to find its way into the building, but it beats being outside all day. The barn also provides a sort of classroom where hands exchange ideas while slowly bringing the horses along in their training.
A year ago, Neubert returned to his old stomping grounds to assist Dowers and the Van Norman crew. Also on hand at the time was YP Ranch cow boss Jake Brown and several members of his crew. The YP had purchased some mostly unbroke 4- and 5-year-olds from the Spanish Ranch, and was taking advantage of Neubert’s experience to get the horses back on track.
With all this talent available, there was no shortage of ideas being offered when the occasional horse put up a fight.
“It’s great to work with such a good bunch of cowboys,” Dowers says. “Anybody here can step in and ride right along. And with Bryan around this year, there are plenty of ideas and stories about other great horses.”
Once the colts are saddled and ridden a few laps around the barn, the first group is ridden from the barn. They head straight for a snow-covered hill to the left of the barn door, and the horses get a quick introduction to Nevada ranch life.
“If there’s just a couple of inches [of snow] and it’s slick everywhere, that’s not much fun,” Dowers says. “But when there’s a foot or more out there—as there is most years—that’s fun. We’ve never had too many try to buck in that deep snow. Inside or out, our goal is to not have any buck.
“Most of the horses handled the hill pretty good. It really is amazing how nice these horses have become thanks to their breeding. I had one crow-hop just a little this morning, but we haven’t had any just cut out on us. It has been pretty uneventful this year.”
Uneventful is the plan. Some of the colts will go into the ranch’s saddle string, but many will be purchased at the annual sale and live the remainder of their lives as trail or performance horses.
“The family is raising these horses for the general public,” Dowers says. “So we want them to be gentle.”
After a trip up and back down the hill, colts are ridden along a cleared path beside the barn to learn fundamentals. If an issue presents itself, that deep snow is just a few feet away.
“Bryan had a hard time with one of the horses when he got outside the barn, so he took him in that deep snow and made him think a little bit,” Ty says. “Riding in the snow slows everything down and makes the horse work and think about things.
“We have some harsh conditions in this part of the country, with snowy winters and hot summers, but this is one way we can take the conditions we’ve been given and put them to work for us.”
A true buckaroo outfit that takes its training methods from the California vaqueros, Van Norman horses are started in the snaffle bit on their way to becoming finished bridle horses. After 10 rides, colts are turned out for roughly six months before Dowers again works with them to prepare the horses for the sale.
“It’s really rewarding to come back in the summer,” he says. “Some people would think since they’ve been turned out for so long that we’re basically starting over. But we aren’t. After just a little bit of groundwork, it’s like I rode them the day before. It’s amazing how the horses remember so much of what we worked on those first 10 days.
“They get a solid foundation, and then it’s like they spend the next couple of months getting it all figured out in their heads. Come summer, they are ready to be ridden again.”
Dowers handles much of the summer riding while the family and ranch crew are busy moving cattle in August.
“That’s one reason we needed some help getting the colts ridden and ready for the sale,” Ty says. “We were putting in long summer days moving cattle and then had to come home at night and ride colts so they would be ready for the sale in September. We were farming them out to friends to get ready.”
Breeding plays into producing the ranch’s typically good-minded horses. But one thing the family had to be careful of was breeding too much of the performance-horse bloodlines.
“If we breed too much for the cow horse, then the horses start to get too small for use on the ranch,” Ty says. “A lot of horses today are just too small for what we do. It’s nothing for us to ride 12 or 15 miles before we start gathering cattle, so we need horses that can cover some country. They all have a big heart, but we need a big horse to match.”
The ranch normally has 30 to 40 saddle horses. Fillies are started solely to determine their disposition. Some are put into the Van Norman broodmare band, while others go to the sale. Colts held out of the sale start working around the ranch in the fall. At first, many will spend most days saddled and tied to a trailer.
“We don’t want to ride them too hard at that point,” Ty says. “But if they’re already saddled and out there, it gives us a chance to get on them when we have time. If they don’t get ridden that day, then they can learn to stand there with that saddle.”