To be successful at anything he does on the ranch, on the trail or in the arena, your horse must have confidence. The key to developing his self-assurance is eliminating confusion and fear, and creating a positive experience he’ll willingly repeat.
In this exclusive, six-part series on developing a confident cow horse, you’ll read about philosophies and techniques for getting a horse and cow to do what you want in the most logical and efficient way possible. You’ll learn how you influence your horse’s abilities, how to analyze situations from your horse’s perspective and reason with him, how to capitalize on his instinctive behavior and past experiences, and ways to use cattle as a training aide. By the end of the sixth lesson, you and your horse will have the foundation skills necessary to bring in the herd, load it into a stock trailer, and sort and doctor cattle.
The theories and methods will be related in terms of developing a cow horse, but much of the information can be applied to any discipline, especially this month’s lesson on rider position.
In order for your horse to perform at his peak ability, you need to remain in a neutral position, or one that enhances your horse’s abilities. Being able to feel how your horse reacts to your weight and position is an important and often overlooked aide. In this article, you’ll get the tools you need to understand and feel how your body position, as well as your rein aides, help and hinder your horse’s balance and movement. Then you can make the necessary adjustments to your riding to help your horse reach his full potential.
A Different Way of Thinking
The premise of my training program is to make things as easy and as natural as possible for a horse to understand and implement. For years, I’ve studied how to motivate a horse by making sure he understands his job; by capitalizing on prior experiences with his dam, in the herd or in the pasture; and by using body position and a soft feel on the reins to encourage a horse to move freely in the direction I want.
Many people interpret a horse’s motivation as speed, but that’s not true. Motivation is just as much about willingness. Your horse needs to be motivated to do something, and if he’s unprepared, confused, nervous or uncomfortable, he probably won’t want to do it again.
Confidence comes from gradually exposing the horse to the job you want him to do, and relating it to past experiences, so he has a clear understanding of what you’re asking him to do. Before your horse was saddled for the first time, he already had experience tracking his mother or a herd, changing leads, turning, stopping and doing other maneuvers. A horse naturally knows how to do these things, until you add a rider’s weight to the equation.
Most of the problems I see people having with their horses relate to head position and lateral movement. For the most part, these problems stem from poor rider position, and the horse compensating to avoid being off balance.
A horse balances with his head and neck. If your weight distribution or rein aides alter your horse’s head position, balance and body position the slightest bit, you’ll also affect his foot placement and cause unnatural effects, such as undesirable head position and a dropped shoulder. That’s because a horse must be able to move its head in a natural way in order to move its feet freely. If you have a tight hold on the reins, your horse will raise his head, brace against the pressure and stop, instead of lowering his head or tipping his nose to one side and moving his feet in the direction of travel, the way he does in the pasture.
It’s a common belief that a horse’s instinct is to go against pressure. I’m not of this opinion. I believe that a horse instinctively moves away from pressure. This relates to the way horses evolved as prey animals. The horse’s first reaction to a threat is to flee, which is essentially going away from pressure. If the horse can’t escape the predator, or pressure, he’ll go against it.
Watch Your Weight
When I was younger, an excellent bridle horseman in Nevada told me that the key to moving a horse to the left is to put more weight on his right side, and vice versa. I grew up with this philosophy and, as I got older and tested it on thousands of horses, I discovered that his theory is sound and applies to other things we do with our horses.
It’s fairly simple for your horse to remain balanced on a straight line. Even if you shift your weight to the front, back, left or right, he can usually compensate for you without altering his path of travel. Most balance-related issues occur while a horse is changing direction or doing a lateral movement.
These movements are the foundation of just about anything you do with a horse, including lead changes and turnarounds.
If you want to maximize your horse’s potential in any discipline, you must learn to position your body so that it helps, rather than hinders, his movement. You can eliminate several training issues by simply staying out of your horse’s way.
Think of your horse’s spinal column as a chain. If you grasp the end of the chain, which represents your horse’s nose, and drag it to the left, all of the links, or vertebrae, will follow the same path in an arced manner.
Now, watch your horse change direction on his own in the pasture. He first tips his nose in the direction…