Prepare a Green Horse for Branding Season

Joe Wolter riding a green horse in an arena preparing it for a branding

Joe Wolter shows how he prepares a green horse for the branding scene with four at-home exercises.

Riding at a branding is worth 10 rides in an arena, according to horseman Joe Wolter. The clinician and trainer, who splits his time between his facilities in Texas and Montana, says preparing a green horse for a branding can maximize the experience.

“I developed a few exercises I could do at home after going to brandings and realizing what I didn’t have in my horses,” he says. “It hones my own skills, too.” Wolter developed several exercises he uses with green horses several months before a branding.

“You can do exercises at home, and there’s still going to be something different there [at the branding],” he says. “It’s a matter of teaching a horse how to handle stress. There will always be stress. If you can expose him to things when there isn’t a job, that’s a good thing.”

Throughout each exercise, Wolter emphasizes the importance of rewarding the horse through release of the reins or leg pressure.

“Horses just want to be left alone. So that’s why a release is always a reward,” he says. “A big mistake people make is they don’t release the pressure until after the horse has completed the maneuver. That’s too late! Reward him right when he’s ready to do the maneuver.”

With only a barrel, a log and a rope, Wolter uses the following exercises to prepare green horses for upcoming branding jobs.

1. Introduce Him to the Rope

If a horse has never been exposed to a rope before, Wolter takes his time getting the horse used to feeling a rope on his body.

“I like to start out by rubbing the horse with the rope in front of the saddle and behind,” he says. “I will do this standing and while he is moving. Once he is comfortable, I’ll begin swinging.

“If the horse gets tight or worried, I’ll go back to rubbing his body with the rope.”

Familiarity with the rope sets the foundation for other exercises while building confidence within the horse.

2. Get Him Moving

The pace at a branding can quickly change from downtime to hustle, and it’s important you can switch your horse into a faster mode. It’s also a matter of safety if a troubling situation arises.

“At a branding, you may have to hurry up,” Wolter says, and he explains riding with a sense of urgency needs to be practiced at home so both rider and horse are prepared for the increase in speed.

“I practice turning him around easy and gassing him out of the turn,” he says. He keeps his legs quiet until ready to go, which keeps the horse from becoming confused or heavy to leg pressure. He then practices moving individual parts of the horse’s body by asking for a sidepass and turns on the forehand and hindquarters.

Joe Wolter taking green horse between fence and barrel
A barrel placed several feet from a fence represents the close quarters in which a horse is required to work at a branding. Wolter rides back and forth between the barrel and fence, narrowing the gap as the horse becomes comfortable, and eventually drags a log for added difficulty.

“You need to be able to move his hindquarters,” he says. “If you don’t have that on a horse, you’re in trouble when you’re roping. First get him to move off your leg or your reins, and then work on moving any part of the body separately in different directions. You need to get ‘life’ in his feet.”

3. Practice Dallying and Dragging

To get the horse ready to drag a calf to the fire, Wolter practices dragging an object no less than four feet from the horse’s hind foot. He says almost anything—such as a bale of hay, a log or a roping dummy—can be used and recommends starting with something lightweight so as not to discourage or spook the horse.

“A lot of times when the log moves, it scares him,” he warns. “I’m not going to give him the full weight of it in the beginning.”

He says he’ll let the rope run on the horn, which makes the horse think he’s pulling the full weight of the object and instills confidence. He also lets the rope run if the horse starts to panic, which will make the “calf ” stop. He then turns the horse so that he can see the log, faces forward, tightens the rope and tries again.

After the horse is comfortable with dragging an object, Wolter asks the horse to move his body while dallied, and practice backing with the rope taut.

“Say I get the calf to the fire, and I need to turn around,” he says. “If I turn toward the calf with the front end, that will put slack in the rope and the calf will get out of it. I don’t want that. I need to turn with
the front while [simultaneously] moving the hind end away from the calf. Then the rope never has slack. That’s why you need to be able to move his body [parts] separately, which you practice in the second exercise.”

Eventually Wolter dallies from both sides of the horse so the horse won’t get tired from always pulling in one direction.

4. Ride in Tight Spaces

It’s important to prepare a horse for working alongside a ground crew. Riding in close quarters with people on the ground can stress a green horse.

“At a branding, the horse brings the calf to the fire,” he explains, “which is where the work gets done and the ground crew is standing. You want to get that calf as close to the fire as possible.”

To simulate that situation, Wolter sets up a barrel about five feet away from a fence and rides back and forth through the gap. The presence of the barrel, which creates a tight space, can
sometimes stress a horse, and it’s a feeling he can learn to accept.

Once the horse is used to the barrel, he drags a log through the opening. This utilizes the dragging skills learne earlier while “working on your handle in a confined space,” he says.

“I’ll look for different things [to challenge a horse],” he says. “If it doesn’t affect him, we’re going to go
do something else.

“I want him to experience difficulty and show him that we can get through it together. That way when the next thing comes up, we have a little experience at being successful together.”

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