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Competitors! Give Your Horses the Respect of a Tune-up!

Wil & Beverly Howe
Competitor News, 1998


   How many times do you see someone go out and spend good money on a well-trained horse only to watch its performance go downhill after a matter of a few months?  Most people have a tendency to treat their horse as though they are totally maintenance-free.

   In today's competitive horse world, we seek and expect top performance from our horses and ask them to perform strenuous tasks both physically and mentally demanding, time and time again, but how often do we take the time to check out our mount or "machine"( for the sake of this article) and give it a "tune up"?  To compare how our horses perform for us when we’re competing, I’d like you to think about your horse as a hot rod race car.  Both are asked and expected to "jump and get with it" at the drop of a hat and exert every ounce of energy and ability they have to work for us, and sometimes their job takes only seconds.  How long do you suppose a top race car will keep winning races if the driver doesn’t keep his machine tuned, oil changed, carburetor adjusted, timed, or even broke down and rebuilt?  It is imperative that this machine be running at its peak, oiled and lubed, ready to race. The same goes for our horses. The only difference is that your horse is a living, breathing creature with a mind and will of its own. You’ve got to keep the mind right first for the horse to willingly give you his all physically. It’s only fair to expect your horse to do his best but only if you give him the best. Now, I don’t mean hot baths and sugar cubes. I mean a structured mental and physical exercise program to keep that competitive edge on your horse.

   It’s so important that we continue to maintain our investment--the horse--not only is it the right thing to do but it will pay back tenfold. "Horses and life run hand in hand. What you put out is what you get back."

   This is my point: to regularly maintain your competitive edge on your equine partner, there are a few things you can do or learn to do with your horse that will keep him cooperative, responsive and tuned, ready for performance.

   First of all, you’ve got to have your horse's attention. Normally in the midst of timed events it’s hard for both you and your horse to stay focused on horsemanship because you’re thinking about the event. Usually we’re heavy handed and balance on the horse's mouth without much feel or finesse. Quite frankly, most of that could be remedied with some basic horsmanship and riding lessons, where one can learn to have good balance and an independent seat, meaning you can sit in time with your horse with out needing the assistance of reins for balance, a must when riding performance horses.

   The more you balance on your horse's head, the more resistant they become because a pull means nothing to him. They’ve become desensitized and dull in the mouth from being hung on so much. When your horse gets numb and unresponsive, that’s when most people change bits, and heaven knows team ropers and barrel racers have designed and created some really far-out bits! When you are continually changing bits to correct the same on-going problem with your horse, it’s usually not the bit at all, it’s his mind that needs the fixing. By using a new bit, all you’re doing is finding another place in his mouth that he will respond to for awhile before "turning off the lights" again and reverting to his old habits.

   Bits and uses of bits all have to do with getting your horse to listen to you. Remember, to have someone listen to you, you must first have their attention. We accomplish this through ground work. If you can get their mind when on the ground, the riding part comes easy.

   There is no horse too well-broke, too old, or too soured to be given the chance to change by working him in the round pen.  It is the greatest way to get next to your horse mentally, capturing his mind by getting his undivided attention and teaching him to want to work for you. As horses are herd animals and require a leader, this establishing leadership on the ground is a never-ending process to keepyour horse in check in the daily push and shove of "who’s the boss". By proving your trustworthiness and dominance as a good leader to your horse in the round pen without inflicting pain, you can instill a great amount of trust and respect, two ingredients needed to really communicate well.

   In the round pen, we show the horse we’re his herd leader, that we’re faster and stronger than he is. Not only do we accomplish this leader-follower relationship, but we can also learn a lot about our horse, the way he moves, his athletic ability and whether he’s right- or left-handed. In roping, it’s very common to have a horse that only knows his left lead because he comes out of the box and goes to the left. How many head horses do you see who are sticky when asked to rein back to the right, to hold the steer when the heeler made his catch? That resistance in your horse costs you seconds! You can actually "unstick" a one sided horse, teach him better balance, collection, leads, and how to use himself easier in a round pen, all from the ground.

   When you have learned how to work your horse properly in a 50' round pen on the ground and to get his mind supple and attention back on you, we then encourage another series of exercises from the ground under saddle; these are our bitting-up exercises. They can help a horse regain flexibilty by working on flexion at the poll, both straight back and laterally. For this tune-up we go back to a plain ring snaffle. We work a horse from the ground, bitting them up by the reins, straight back and also one side at a time. By doing this off their back, if the horse resists he doesn’t relate the experience with the rider; instead, he only tussles with himself, finding the comfort zone on his own rather than pulling and fighting with the rider who’ll usually lose when attempting these exercises without bitting the horse up first. Amazingly, you’ll find your horse supple, light-mouthed, and more willing to follow your commands and listen to your cues when he’s prepared in this way before riding. A few sessions in a row will help remove a lot of resistance in your horse that shows up when the "flag is up".

   Many of the problems with our timed event horses are a result of building resistance. Most problems, when left to compromise, will only get worse.  Because of the nature of these events, the pressure can become very intense and more than the horse can cope with if he’s not kept mentally prepared, sometimes resulting in extremely dangerous accidents--horses flipping in the box, ducking off, etc. These problems are usually pilot error and permitted by lack of reading the horse and understanding the signs of resistance that the horse has been displaying.  It usually starts with one small incident, looking off, jerking the reins out of your hands, running through your leg when asking him to yield, etc. Ropers, as a rule, especially need help.  As a trainer of performance horses, I find it so frustrating that little time is spent on learning the fundamentals of good horsemanship before roping. All energy is concentrated on throwing the rope and making the catch with no regards for the horse. Catching your steer is only the half of it, keeping your horse working for you and giving you his best and helping him to do his best is the other half.

All rope, barrel, and team penning horses require the basic same ingredients to be successful. They need to have cow sense (the ability to rate), speed, athletic ability, sound, solid conformation, a willing mind, and lots of heart.  These are the key ingredients for any top-performing western event horse. Once you have these ingredients, the next step is to teach that horse how to use and deal with those attributes.  Many of these horses are lacking formal foundation training. People just get ‘em going, tracking a steer, sacked out to a rope, and off they go!  Too much, too soon, too fast, is usually the case whether it be a rope, barrel, or penning horse. Even if the competition training is taken slow, without a well-broke horse you might as well be afoot, because it’ll unravel eventually. The best rope and barrel horses and the easiest ones to train are the well-rounded horses who’ve had the training to help them handle and rein with ease. The horse should have a good foundatio, which includes a responsive feel from the reins, know how to stop, move off a leg and spur, sidepass, and have an excellent reverse. They also, most importantly, need to be taught patience so they will listen and give to the bit in the midst of pressure situations. The extra time it takes to go back occasionally and cover these basics with your horse will save you time and money in the long run.

  Not far from the Snake River, where the desert meets the mountains in northeast Oregon, Wil and Beverly run their small, rustic horse ranch in Richland. There they train and market their quality performance Quarter Horse and Paint geldings and hold their week-long School of Fine Horse Training Horsemanship and Reinsman Courses and Cow Working sessions. In addition, they continue to travel on a limited basis, conducting their horse training clinics, and are featured trainers at many equine expo events. They also offer their From Foundation to Finished© video series, a select line of training tack, and Wil’s custom- designed round pens, shipping nationwide. You can reach the Howes at 541-893-6535.   

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