The Art of Finishing Horses: Wil and Beverly Howe
By Becky Hatfield-Hyde
Cascade Horseman, 1997
Wil and Beverly Howe are striving for all-around, well-broke finished horses. They think of them as the kind of horses we all rode as kids, the kind you could do anything on, from rope to show.
Nestled outside Richland, Oregon, at the base of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wil and Beverly, his wife of 20 years, have put together a comprehensive operation that includes horse training schools, clinics, videotapes, training equipment, training of outside horses, and training of performance Quarter Horse and Paint geldings for sale.
All of this is done with an eye toward perfection and a desire to do things better. When you talk awhile with the Howes, you get the feeling that mental discipline of both the people and the horses they teach is critical to their whole program. Wil says, "Training horses and life run hand in hand. What you put out is what you get back, good or bad."
Moving out of the Snaffle Bit: A Howe Priority
Some might be curious. Why move out of a snaffle bit? If you ask Wil or Beverly this question, you’re likely to get a clear answer. "I like riding them with one hand--it’s like power steering," Wil says. "It’s so much easier to handle them with one finger or one hand. Nothing is prettier to me than a horse packing a pretty bit." (Carrying a silver ported bit in its mouth, handling and giving to it without resistance.)
But beyond the beauty and the practical ease of riding in a full bridle, one handed, there are other reasons. Many people will start a horse out in a snaffle. Wil says, "By the time they’re five, six, seven years old, they’re riding kind of ‘doggy’, got their nose out, and the riders are still pulling on them like a colt. Consequently, the horse is still acting like a colt. It’s kind of like a kid who is making real good grades and keeping him there year after year. ‘Gee Johnny’s doing so good in third grade, let’s just keep him there.’" Wil feels horses get tired of being pulled on in a snaffle. They actually prefer being "pushed" when conditioned to neck rein in a curb bit.
The Howes recognize that snaffle-bit horses have gotten to be the "rage" in recent years. These horses seem pretty outstanding. But being broke in the snaffle is only a step on the horse’s journey. "When you get a horse bridled up, you can take a hold of him and bounce those reins a little, and they respond so much nicer," Wil says. "The Vaqueros are the foundation of the whole thing--the California Reinsmen. Those guys lived on the back of a horse. They rode their horse all the time. We’re weekend warriors. To many riders nowadays, it’s just easier to pull and manhandle their horses with the snaffle bit all the time and keep them in that retarded state of training, rather than taking the time to learn how to advance one and ride with some finesse."
The ultimate goal for the Howes is to have a finished horse. But that process starts from the beginning. They call their program, "From Foundation to Finished©." Some myths that the Howes believe people have about horses are shattered right out of the gate. They like to put the way we feel about horses into what they call "The Proper Perspective."
Wil feels people put too much emphasis on a horse's intelligence and end up categorizing them as kind, gentle, loving, or extremely smart animals. "Horses are very sensitive, not to be confused with intelligence or loyalty." If you are following their theory, it’s necessary to get this in your mind early on. Wil believes horses react to what’s happening around them; they do not reason and they are mentally at the same developmental stage of a young child throughout their life. "You wouldn’t let your 1000 pound, 2 year-old child sit in your lap--nor should you allow your horse to."
According to the Howes, if you own a horse and don’t realize these things, in short order your horse may be walking all over you--literally! You will have allowed yourself to fall lower in the pecking order than your horse--you have failed to fill the role of leader in its life. Since horses are herd animals, they require a leader. Wil relates your leadership role to parental guidance: "you must take the responsibility of being in charge."
If your horse doesn’t respect you, he probably doesn’t have any manners. A horse’s manners are very important to the Howes. You have to get the horse’s attention, create an attitude of cooperation, and develop a sense of giving your horse. They insist that it must be a relationship of mutual trust and respect.
If you are going to a Wil Howe clinic or school or studying his series of three videos, you will move your horse through a "building block" process. A book could be written on just the Howes’ custom approach to finishing a horse.
In brief, leadership is first established in the round pen. The round pen is also where your horse is mentally conditioned to using both sides of their brain. "Horses are right- or left-handed, like us, yet they can overcome this shortcoming if shown how to in a round pen." The round pen work, which removes the flight instinct from your horse, also includes hobble training and ground manners.
Once the horse has successfully completed this section of training, it is ready to progress to a precise "bitting-up" routine that teaches him to be flexible from side to side, how to follow his nose, bend his body, move his hips over, and handle situations of mental and physical pressure from the ground. The "Ten Steps", which are done under saddle, in a snaffle bit, flow from one to the next like stepping stones, enabling you to build and advance your horse, and can be returned to for correction. The horse learns to be supple and light on the bit, collected, and balanced, knowing how to move away from pressure, how to use his hocks, back up, stop, turn around, and rein with ease. When you put all of these factors together, the horse will be well-rounded and ready to advance.
Only after the horse has mastered all of these steps in a snaffle bit is he ready for a leverage curb bit. The Howes have developed a series of bits that ease a horse through the process. It’s not done quickly, and the horses progress at their own speed. Once a horse has progressed through the series of bits, it is well on its way to becoming a finished horse, versatile and prepared for any kind of use.
The Howes can be contacted at their Richland ranch about at their schools or their video tape series by calling (541) 893-6535 or by writing to Wil Howe Ranch, 35768 Governor Lane, Richland, Oregon 97870.
Does you horse have bad ground manners?
Here are some of Wil and Beverly’s guidelines to acceptable equine behavior:
If you lead, your horse should follow.
If you stop, your horse should stop.
If you step toward your horse, he should yield.
Always maintain a loose lead rope when handling your horse.
Refrain from fondling your horse’s head. Show your affection by touching your horse on the shoulder or neck
Don’t over-pet your horse. Keep it short and sweet. Keep him hungry for attention.
Be attentive and learn how to read his body language, expressions and actions.
Be consistent in your expectations and corrections--horses are simple creatures and we must keep our training simple, in black and white, so the horse understands what is expected of him.
Remember to always ask your horse when you’re seeking a specific response, being sure you have shown him what you want and giving him time to respond and a comfort zone to go to. If you’ve asked him politely and still not gotten the expected response, demand it by being firmer--whatever it takes to get his attention. And don’t forget to say "thank you" through your actions.