By Andrea Caudill
Giving future performance horses a positive start is a task that requires skill and finesse, but it’s one that AQHA Professional Horseman Chris Cox has done hundreds of times, and he has tips for riders getting their own horses ready for a performance career.
Use Appropriate Cues
When teaching a young horse, it is vital to start with soft cues every single time and only increase as needed. Chris outlined his training steps:
- Teach: Communicate with the horse. Gently show the horse what you’d like it to do.
- Ask: Use feel in your body to persuade the colt to follow your ideas. Do not ever jerk on a horse, as it makes him defensive.
- Tell: If a horse isn’t catching on, use a firmer cue to help him understand the boundary.
- Correct: This is a sharp reprimand after the horse fails to respond to multiple requests, such as using your heels to cue him forward.
- Discipline: It is extremely rare that training ever gets to this step, which is reserved only for a horse that attacks a handler (such as kicking, biting or pawing) and requires a handler to defend himself.
Keep the Process Moving
One of the worst things you can do to a colt is to let him get bored, Chris says.
“These colts want you to move forward on them,” Chris says. “So you’ve got to do little, short sessions in a learning rhythm. Their mind operates so fast, and you’ve got to keep up with that. If you get too lethargic and slow, their mind gets to looking for sourness.”
This is true for the initial sacking out and saddling process, and when he is under saddle, as well. Get your young horse out on the range; provide him fresh obstacles in the arena, like pushing steers or crossing bridges and logs; or try swinging a rope on him.
Move the Feet
Once you have your horse haltered, a vital step is getting control of the feet.
“We’re going to focus on their feet,” Chris says. “Their head has nothing to do with their feet right now. How do they know that pulling on their head means to move their feet or stop their feet? They don’t. So we’re going to concentrate on their feet, connecting that rein to their feet.”
Flexing the horse’s head around with the young horse just standing can create a dangerous situation. It is vital that all four of the feet move, and that the horse doesn’t get stuck. If his feet get stuck, then the rest of his body becomes stiff – his ribcage, his head, his feet, his neck – resulting in a potentially explosive setup.
“We go to saddle these colts and they look like they’re ready, then all of a sudden they’ll just blow up, go to bucking and get themselves in trouble,” Chris says. “A lot of times, it’s because their feet are stuck.”
Control the Feet
Once the feet are moving, you must be able to direct them in the direction you want them to go. The angle is important, and you want all four feet to move, not just one or two.
Pushing just the hindquarters causes the horse’s hip to disengage and actually pushes the horse on top of the handler.
Chris uses what he calls “crabbing,” where the handler applies pressure toward the horse’s rib cage, and the horse moves all four feet, and moves his legs over and across, away from the handler.
Once the horse is going comfortably under saddle, the final piece of the puzzle is developing more “feel” while being ridden. Chris reiterates that stiffness in the horse usually indicates a problem in the feet.
Chris never addresses a stiffness or resistance – like a tossed head or a braced body part – by pulling on the horse’s face. Stiff legs result in a stiff body, a stiff rib cage and a stiff neck – in other words, a horse that is going to pull on you.
So instead of pulling back, the horseman asks his horses to soften and move their feet smoothly.
“You see someone go to jerk on their head, they’re going to have to do that the rest of their lives,” Chris says. “It’s not about their head, it’s about controlling those feet.”
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