From Racetrack to Roping Box
From Racetrack to Roping Box
People in roping events often look for ex-racehorses to convert. Successful trainer and exhibitor Doug Clark of Wayne, Oklahoma, sees no problem with retraining racehorses that don't make it on the track to be rope horses.
“It’s the advantage of the breed,” he says of versatile American Quarter Horses.
Any Quarter Horse will have speed and cow sense somewhere in his pedigree.
“What really matters is the breaking and training and conformation,” Doug says. “If they’re made correctly, I think you can do anything on them.”
He likes to see a lot of power in the hind end, a sloping shoulder and short cannon bones. The real challenge that people face with ex-racehorses is giving them the time they need to learn something new. Here’s how Doug goes about it.
In the Bridle
For any event – cow horse, roping, reining, it doesn't matter – you’ve got to get a horse in the bridle. You have to teach him how to get off your hands and feet in a positive manner, so that when you ask for something, the horse responds.
To do that, we teach horses how to get off the bridle. When we touch the bit with the rein, we want that horse to give to the bridle: Drop his rear, lift his belly and carry his head in a position where he tucks his chin and lifts his poll.
The difference with a racehorse is that he has been taught to pull on the bridle. The racehorse wants to drop his poll, push his nose out and lengthen his stride.
Step No. 1: Just Relax
First, race colts need to relax from being on the track. Some take a couple of days; some a couple of weeks.
At the track, they get a hot feed so they have energy to run. I feed a 12 percent protein feed and alfalfa hay. I try to keep them more full and burn that energy off. It takes a while to bring that body down to where it can relax.
They need to get outside. Most horses that have been on the track haven’t been out of the barn very long. They warm up, exercise and breeze, cool out and go back in the barn.
I get on them and go to the pasture or the arena and ease around. I ride in a stock saddle and a D-ring snaffle and maybe a martingale. For a long time, I won’t do anything but sit on them and go, gradually slowing them down.
It’s good to get them out in the open, away from a fence where they’re always in a certain track. They’ve had a fast job, been taught to sprint and go, go, go; I teach them to relax.
Step No. 2: Bridle Basics
As soon as a former racehorse starts relaxing and is in the right frame of mind, that’s when it's teachable.
Once they’re relaxed, as I’m riding, I start teaching them to get off my hands and off my feet. They almost don’t know they’re being trained on. Instead of making it a workout, they are relaxed just going in the pasture or in the arena.
I pick them up with my hands, make them give to the bit, and I give it right back. I ask them to put their nose to my foot and give it back. I put pressure on and try to get them to start understanding signals. All I want is for them to get off the bridle, just give the head to me when I ask for it.
Eventually, I want to be able to put my feet against them and get them off the bridle without using as much hand.
I work at a walk and a trot and do a lot of circles and spirals, it's a great exercise for rope horses to teach them to keep their nose tucked to the inside. As they start to understand that, they’ll start to get a headset, keeping a plane in their face, the forehead straight up and down. Then I can start working on getting their rear end under them and stopping.
I want them to travel flat in the topline, just going and not worried about anything.
Step No. 3: Moving Up
Once I have some bridle control with my hands and feet, then I start loping circles, still in the pasture or the arena. I work on keeping the nose to the inside to the right and the left.
When he’s off the bridle and respecting my hands and feet, then I can work on stops and turn arounds. If I can manage his head, then I can manage his hind end, and I can tell every leg where to go.
Then we go to doing the same things in a curb bit and tie-down. I want the horse to know how to get off the bridle rather than get off the tie-down. It makes a better broke horse.
I’m not in a hurry; I keep everything pretty slow, building my ground for future things.
Step No. 4: Rope and Cattle
When they’re loping perfect circles, staying in the same tracks, stopping and backing up good, and are confident with all that while in a curb bit and tie-down – then I start working with a rope. I’ll play with a rope, riding through the pasture, until they don’t think of the rope at all but what I am telling them to do with my hands and feet.
Once I really have them in the bridle, then I can start tracking a steer. I use a worn-out team-roping steer that barely gets out of a trot, and I turn him loose in the arena or in the pasture.
We go through the gullies and the draws just tracking the steer. We don’t go fast; very seldom will we get out of a lope. All I want to do is teach the horse a lead and a spot to be while following that steer. I want the horse to get to the point of going to the correct position on its own.
Step No. 5: The Box
If I get all the basics covered, when I go to the box, 99 percent of my training is finished. I know the horse can run; he’s broke now, and I can steer and stop; he knows where to go on the cow. Now I can work on the box and just put all my steps together. I can train a horse pretty quickly after that, roping and stopping a steer, or going to breakaway.
But you’ve got to go through the steps, and you can’t leave any out. Everything leads to another step later down the road. Teaching a horse to get off your feet and give to your hands and bend is used so much in the box.
I have people come by or call and say, “My horse is turning his head in the box, what do I do?” Well, he can’t do that if he’s in your hand and off your feet.
There’s always a procedure to keep things from going wrong if the horses are broke.