Halter Horse Conditioning

Halter Horse Conditioning

What is leading halter horse conditioner Ross Roark's secret weapon?

A man horseback ponies another horse past cattle in a dry climate with sand and brush.

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo


By Larri Jo Starkey


AQHA Professional Horseman Ross Roark has trained and shown more than 100 AQHA world champion halter horses.

His secret weapon for fitting and conditioning halter horses may be the ground under his feet at his West Texas ranch near Andrews.

“We’ve got the best sand in the world right here,” Ross says, and he uses it to strengthen his halter horses’ legs, build their muscles and increase their stamina.

Gradually Introducing Halter Horses to Conditioning

Andrews is about 30 miles from the New Mexico border. The nearest large town in Texas is Abilene, about 170 miles to the east. When horses first arrive in Andrews, they might never have worked in sand before, so Ross starts off easy.

“I want to build their shins up where they can handle it,” he says. “I don’t want a horse to get shin-sore. I’ll start out the first week or 10 days ponying maybe every other day to get those shins built up. After that, I’ll run my hand down and feel those shins, and if they feel like they’re good, we’ll start every day.”

How Much Should a Halter Horse be Conditioned?

The amount of everyday exercise differs according to the horse and the desired effect, Ross says.

“There are some horses that can go eight minutes and some 25-30 minutes,” he says. “I increase time to increase muscle development, and I increase depending on the caliber of show that’s coming up. Through the summer, we may not work them as hard because of the temperatures. In the winter, we may work them longer. It depends on the individual. I’ve had horses that I worked Monday-Wednesday-Friday, and they stayed in good shape. Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday, they went outside for turnout and free exercise for an hour. Then there are horses that I’ve had that I had to work twice a day.”

Preparing a Halter Horse for Conditioning

Before taking a horse to exercise, Ross takes precautions, such as wrapping their legs in splints and polos to protect their suspensory tendons

Ross has a circular sand track at his ranch, but doesn’t limit himself to ponying on the track.

“All the horses are ponied or ridden,” he says. “We pony, and after those horses get to be 2 and 3, we break them to ride and exercise them that way. Saddle them up and ride them 25-30 minutes.”

Often, that ride goes through a pasture filled with cattle, a great way to give young horses something to think about.

“We ride out all the time,” Ross says. “There will be times I load those young horses up in a stock trailer. Once I get to where I want to ride, I’ll get on the pony horse and take the halter horses out through the sand hills 45 minutes to an hour. I may jog some, but I walk a lot and let them see things.”

Once Ross is finished with one horse, he ties it to the trailer and takes another one out. The ponying becomes routine, Ross says, making it easy to duplicate at a show what happens at home.

Training a Halter Horse to be Ponied

When horses arrive at the ranch, if Ross isn’t sure that the horse has ever been ponied, he starts in a smaller enclosed area, like a round pen or a small arena.

“After about a week, when I feel comfortable, that’s when we’ll go to the track or pasture,” he says. “The important thing is to avoid scaring the horse. If you’re in a round pen and the horse does get loose, you can catch him again without catastrophe.”

Halter Horses Under Saddle: Starting and Riding

In a horse’s yearling year, Ross starts teaching it to carry a saddle. By that time, the yearling is comfortable being ponied, comfortable being handled, and the added piece of tack is something to think but not worry about.

“We get kids’ saddles and go from there,” Ross says. “We’ll pony with those kids’ saddles on. It’s good for them.”

When the horse turns 2 – sometimes 3 – Ross and his team start adding weight and the other elements of colt starting.

“It’s not really a big deal,” Ross says. “They’ve been handled so much, and they remember what it was like to carry a saddle. It’s pretty easy when we get on them to break them.”

When horses can be ridden, Ross exercises them that way.

And an older show horse that can be ridden is a horse that might find dual duty as a pony horse, he says.

“We’ll ride one and pony one,” Ross says. “I think it’s good for the horses, good for their minds.”