Colt Starting on the Waggoner

A time-honored horse-training plan gets colts ready to work on the historic AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeder ranch.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

It’s a lot of work to start one colt. But to start 75 colts a year, you need a plan.

At the W.T. Waggoner Ranch, that plan starts in January, says the ranch’s horse division manager, Trace Cribbs, when each 2-year-old on the ranch is started and ridden for 30 days. At the end of that 30 days – and frequently in between – the colts will be videotaped under saddle and their futures assessed.

“Our No. 1 customer is us,” Trace says, meaning that horses are started with the idea that they’ll either be in a Waggoner cowboy’s all-gelding remuda, in a show string or in the broodmare band. If a horse isn’t temperamentally or physically suited for one of those jobs, he or she doesn’t get to be a part of the future gene pool.

“We can overlook different learning-curve rates, but with time and breeding wisely, we see higher percentages of horses that are easier to train.”

The ranch is looking for good movers with natural tail sets. The horses need to be low-headed and natural stoppers.

“We categorize horses as either pushers or goers,” Trace says, adding that the ranch needs some of both. “A pusher, you have to bump to make go early on. They think about stopping and usually will have a big stop. They are ready to listen to training early and seem to learn faster. A goer has a big motor and needs a little more riding to get calm and ready to listen.”

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Finding and training good colt starters is just as difficult as training the colts, Trace says, and just as important.

“The colt-starting job is key to successful evaluation of the horses,” he says. “Trainers are typically athletic, take direction, don’t show fear to the colt and are soft with their hands. Currently, we have three full-time horse trainers plus a part-time colt-starter who works from his home. It’s a lot of work to get that many horses evaluated in a short period of time, and we don’t want to make a mistake because every horse develops differently.”

Each trainer has a personal style that has been melded into the tradition of the Zoetis-AQHA Best Remuda Award-winning ranch.

On a cool February morning, the Journal got to watch the three Waggoner horse trainers put halters on 2-year-olds for their day’s work at the ranch’s horse headquarters.

In the large covered pen, three small round pens have been set into the corners. Each trainer has a gentle horse saddled in the round pen who will be used for everything from ponying to providing stable companionship for the younger horses.

First, the trainers use ropes to simulate the feel of a cinch around 2-year-old bellies and backs, then the saddle pads and saddles are added. All three trainers finish this part of the process about the same time, then the three colts are turned out into the big arena. From the saddle horses’ backs, the trainers use flags to stimulate the colts into going forward. It’s a brisk day, and some of the horses choose to express themselves by bucking, but the continued emphasis on forward convinces the horses to move forward instead of upward. They also get reassurance that wearing a saddle is OK, even at faster gaits.

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From there, each colt returns to the round pen and gets a rider. One of the horses is more advanced, and the trainer moves him to the big arena for a short lesson on steering.

After about 45 minutes of work total – from rope cinches to being ridden – the colts are unsaddled and tied to a rail, where they will learn patience while other horses are worked.

Next up is a group that’s ready to be ridden outside on the vast ranges of the Waggoner Ranch. The process is the same: The horses are saddled, encouraged to lope with those saddles on, and then the riders climb aboard for an outdoor excursion.

The sun is bright as the young horses trot toward their destination – a large water tank about a couple of miles away through a mesquite-filled pasture. The natural obstacles, the lack of power steering and the natural imbalance of a horse just learning to carry a rider means it’s a wibble-wobble sort of journey, but the riders sit quietly and encourage the horses to move forward. And they do. After 30 days of this daily riding, the horses will be turned out until the next phase of their journey: being picked for a remuda.

“Each year, the horses teach us something new about them or about ourselves, Trace says. “It’s interesting, humbling and exciting all at the same time.”

AQHA Video

The Waggoner Ranch in Vernon, Texas, is known as the largest ranch in Texas under one fence. Home to the legendary Poco Bueno, the ranch was established in 1849 and was awarded the AQHA Best Remuda award in 1994.