One Step at a Time
By Janet Huntington
I have a little dun colt who isn’t particularly fancy. He is a little on the small side and doesn’t have any of the hot bloodlines I’m so fond of.
I am however, very fond of the mare he’s out of and the stud is a very talented cowhorse. The mare was no slouch either. He has a pretty little head and a kind and easy nature.
Since I no longer have the pressures of riding as a professional I have been able to take my time with this horse and have approached his training in a fairly unique way.
I was lucky enough to have him born and raised pretty much the way I prefer. He grew up out in a field with lots of pasture mates and wasn’t even halter broke before he was two.
Other than shots, worming and having his feet trimmed he was pretty much left to do his thing until it was time to start him as a three-year-old.
I have been doing a lot of thinking about the different ways we approach starting a young horse. The idea of desensitizing a horse to every single outside stimulus we can think of has bothered me just a bit.
It didn’t at first. The first several years I was training I used a lot of desensitizing techniques. I created quite a few steady, reliable horses. I learned to take my time, teach the horses to accept all kinds of scary things and to stay calm through new experiences. They did what they needed to in a quiet, trustworthy way.
Then I went to work for a Reined Cowhorse trainer. There were a lot of colts to be started and they needed to learn a bunch of technical stuff fast. There was no time for desensitizing them, we had to get on and get going. The colts learned to deal with the stuff the world threw at them as time passed. We needed them working cattle, sliding, spinning and changing leads within their first year of riding. They needed to react fast to our cues and the action of the cattle.
As the years rolled by I started to really think about the two different approaches I had learned to train young horses. No matter how busy I became I still had stalls to clean and there’s no better time to sort out horse training theories than while you’re wielding a manure fork.
The horses I had turned out during the first several years I were easy enough, but compared to the cowhorses I turned out later,
a little dull. The more I taught a horse to tune out things which would normally startle him, the more I seemed to teach them to tune out me.
On the other side of the saddle, the colts we just started riding and training maneuvers to still seemed to build trust and confidence as time went along, but were also a lot more reactive then the horses of my earlier days.
I started thinking about what horses would tune out and what made them react. It kept coming back to repetition. For example, if I waved a plastic grocery bag on a whip around a colt’s head every day for a month, and nothing ever hurt him, he would eventually ignore the flag. He was also learning to ignore me and my whip. I was showing him there were times he didn’t need to pay attention to me.
I began to think about a hard fact of life anybody who has ever trained their own horse has had to accept. A horse never forgets anything.
If your horse pulls back and breaks his lead rope he’s going to remember it and periodically suck back and test his rope forever.
If he learns how to open the chain on a gate and escape, for the rest of his life he’s going to try every gate he comes across. It’s the nature of the beast.
If I teach him he needs to periodically ignore me then wouldn’t he want to test me, at least once in a while, forever?
Because my colt is kind and mellow I decided to try an experiment with him. I was going to assume he would remember everything I taught him after the first time I showed it to him. Every step, one time. The next time I saw him I would go to the next step and trust him to remember the last.
The trick was going to be to build on each step in a way that related to the one before it. If each step made sense to him I could count on him to be ready for the next one.
It’s been a fun and interesting experiment. I began halter breaking him when we brought all out stud colts in to be gelded. I drove him and stopped, drove him and stopped, in and out through his corral mates, until he stopped and looked at me. Then I quit.
I figured he had learned I could drive him and I would quit when he looked at me.
We went from there.
So far my plan has worked out pretty well. He has learned some pretty decent ground manners, to haul, be good for the shoer and the vet, to walk, trot and take his leads, stop and turn, all from being shown once what I expected from him.
We ran into a bit of a glitch when he learned to run off when I went to catch him in the pasture, but we’ve worked it out. It only took once for him to figure out he didn’t have to let me catch him though, so I guess we’ve stayed on the right path. He also decided he didn’t want to lead anymore, but after one fairly frustrating session with a longe whip he got over it.
Now we’re entering the point in his training where we’re going to have to repeat, because it’s time to begin creating muscle memory. It takes repetition to learn where to put his feet during a spin or how to hold a straight line. Practice makes perfect is starting to come into play.
The nice part about it is I have a cheerful, willing colt who’s interested in what we’re doing every time I get him out. He works hard to figure out what I want and tries to do what I ask instead of tuning me out.
I’m still trying to keep things interesting with very little repetition. I can’t wait to start him in the cutting pen. I can’t help but think the muscle memory he builds by cutting will help him understand his reining and fence work when the time comes.
Working with a cow is different every day and it will teach my colt to think and move without my interference. So far, so good. It’s going to be fun seeing where this experiment takes us.