I have a confession to make.
I watched the National Reined Cow Horse Snaffle Bit Futurity live on my computer. Every second I could. I took my computer everywhere I had to go and spent hours glued to the live broadcast.
I got to watch old friends and fellow competitors do their thing and I have to admit, it made my heart ache in envy and flat out desire to just be there, caught up in the excitement of the competition.
It was amazing. It was incredible.
It was an astounding display of horsemanship and equine intelligence and athleticism.
It was also the epitome of every reason I couldn't continue on as a cowhorse trainer.
The horses I was so obsessively watching were only three years old.
They have had to learn three, grueling, sinew stretching, mind bending events in order to compete in the futurity. They cut, they rein and they go down the fence. All three events are incredibly taxing, both physically and mentally.
The good ones looked like they had been doing it for years.
The bad ones look like they are about to implode with anxiety.
The guys in the middle were a mixture of the two.
Futurity supporters tell me these events separate the golden grain from the chaff. If a three-year-old is made of the right stuff they not only handle the training, they relish it.
I can agree to a point. A good cow horse loves to work cattle. The reining (dry work), not so much, but when the reining training is used as a warm up for the cattle the horse learns they get the cow if they rein well.
A good cow horse loves its job. As it grows and develops it will develop an uncanny ability to read every move the cow makes and takes incredible delight in blocking the cow, driving the cow or stopping the cow. A three-year-old can certainly have the mental capacity to work a cow.
The problem comes with their underdeveloped legs, backs and minds. The physical and mental stress of reined cow horse events is high on adult horses, on babies it can be disastrous.
I watched a colt lock up on his spins during the dry work portion of the open competition. He came into his stop, stood up, stuck his neck out and locked his jaw against his riders hand. The trainer tried various subtle and not-so-subtle, yet still legal, ways to unlock this horse's legs and jaw and get him into his spins. It wasn't going to happen. He finally gave up and whacked the colt into his spins, turned him around several times and zeroed his pattern.
Was the colt being bad? Not in my opinion. He locked against the turn in anticipation of a situation that probably caused him pain. The pain could have been from a sore back, or from getting in trouble more often than not, while being worked at home. Or he could have been afraid of trying the maneuver while out of balance, which would result in him kicking his own legs while he turned around.
It doesn't matter why he was doing it, because no matter what the reason, it was a product of rushed training on a horse, too young to do anything but cling to the only escape he had found from a situation he was consistently put in by his trainer.
This kind of problem comes up while training a young horse. It can be from bad training, or a single mistake on the part of the trainer during a session.
It happened to me on my yellow mare when she was a three-year-old. I was working in our fairly small indoor and let the kidlette ride her. She was a little floaty through her shoulders and I would help her by picking her up with my legs and outside rein through the tough spots, then release her when she stood up.
Kidlette had loped her for me before, but only in our football field sized out door, so there wasn't as much precision involved in keeping her upright. I had a habit of assuming the kid would automatically know what to do, sometimes before she was technically there, and this was one of those situations.
Before I knew it, my filly had flopped her neck to the inside and run the kidlette into the arena wall. There was some yelling, a little crying and I turned my focus on showing my daughter how to ride through a situation like this one.
Part of what makes training babies so easy is their open minds. They are little sponges and can absorb incredible amounts of logical information. There is no junk in their little heads to work around and everything registers immediately. Unfortunately, this applies to both the good and bad.
My little three-year-old had learned that taking her shoulder and smashing a knee or two would very effectively get her out of working through her circle. She learned she got a rest while my daughter freaked, rubbed her knee and wailed about my stupid horse. She learned it was easier for her to over bend her neck and keep the rest of her body straight than to bend nose through tail.
It was a very effective learning experience and she locked it tight in her spongy little brain.
It took months to work out the aftershocks from one 30 second tsunami.
When training for a three-year-old futurity, months aren't available to work out trainer created tsunamis. This is where force, over-riding and physical and mental breakdowns occur.
Add to this, the young horse has to be physically able to handle the rigorous training and mentally able to absorb the fast pace. I watched and assisted in the development of several futurity prospects in the years before I retired.
The Big K always addressed my concerns by telling me if a 2-year-old was handled correctly they could deal with the training process. I saw that most of his did indeed physically and mentally absorb it all. He rode them for very short, very intense periods of time.
They were wild little billy goats, barely handled, and taught only the parts necessary to perform. He also simply did not try with prospects that weren't showing enough promise to become futurity horses. There was no reason to dance this delicate, dangerous dance with colts that wouldn't cut it.
His reasoning was not humanitarian, it was time and money oriented, but like most serious horsemen, it wouldn't help him to turn out mentally or physically ruined horses, so he did what he could to avoid it. The two-year-olds who had the hardest time were the ones being ridden and trained by owners or assistants (ahem). These colts would be ridden too much, to hard, too long. Not on purpose, but because of inexperience on the part of the rider. Like I said earlier, it takes along time to fix the mess left after a tsunami hits.
I was lucky. K had me ride different colts in bits and pieces. I wasn't given the responsibility of the whole horse until my feel had developed enough to not mess them up.
I came out of the entire experience convinced it was wrong to ride a two-year-old at all.
It was because of the ones who fell apart. The ones who broke down. The little babies who had all the potential in the world, if they were just given time. Time they would never get.
I had developed the feel K wanted. This very feel he so carefully nurtured helped me know when my colts needed to stop. When they couldn't safely absorb any more. I could feel the strength in their back and legs, their coordination, their mental acuity.
I could feel their willingness to try beyond their ability. I could safely ride them and shape them into a competitive snaffle bitter. I could feel how wrong it was to be riding them. So I stopped.
I moved on to learning how to develop a bridle horse. This process takes five to seven years, and if done right, leaves plenty of room to compete through the different stages, even if the horse isn't started until he is three.
However, I still can't quit watching the futurity. It amazes me. The Big K didn't make the finals this year. He just missed them by a few points on a colt who is sound and sane and happy.
I feel like a total mugwump.If I hadn't explored riding those two-year-olds I wouldn't have the ability I have now. I wouldn't know without a doubt that I will wait until a horse feels ready before I take him to the next level.
Chicken and egg I guess.