Monday, August 29, 2011

Turning the Hare Into a Tortoise

I got a training inquiry from a young woman who wants to slow her rope horse down. He's got one speed and it's fast. She's not asking for the moon here, just a nice, relaxed lope every once in a while.

I like rope horses. The well bred ones are big, pretty in the fat cheeked, old timey way I originally fell in love with, congenial and have solid bone.

They go where you point them, move out when they're told and can behave themselves when tied to a trailer all day.

We used to get rope horses in periodically to soften their shoulders and generally lighten their front ends for their roper owners. Other times we got them in to help them change careers, this mainly entailed teaching them to get comfortable on both leads, lightening and limbering their front ends and getting controlled speed on a loose rein.

Because I was low gunzel on the totem pole I was picked to ride most of these horses. Resolving problems like these taught me a bunch as a trainer and left the cow horses for my boss. So he won on both sides and I pretty much came out ahead too.

The biggest aspect I needed to keep was their forward motion. Rope horses move out, and with all the rinky dink stuff we teach our reiners and reined cow horses, it's easy to create a very bendy, twisty thing and not have enough forward. I didn't want to lose all the lovely forward motion, I wanted to shape it.

Stop and go, circling, backing up, these are all things that happen as part of the routine for a rope horse and he's not going to equate this with slowing down. Running until he's tired can be difficult, again, because he's been run until he's tired on a pretty regular basis and it's just part of the days work.He's not bolting, he's doing what he thinks you want.

Special equipment won't work either, he's used to leaning his way through tie-downs and mechanical hacks, so martingales and draw reins will just fold him over, and he'll run that way.

Keep in mind, these horses weren't being bad, they were just working the way they were taught to work. They will go straight and fast no matter what's tossed at them, it's just another day at the Idiot Human Demands Factory and they want off the clock.

I learned through trial and error to keep things simple. First I put the horse in a ring snaffle. The snaffle is my primary tool in teaching shoulder control, so every horse I rode spent time in it, no matter the age or the head gear used prior to the horse coming to me.

I would start making sure I had a turn on the forehand. Then go to the walk and trot with a lot of bends to the left and right. Lots of serpentines and spirals, working to get a light feel through them and control of the shoulders, hindquarters and ribs.

Through all this I didn't pull back. I only went to the left or right. Yes, I got going pretty fast sometimes, but I still only used one rein or the other. The turns would eventually get them slowed down and then I would relax my rein even more, get my legs off and let the horse travel straight for awhile.

Depending on how hot the horse was I might be pulling left or right every few steps, but I always released when the inside shoulder followed my hand and led into the turn.

The sequence I was after is hand, nose, shoulder, foot. I like to get to where the horse will step in the direction of my hand with the inside shoulder leading without pressure from me.

I kept this up for days if needed because it got the horse used to and seeking a loose rein.

Once I had all the parts responding the way I needed them to I moved into transitions. Transitions, transitions, transitions.

At first I didn't have stop and back as part of the deal, just walk, trot, fast walk, fast trot, slow trot, walk etc. I didn't want to lose my momentum and again, a rope horse stops and backs all day and then takes off at a run, this doesn't equate as a discipline to him, at least not at first. My reins stayed loose, I wasn't going to pull back on him, no matter what.

Every time I wanted him to transition up I would squeeze with my legs as a cue. He might over-react at first, but I did it anyway. My reins stayed loose.

All lot of ropers are not ridden with leg contact, rope saddles are designed for the rider to get up and off the horse, not for close contact. So squeeze can mean take off, but I kept asking consistently for what I wanted, if I got too much, I just went to bending until he got back where I wanted him. I needed and expected him to learn a squeeze is a conversation, not a shout.

When I wanted him to transition down I'd exhale, relax my seat and legs, give him 10 seconds or so to respond and then start going right and left until he slowed. I released my hold as soon as I felt him begin to slow. My reins only came in contact one at a time and I didn't switch over until the the nose followed my hand and the shoulder followed the nose. My legs stayed active and helped position him inside or out as needed.

I didn't say Whoa and I don't take my legs completely off, not yet. My reins stayed loose.

When I finally stopped him I relaxed my seat, took my legs completely off and then brought in my hands, if needed, left, right, left, right, in rhythm with his trot, not worrying about the shoulder, just alternating pressure until he stopped. When he stopped I released all pressure and said Whoa. Yes, after he stopped.

Transition, transition, transition, for days if need be. Quiet, consistent, friendly.

When I had control of his body, he could calmly transition up and down, and hold the asked for speed for at least half a lap around the arena, I started thinking about loping.

When we loped I only thought about the lope. I didn't care about a lope depart, I preferred he trot into it at the moment. I didn't care about leads, that's another training issue and I wanted him comfortable at the slower gaits before I worried about leads.

I clucked to signal a trot and kissed for a lope. When I kissed to my rope horse I squeezed at the same time and my reins were what? Loose you say? You betcha!

If (when) he took off I simply sat there. I didn't pick up my reins for at least six or seven strides. Then I'd exhale, relax my seat and legs and began to work his mouth. If he slowed, I released, if he trotted I released, if he stopped I smooched him back into the lope. I didn't say Whoa, I asked him to slow down.

Now I went back to transitions.

I'd warm up at the walk and trot, then go to my lope. When I got a good slow down at the lope I'd quit for the day. Our hard work was still at the walk and trot.

My final step was to lope up the long side of the arena, on a loose rein, and then transition down to a trot about 10 ft. before the corner of the short end. I'd trot through the corner and smooch him back into the lope on the straight away. Pretty soon he'd be thinking about the transition through the corners and he'd slow down on his own.

That's when I'd ask for a Whoa now and then. I'd still relax my seat and take off my legs before I said Whoa, but I didn't wait until he stopped on his own. I'd go ahead and pick up my reins and work his mouth, left right, left, in rhythm with his stride until he stopped.

There's a good start for you. Be careful, be patient and what about those reins???? Stay loose!


  1. Anybody know why I'm not getting any comments?

  2. I thought you had all left me so we could wrassle on FHOTD....
    call me insecure.

  3. Ha ha ha, I thought so too. I thought they were all over at FHOTD bashing on you. This is a tough post to comment on anyway. It's very detailed, which I appreciate, and I might not need it because I'm not riding an ex rope horse. But it should work with any horse you want to slow down. I'll read it 3 or 4 times and try to keep it in the back of my mind in case I need it.

  4. Wow Mugs, you have turned into a blog posting machine. I Love it! Especially since you are now responsible for writing 2 of three of my favorite blogs. It is great to have you back with such regularity =)

  5. Oh, and no need to feel insecure, I much prefer the comments here to the ones there. You have created an open friendly and collaborative environment here, I really enjoy that.

  6. Nah, although I might comment occasionally over at fugly, I much prefer the commentariat here. :D

    I've never sat on a rope horse, but reading through, it sounds a lot like retraining a OTTB actually, although not for the same reasons.

  7. Hey Mugs, this is great....

    I had emailed you about my gelding, same "issues"...slowing down a galloping machine (from fast trail riders). It was during your hiatus...and I didn't hear back.

    So, I thought "What Would Mugs Do?" and got him bending, slowing, halting, cantering....all by doing what you just posted! are getting at least one Michigan person to think about riding/training and how to do it the "Mugwump" way :)


  8. FD- It is very similar. I found out the hard way an OTTB will lean into bit pressure. I did quite a few very speedy laps on a young mare who thought she was doing what I wanted....well, live and learn.

  9. Horses and Turbos - Yup. It's really all the same, no matter what kind of horse or what type of saddle....just don't tell anybody over on the other side of the street.

  10. :) People have seen me "convert" two horses now, and one said I should train trail horses for people who are afraid. I told them I'd have to train the people at the same time...I've read enough of your blogs to know it's not just the horse that needs training!

  11. Wonderful post! We own a finished, but blown-up-in-the-box ex-heel-horse that we bought as a trail horse for our daughter. He doesn't necessarily have all the 'go right now', but otherwise he rides exactly the way you describe. I could feel every move you talked about, because I've spent quite a bit of time getting some of the rope horse out of him. I think I need to print out this post for reference the next time I need to tune on him. And I like rope horses for the same reasons you do! :)

  12. Your dumb blog ate my comment.

    And it was, like, the most incredible comment ever. Witty, poignant, thoughtful... it probably would have made you cry. It was just that good.


    I am curious: How the heck do you stay on when a rope horse does that crazy LUNGE forward? I used to borrow a friend's roper for gymkhana, and no matter how much I prepared myself, I always caught myself scrabbling at the saddle horn when they took off--- either that or (*BLUSH*) balancing myself on the reins.

  13. Thanks for the tips, Mugs; I was on the right track with the bending but wasn't sure where to go from there. I'm sure glad to see this is typical for a rope horse, your post sounded like you'd actually been on my gelding :)

  14. deedee sonnyduo@yahoo.comAugust 30, 2011 at 4:03 PM

    mugs, I loved reading this. Only I want to turn a tortoise into a hare - or a slow hare.
    Any help on that one????
    And I love reading you on my kindle!

  15. You have a fine way with putting methods in words. I find things so hard to explain, unless I'm on the horse in that instant. I'm working on a young gaited horse's canter right now and we're doing a lot of the stuff you talk about. Ring snaffle, transitions, very little leg contact, seat and breathing for slowing down, not pulling back.

    Any advice on starting riding a horse with a fear of people? I don't think they're in the same league as Tally - I sure hope not!! - but I rode this horse for the first time today and she was terrified if my split reins tapped the saddle, and she fought my (soft) hands asking for a woah, and she wobbled around the ring with her neck at odd angles and threw her head and rushed and fussed. Unless I do this right (I'm not riding her without someone else present) I'm going to end up scared of her and/or ruining her slow progress.

  16. Becky- Grab the horn BEFORE the horse takes off.
    Dee Dee- There's a post on speeding up slow horse in the srchives somewhere....and thanks for reading me on kindle!
    Jill- I
    I'll think on it, there's more to a horse like this than I can help with in the comments.

  17. Mugs, you have a following here that know you, and are enamored of your storytelling ability as well as interested in your training experience and opinions - maybe not agreeing, but open to your way of telling. the fugly blog has a following cultivated by someone else, and it will take much time and experience to settle that herd down. I admire your guts, and it takes PASSION to be a blog writer. Keep your passion, don't let it be beaten down or dismissed. best wishes, Barefooter

  18. Okay, I lost something somewhere. Did Mugs take over FHOTD blog????

  19. Just so you guys know, this blog is my passion, and will always be my first priority.

  20. When you say bend, could you clarify? When my trainer says bend, she means horse head to my boot. I am not crazy about that technique, but was curious if that's what you meant.

  21. Breathe- I don't bend a horse's head to my boot unless he's trying to buck me off.

    When I talk about a bend I mean the horse is creating as close to a perfect "C" as possible from nose to croup while moving forward.

    I want my horse's inside shoulder to follow my hands, I guide with my inside leg at the cinch, keeping the ribs out of the way and my outside leg behind the cinch keeping the haunches pushing into the chosen direction.

  22. Jill, I own a horse who had strong trust/fear issues with people. I lucked out and was the horse's second rider after rescue. The first rider/owner had worked out the major issues over the course of several years, but she still wasn't so sure about a NEW rider. She flinched and reacted to EVERY move I made. If the split reins brushed her sholder she would jump. If my leg touched her she would jump. Anything made her react. If she didn't understand what I was asking, sometimes I didn't know I was asking anything, she would start to panic. In the end it really just took lots of patience, quiet riding (I learned to not move a muscle if I could help it), riding with other people, being very consistant with my cues, and most importantly, time. We had a good breakthrough as far as my nerves go when I started reading the mugwump blog. Through mugs I learned to teachmy horse that circling ment to slow down. Now I know that if she ever panics or does a hard spook I can just circle until her head is back on and she will slow down. I started riding her 4 or 5 years ago (i loose track of time) and now I can do just about anything on her. She has even learned leg cues. In the end the biggest factor was just giving her time to learn to trust me.

  23. I'm not a frequent commenter, but am a damn frequent reader. I'm pretty sure I've read thru all the archives.

    Obviously, I'm a very big fan.

    I choose not to post this at Fugly because I'm simply more comfortable saying this here.

    Please don't change a thing about your writing to please the militants at FUGLY. You may lose some of them, but I'm confident you're gains will far outnumber your losses. I read FUGLY once, or maybe twice over the years and was always turned off by the one sided, closed minded writing.

    I don't dispute there are evil people out there and some of them choose to abuse horses. Hang 'em as far as I'm concerned. I just don't think everything written needs to be flavored with condemnation and nasty sarcasm.

    Please, please keep being you!

  24. Chiron,
    Don't worry I will. I am at home here and love our give and take.
    There? I have to admit, it's fun to poke a stick in the rattlesnake pit...but I'll stick to my guns.
    It's going to be interesting to see how it goes over there.

  25. Paintarab- I love hearing stories like that one.

  26. Paintarab - thanks for that. Nice to hear a success story. The panicking sounds very similar. Any noise or movement and she flinches and spooks or rushes. I'm going to get on with circles for her. She's been out of work a long time, just longed, so her bending/curving through her spine isn't great, but time and calmness sound like a good start.

    thanks Mugs also!