Monday, October 10, 2011

Guilty Pleasure

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.


  1. Another good and thought provoking article Mugs.

    I went to a show this past weekend that was a Congress warm-up. And I want to take your comments and apply them to the pleasure futurity horses.

    I wanted to cry. I wanted a couple of those two year olds to face plant the idiots on their backs.

    The local "trainers" were riding colts that had spur scars on their sides in a variety of "training" bosals with assorted tie downs, war get the picture. Evidently the new "suppling collection" fad is to half-pass the horses for half-hours at a time at a lope. The "trainers" were congratulating themselves for super-collected 3 and 4 foot long strides that, while slow, resulted in altered footfall patterns on many of the horses who were trying to continue on long after their muscles had turned to jelly.

    Your trainers are at least highly skilled and are hopefully wise enough to see that they can't profit from a damaged horse - they are at the tops of their craft....but as you go down the tree.....arrgh. We shouldn't be showing two year olds period !

  2. Three year olds aren't physically or mentally mature - some survive intense training but many don't. Even riding a 2 yo heavily is in almost all cases a very bad idea if you want a horse that's going to stay sound. Whenever human egos, competition and money enter the picture, horses suffer - it happens in all the disciplines from dressage to jumpers to Western pleasure to halter horses. Short cuts and rushing the horses along, even if it's done without abusive methods (and there are plenty who do use abusive methods) leads to at worst, damaged horses, and at best, horses with limited likelihood of long-term soundness.

    Just by coincidence, I did a post on Slow Horsemanship - I'm fortunate that I don't show anymore and don't have clients who want results in 30 days, regardless if that's appropriate for the horse.

    Watching a nervous, stressed horse do patterns, or a dressage test, or a rail class, isn't any fun.

  3. You got it Kate, it isn't any fun at all.

  4. Or almost worse, watching the quiet, shut-down ones with dead eyes.

  5. We were sitting in the box seats at the end of the arena where the horses came in and out. The horse that Tod Bergen won on looked to me like he liked his job and it was just a big game for him. He was a pleasure to watch. He had his ears forward, a sparkle in his eyes, wasn't wringing his tail, he had enough gas to get through the pattern and the cow work with ease. He left the arena bright eyed and as happy as he came in. Almost saying ..."look at me". I saw lots of horses that I thought had the tails "done" but I didn't think that his did. That could be wishful thinking on my part. But to be honest.. out of the top 25 - he was in the minority. Some looked pretty worried going out there and pretty out of gas on the way back in. It was heart wrenching to see some.

    So.... did you see what Boyd Rice did wrong to have his score adjusted in the reining in the finals. I was there and I completely missed what went on! Then he took a no score in the cattle work... I don't remember now if it was on the same horse or not. But the horse in the cow work just shut down. Ran through the bridle and was DONE.

  6. Thank You Mugs. You put into words my experience in the pleasure horse industry. I spent about a year training for a 'big name pleasure horse trainer' straight out of college. I had no idea what I was getting myeslf into initially. I had never ridden a western pleasure horse, but I could start an untouched 2-3 yr old and get them going good in 45-60 days. The trainer I was working for liked what I was doing, so had me start to ride some of the show horses, and then I started attending some of the futurities as a barn hand/ sit on em till they are too tired to go fast. I spent one season on the circuit, never showed, but worked many of the 2 and 3 yr old winners. The day we got home from Congress, I put in my 1 month notice. I could not do it. It was a hard decision to give up, as I had alot of people telling me I could do this, but I couldn't do it to the horses.

    Mugs, I have a ton of respect for you, for giving up your passion, and what you love, for the sake of the horses. I now ride mostly for fun, and enjoy my horses much more because of it!

  7. What you said, E...I was thrilled someone built a barn next door to me (before I had horses again) and they welcomed me over there (I cleaned stalls to ride)...I even bought my Appendix (not WP trained) mare from them. But as I was there longer and longer, and into the night, I got sicker and sicker. After I brought my mare home, I only helped out when they were gone on weekends so the horses left behind could at least get outside for a few hours. I finally washed my hands of them when I saw how they "deadened" a WP horse...whipped her until she was exhausted with her head tied to the side, and then more. Lucky that little mare had pony spunk, and would *not* let the trainer mount her. The owners saw the attitude change and pulled her from the barn, and that was when I realized I was done with any of that cruelty for money.


  8. Really great analysis, an accurate analysis. Greed revolving around the futurity system is a huge contributor to horse attrition in the performance industry.

    Occasionally I'll watch a futurity, but it's rare these days.
    You know-the good news about my situation is that my horse just wasn't ridden. Period. That was perhaps the best news. It cost me a huge amount of money, but it didn't cost me a very nice horse.

    After landing under the wing of a really good and much underrated trainer's wing-I won. We are now progressing really well.

    Your comment:

    "A good cow horse loves to work cattle. The reining (dry work), not so much,"

    caught my eye. One thing that strikes me now about my horse is that she is not a cow horse. There is no way. She has a deep seated panic response when things are not predictable. She lacks (or has lost) confidence and it is pathologic IMO and I doubt she will train out of it. Any idiot should have known that at 90 days.

    However, I've found that she absolutely loves dry work and the routine of reining training. She could lope circles and stop and roll back and spin 24/7. The routineness of it is her comfort zone. Believe me I didn't want it, didn't expect (certainly had the breeding for "cow") it but you can damned sure feel it when you ride her. So maybe some of them do enjoy reining (allbeit without the torture aspect)!

    I am happy with where she is going, but mainly because I know how she's getting there and there is nothing but wet saddleblankets, hands, seat and legs involved. It is not a program basd on artifice, but it is not a futurity-driven program.

  9. I misspoke...they did try to WP train her, but she had too much TB and got angry...really angry... :)


  10. Keep writing Mugs, people need to read this. The information is around about this sort of training and it's consequences, the better.

    I have nothing against competition and horse sports if they are within the horse's capacity and the horse likes doing them. I wish having a happy horse was a prerequisite for competing in any events - your horse is stressed or anxious before you go in or after you come out & you get disqualified and fined. You can't train & ride your horse to keep it happy and willing, you're out. Might change a few things.

    Good on you for getting out of it; I hear that story quite often too. We all need to be standing up to stop this crap.

  11. One of the things I *love* about the sport of endurance is the rule that horses may not compete until age 4 for limited distance and age 5 for 50+ milers. And we go by the actual foaling date, not the birth-year.

    Even so, I try not to do more than "back" my horses (get on...walk around for 10-20 minutes...get off) until they are 4 or 5. The mare I have now was started thus when she was 4, and I didn't actually start riding her for more than 30 mins at a time until she was 6 because her brain wasn't ripe yet .

    Physically, she probably could have done the work, but why push it? I want this mare to compete with me for 10-20 YEARS. I don't need to do everything while she's still growing in her teeth, fer cryin' out loud.

    The endurance community occasionally debates making the "ready for competition" ages even later (age 5 for LD, age 6 for endurance), and I would support the change. We don't gain anything in the long run by "breaking" the babies!

  12. When did the futurity become so important? I mean, I know as a trainer or owner it offers the quicker return on investment so it's a better money-spinner and that seems to trump equine welfare in pretty much every discipline but even fifty years ago it seems like it wasn't the done thing for horses to be started at all before they were four. Now that appears to be the standard among Western competition horses, though less so in some other disciplines. I'm not sure why that is but I guess it may be even easier to break a horse down jumping them as a two year old than working cows with them? Does this just come from a different value-proposition in the past where a working ranch horse was a valuable asset and you wanted to ensure they could last as long as possible?

    When you have to put down a good horse in their early teens because their legs have been trashed by having been ridden too hard too young, it can really colour your opinion on this topic.

  13. Another great post. I absolutely adore, no I am addicted to reined cowhorses. When I was lucky enough to go to Reno I plopped my ass down and watched every go-every year there were no slot machines for me. Last time I was there I sat from the first arena drag til the last class every day for 14 days straight...That said, I just can no longer support the futurity system. Over the years, I have had a few favorite horses that I have tried to follow and almost invariably the seem to just disappear a few years down the road. I so wish the horse community would put bigger money in to "super senior" classes where longevity was a weighted factor. Give people a reason not to burn theses youngsters up but bring them along slowly with longevity and long time performance a goal.

  14. Maybe we should start a grass roots movement to solicite and pour money and prizes into Bridle Horse Competitions and Ranch Versatility. If I had a ten bucks for every time I have heard someone say that they don't agree with the training and showing of furturity horses, I could host a show and pay out 100K. Don't get me wrong... I totally agree with all of you... I hate what they do and I have been in the position to see it first hand at the boarding facility where I used to board so I know the horror stories are not just "stories". Maybe we could start a "positive" blog and set up a Paypal account for people to donate money to and then as a group decide what shows and classes to put the extra dough in. Damn... I live in a Mary Jane world - don't I? hahaha

  15. Totally off topic, but I just LOVE the new header picture for the blog. What an amazing place to ride.

  16. Mugs,

    Since I arrived late to the party :0 which horse is your developing bridle horse (obviously not mort)! Hopefully you have detailed the progression up to this point and will continue to do so. admittedly I've read through a lot of past posts but not all.

    Really enjoy the blog and the header picture (gives me breathing space when I look at it daily).

  17. The only part I saw was the winning runs by Todd Bergen and Shiners Dun was amazing to see the horse at that age do what he did...but where will he be next year? And it's sad to think about the number of potentially good horses that now have fried brains and bodies in the aftermath.

  18. i just spent a long time going through your archives trying to find a post you wrote about teaching manners to a warmblood stallion. i finally found it - august 1 2008 (i've been enjoying this blog a long time). can you please put a label on this post so that it is searchable in your sidebar? it is called "staying safe on the ground" - one of the best. it is sure to help a lot more people.

    ~lytha in germany

  19. I was just at the Canadian Supreme Working Cowhorse. (Reining Cutting Etc) I have always believed that this particular venue starts their horses at too early an age and being there and watching it close up just reinforces that sentiment. I saw some amazing horses and some really talented riders....the down side was how many bad (what I consider cruel riders....just my opinion)and how many horses were competing with obvious injuries. I am not picking on this venue alone. I believe starting horses before and as two year olds is a travesty....I think it is a lot of work and time getting all the ground manners and just plain all around good behavior down pat never mind all the mind boggling things people ask them to do.Well I better quit here because it's starting to sound like I'm getting on the soap box... I can feel myself getting worked up.

  20. Janice- Jump on that soap box! I'm not the only one that gets to get revved up around here!

  21. lytha- I have been offered some help getting my abysmal archives in order, maybe broke down to additional pages....
    thanks for your input, I'm working on it.

  22. gtyyup- I'll be able to keep you up, I'm show friends with his owners....


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