Riding Skills: Training Advanced Maneuvers For Cowhorse

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Hello,

I have a 5 year old Paint. I’ve kept everything easy, slow and clear. He has turned out to be a great cow working horse. Now how do I start asking for the speed, faster stops, turn on back end or spins? I do team penning and ranch sorting. He really likes what he does.

Alfred in Attica, N.Y.

Answer: Alfred,

I know you and your horse, from the clinic I did in up in Attica a few years ago. My recollection is that you are a quiet and undemanding but decisive rider, which is good. However, now you have probably reached a juncture with your horse that requires you to get a little more demanding. Sort of like a well-behaved kid going off to boot camp.

The maneuvers that you describe are pre-requisites for a good cowhorse: the ability to stop and go abruptly, turn on the hocks, roll back and move expeditiously off your aids.

It is highly likely that by now, you and your horse have come to an understanding that when you cue him and he gives a response, that is good enough. Now you need to teach him to respond with more effort and energy—to stop and go harder and to turn quicker in response to your aids. In essence you are changing the rules, and the new rules will have to be taught to your horse.

How easy it is to train a horse to do something is directly related to how physically demanding it is for the horse to comply. It’s easy to teach a horse to walk when he feels light pressure from your legs. That requires very little effort from your horse. But to accelerate from zero to mach 3 in two seconds requires a lot more effort from your horse; therefore it is harder to train.

Your horse’s athletic ability is also a key factor in how easy it is to train the maneuver. High performing cow horses are built with short backs, strong hips and loins and their hocks naturally positioned way up underneath them, which makes it relatively easy for them to do the difficult maneuvers; but not all horses are that gifted. How demanding you can be has a lot to do with your horse’s natural ability.

Finally there is an important concept in training about motivating a horse to change his behavior. However he is acting now (in response to your cues to stop-go-turn, or with any other behavior) is the way he is most motivated to act at this moment in time; if you wish to change that behavior, you have to find the amount of pressure that motivates the horse to change.

How much pressure that requires (whether we are talking about pressure from your seat, legs, hands, voice or from artificial aids), varies with each individual horse you train. But you always have to find the amount of pressure that motivates the horse to change, or in your case, motivates him to try harder and put more effort into his responses.

For instance, when I work on stops and want the horse to sit down hard either in a slide stop (reiner) or a quick stop (cow horse), I will sequence my aids from the least amount of pressure to the most, giving my horse two chances to stop before I pull on his mouth. From the trot, I’ll cue the horse to stop with voice—seat—reins, in a 1-2-3 second interval. My goal is that I never have to pull on the reins to make him stop hard—if I do, he braces on his front end and hollows out, making it impossible to get his hocks underneath him.

But before he can learn to stop from my voice and seat, I’ll have to apply some pressure to motivate him to change and to listen for the cue and put more effort into the stop. I’ll do that by using the reins hard when I do have to pick them up and make him stop abruptly and back up hard. Depending on the horse, that may take a little pressure or a lot, but I need to get the right reaction from the horse—one that shows he didn’t like that and he is looking for a way to avoid that happening again.

Then I’ll ask him to stop again, using the same sequence—whoa-sit-reins– while he is still thinking about it. If my timing and judgment are good and my horse is a quick leaner, I shouldn’t have to back him up more than twice before he is listening and trying harder.

In this exercise, I am looking for the first opportunity to reward my horse for his effort by not using the reins, petting his neck and letting him rest. As soon as he puts some try into his stops, I’ll ease up on the rein cue. In short order, my horse is stopping hard with the voice cue—just as I sit on his back. At any time my horse does not respond, I go back to reins as a reinforcement of my voice and seat cues.

I also work on the horse stopping in response to various aids. I want him to stop just from my voice or just from me sitting hard on his back or just from me swinging my legs forward and pushing on the horn (for cutting). I could use the same training technique, by applying the single aid, giving the horse one second to respond, then applying the other aids required to make him stop hard and back up.

I can’t really go into the cues you need to teach your horse to do all the maneuvers required of a cowhorse or reining horse, without writing a book—which I plan to do one of these days! But all of the cues you use are derived from fundamental use of the aids. You just have to train your horse to give a more enthusiastic response.

Incidentally, fundamental use of the natural aids for cueing the horse is thoroughly explained and demonstrated in Volume 2 of my riding video series Goodnight’s Principles of Riding: Communication and Control from the Saddle. More advanced use of the aids is found on Volume 5, Collection and Refinement.

By the way, if you are asking for this kind of performance from your horse, you are putting a great deal of stress on his joints, especially his hocks and stifle. Make sure your horse is on a good joint health supplement to support this kind of activity. All of our horses, no matter the age, are on daily doses of Cosequin® (pharmaceutical grade glucosamine supplement for horses) and the cow horses are on Cosequin ASU® (a higher octane version). http://nutramaxlabs.com/products/animal/cosequin/cosequin_jointHealth.asp I take the human version, Cosamin ASU® every day myself, particularly when I am riding and skiing hard, so I know firsthand what it does for my horses.

I also try to conserve my horse’s joints by not asking him to stop or turn hard more than necessary—in other words, don’t get greedy! Although you’ll have to use some repetition when he is first learning to give a more dramatic response, once he is trained and responsive, I may only ask him one time during a ride to stop hard (or spin or rollback, etc.). If he gives me a good response the first time, that’s all I’ll ask of him that day. This is also a way to reward him for trying. If he doesn’t’ stop well, I’ll ask again until I get the response I want.

I hope that helps! Good luck!

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