Ask Our Expert - Russell Dilday
Russell Dilday was raised in the San Joaquin Valley of California and worked on ranches throughout Arizona, California, Nevada and Australia. Before transitioning to training full time, he cowboyed and started colts under legendary cow horse trainer Greg Ward. The Wynnewood, Oklahoma, trainer was named World’s Greatest Horseman in 2008, 2009 and 2011, making him the only trainer to have earned the title three times. Carrying him to all of those titles was Topsails Rien Maker, the first cow horse to become a Breyer model. Dilday also won the 2012 Grand National Horse Show and the 2015 NRCHA Derby in addition to being a finalist at many other major National Reined Cow Horse Association and National Stock Horse Association events.
Q: I have just started to ride my horse out in the open rather than in the pasture or arena. He gets very tense and excited and is spooking at rocks or loud brush. What can I do when he spooks like this?
A: The first thing to do is make sure you don't make a big deal about it when he gets tense. If he is spooking from a rock or brush, you don't want to put the spurs to him to force him to the object. If you are riding on the trail, when he spooks don't force him to it; just go by it. If it is something you need to get him up to, you will want to turn him to the left and the right, and [use the alternating directions] ease him up to the rock. Then, give him some time to settle and realize the rock or the brush is not a big deal. You don't want to let him run off and leave the rock, but you don't want to go really, really hard at it and make it a big war [to get him to it]. Then every time he sees a rock he's going to think it's going to get him. At the same time if you do try to take him to something [he spooks at], you have to get him there. You can't try to take him there and it gets a little bad so you quit and go on down the trail. You have got to get it done.
If I felt like I was having trouble and the horse was going to rear or buck, then go lope or trot circles near the rock or object. Start trotting closer to the object as your horse relaxes. Start somewhere where you can get a circle at a trot or lope and then gradually build it over to the rock. That is the best way to do it. That, and give him time in the beginning.
A lot of times horses will drop down and spook at something, but if you give them a little time and keep them pointed at it, they will almost sneak up to it out of curiosity. The biggest thing to me is to feel the horse relax. You should feel the muscles go from tense to relaxed. And, if you think you have it [accomplished] so you turn to leave and the horse blows out of there, you need to go back to it. Don't let him run from it as you turn away from it. In all of this use your head and don't put more on your horse than you as a rider can handle. In other words, if they blow away and you can't get them to stop, you need to go a ways to get stopped gradually then get back to the rock again.
Q: I would like to teach my horse to do a turnaround. What is the best way to do this?
A: I really feel like a turnaround is just a really small circle. With my [young horses] I do a lot of trotting circles—maybe a 10-foot or 15-foot circle. I trot it and trot it smaller and smaller, and when my horse feels nice and round and supple through the entire body—he's not pulling on you or bowing out of the circle—I pull him into a spin.
With a horse that hasn't turned around at all, I might just get one or two nice steps where his front feet are stepping into the turnaround. Then I will go back to my circle and repeat that. One or two steps becomes four steps, four becomes five, six, to where I'm doing a full spin. Later on, two spins and so on. The big thing is that you are riding the hind end up to the front end and you can feel the cadence of your front feet being smooth and not changing [rhythm] when you go into the spin. You want it to feel like the nice walk or trot you were doing in the bigger circle when you go into the turnaround. Always trying to keep the body smooth, relaxed and soft and supple.
Every horse is different. Some of them will go to turning around in weeks. But, probably more important is the skill of the rider. If you are just starting to learn turnarounds you need to focus on keeping the horse supple and relaxed and that turnaround will come to you. It will show itself to you one day. Don't say, 'This is week two and this thing needs to be doing full spins.' That is not going to happen. It may be a month. I don't get in a big hurry with that sort of thing. Maybe one of the biggest things is to find someone with some experience to watch you periodically to see what you are doing in the turnaround and what you can change if you have something going wrong. And you will have something going wrong.
Q: My horse is collected when loping, but tripping a lot. Is he being lazy or should I look deeper? He is sound in other areas.
A: That is a really hard question to answer without seeing the horse because I can't see what the horse and rider are doing. That rider is telling me 'I'm collecting my horse' so they are probably collecting it a lot, and they are probably not a super advanced rider, maybe beginner or intermediate. A lot of people that ride at that level are worried about collection. Rather than having the hindquarters come to the head, they get the head down where the back is flat and the hindquarters are out behind them a little bit. What they do is transpose most of the weight to the front feet. So the head is down on the ground and most of the weight is hitting on the front shoulders and feet, and that will often cause a lot of tripping, versus sitting up and having that horse come up from behind. To me, true collection is having the horse drive up from behind.
Another possibility is maybe the toes on that horse are too long and they are getting the heels down and letting the toes run out a little too far when they shoe them. They need to get those toes back. That will help some, but when a horse is stumbling that much the horse is either in a position that makes him stumble or is naturally clumsy. They probably wouldn't be asking that question if the horse was always that way so I feel like from that question there is a strong possibility they are putting that horse into a position to trip.
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For more information on Russell Dilday and his training methods visit dildayranch.com.