Ask Our Expert - Aaron Ralston
This Month's Expert
Colorado horseman Aaron Ralston grew up in the ranching world in which horses are part of everyday life. It wasn't until later that he began training and showing reiners and working cow horses. He was part of Team USA at the World Equestrian Games in 2006, in Germany, where he won an individual bronze and helped the team earn a gold medal riding Smart Paul Olena, a stallion owned by Ralston and his wife, Meg.
Ralston hosts a weekly program, "The Ride with Aaron Ralston," on RFD-TV. He also hosts clinics at his facility in Colorado and at locations around the country.
Q:Being a 12-year-old rider with dreams of reining and roping, I need my horse to be as calm as possible. My horse, Macey, is a 5-year-old mare and I'm worried that if I do compete, I'll have problems keeping her attention. How can I keep her attention when I show her?
Skyler, Ecru, Mississippi
A: Skyler, first of all, never stop dreaming! The ability to dream has always been the spark I have needed to work hard. Secondly, when you are working with Macey, keep in mind that most solid rope horses are 10-plus years old and any good reining horse has had a minimum of two years of very consistent training before it ever competes. You are still young and have many years ahead of you; therefore, take your time to develop your horse and yourself.
Looking back, one of my biggest regrets when I was your age was not fully developing the fundamentals. I rushed to the competition arena and tried to take as many shortcuts as I could. This approach developed many bad habits that I continue to deal with to this day.
One of the most common problems I hear is a horse that doesn't act the same away from home as it does at home. As soon as the environment changes, a horse's anxiety level increases. To help prepare your horse to compete in a strange environment, be sure to haul your horse to as many different environments as you can, i.e., indoor arenas, rodeos, etc. Try to keep the experience as relaxed as you can working only on simple ground work. Do not ride until your horse is very relaxed on the ground. Try to refrain from training or over-exercising as a method of control. Any pain or confusion will forever be associated with a strange environment. If your horse has a solid understanding of being hobbled, tie her up with some hobbles. Having her feet restrained keeps her mind still and encourages her to process rather than react. But do not do anything that you haven't done at home first.
Every time you take your horse out of her comfort zone and she does not experience pain or confusion, she will grow stronger and more confident. Good luck to you and Macey!
Q: I bought a 10-year-old gelding last year and he has become increasingly hard-mouthed. I've tried a lot of different bits on him, but nothing seems to work very well. I know he's an older horse and set in his ways, but is it possible to soften his mouth any? I don't want to keep going to more severe bits. I use him for trail riding and would like to show him in some local shows.
Shelly, Pensacola, Florida
A: Shelly, it sounds like this is a problem of application and not equipment. A horse should ride in a big bit because he is broke and not in an attempt to break him. In the traditional vaquero style of training, the large Spanish bits we see are to fine-tune the lightness and not to create it.
With that said, I am going to assume that you are not being very clear when signaling your horse. If we don't become tuned in, our horses tune out. Be sure that you give your horse plenty of slack when moving forward. In this position, keep your eyes forward and hands down with straight elbows. When you turn, look first with your eyes, lift and point to your destination with your hands and your inside leg while pressing with your outside leg. As soon as your horse makes the turn, immediately return to the eyes forward, hands down and elbows straight position. This will improve the responsiveness for your stop and back, as well. This is what I refer to as the "reset" position for the mouth. If we do not reset, we burn up the brakes and numb or harden the mouth. Think about resetting every time your horse takes a step in the correct position: Direct, reset, direct, reset. Good luck!
Q: My 2-year-old filly was progressing well, but after about a month and a half of riding she seemed to get frustrated when I asked her to do more. Several times she's bucked when I've asked her for a little more speed or to turn around. I'm riding her in a snaffle bit and have been able to get her stopped, but really want to teach her that bucking isn't appropriate. How do I correct her for this bad behavior and still make progress in her training?
Roger, Houston, Texas
A: Roger, I would first check the fit of your saddle. A young horse grows and changes so much at this age, you may need to change saddles or pads to adjust to conformation changes.
If your saddle is not the problem, you may be dealing with work ethic issues. If she is lazy, she will express herself by bucking. Build some effort and energy by trotting some small circles, then allowing her to turn around. If she loses her motivation, go back to the trot circle and repeat, with the turn being the reward. Pretty soon she will be craving that turn. As soon as you feel a little improvement, go on to something else. To develop work ethic, keep your training sessions shorter with more down time.
A horse that develops a good work ethic turning around typically has a better work ethic when loping. Warm up your horse by long-trotting some straight lines, then school on your turns and finish by loping some circles. If your horse wants to buck while loping, repeat the turn exercise. When a horse bucks, it take its feet away from you; therefore, take its feet away from it by turning. The extra work and accountability of the turning will help develop a horse that looks for an answer rather than become defensive.
Always reward the slightest bit of effort and refrain from inflicting any pain or intimidation while in the learning process. Good luck!