Chris Littlefield’s ranching background taught him the value of training an all-around athlete. He says exposing young horses to a variety of environments and giving them different jobs is the best way to prepare them for the show ring, whether they’re aimed for roping, cutting or reined cow horse competition.
VERSATILITY IS THE CORNERSTONE of my program. I like to train horses that aren’t specialized for one event, but instead are able to perform in a variety of competitions.
A cowboy once told me, “A real cowboy should be able to do it all—ride, rope, shoe horses, train horses, work cattle and fix fence.” I feel the same way about a good horse; he should have well-developed foundation skills, no matter what the task at hand.
Some horses are trained for only one specific purpose, such as cutting or reining. And while he might be really good in one area, sometimes a young horse gets too specialized, limiting his abilities in the long run. I’ve seen world champion reining horses that are scared of a cow, and I’ve seen some really good cutting horses that can’t take the pressure of roping. So I see great value in giving young horses a variety of experiences to develop both their mind and body.
The goal of my program is to create all-around performance horses that are competitive in a variety of disciplines, useful in day-to-day work and enjoyable to ride. In training a young horse that may eventually show, I look at the process in three progressive levels. This three-part series will show you how to:
1. Create a well-broke using horse,
2. Advance your prospect’s cow horse skills, and
3. Refine his abilities so he’s ready to compete in the show ring.
When I start horses, I like for them to be 2 or 3 years old. To me, going through all these steps in training is going to be 10 times easier at this age. Two-year-olds are moldable and trainable—they soak up everything you teach them. Plus, if you turn them out for a year or two, they’ll still remember what you taught them when you bring them back.
I think of the 2-year-old year as a time for laying a foundation, and instead of doing so much physical training in a pen, I expose my 2- and 3-year-olds to various experiences. It helps them grow up mentally and lays a broader foundation so they can be any kind of horse—a rope horse, cow horse, reiner, trail horse or whatever.
Just because a horse is bred to do a certain thing doesn’t mean he’s actually going to be a winner in that event. So, if the horse doesn’t make it in his event, a broader foundation prepares him to do almost anything else.
In exposing them, I want my horses to get over all the boogers. In other words, by the time I take them to a show in their 3- or 4-year-old year, they’ve ridden down the bar ditch and seen a trash sack blowing in the fence. They’ve crossed water. They’ve gathered cattle. They’ve been tied to the fence and seen a tractor drive by them several times.
At first, I’m going to ride a horse several times in a small pen. Once I can go left, right, stop and get them to back up a step or two—and they’re not thinking about running off or bucking—I’m going to take them to the big arena.
By then they’ve walked, trotted and loped. And as soon as they’re comfortable with that, I’m taking them out to the pasture. I want them to get out there and go somewhere, learn how to handle their feet and how to pack me. I’m not worried about how they stop, back up and move their feet right off the bat.
It’s important for a horse’s mind to get him out of his stall and out of the arena. Even if you don’t have a big pasture to ride in, you can take him down the bar ditch. I’ve done that with lots of my horses. It helps them get comfortable with uneven ground, bushes, tall grass, rocks, and rabbits or birds jumping out from underneath them. They get used to cars coming at them at 60 miles an hour.
These are all great learning experiences for a young horse. Horses get bored with a routine. They enjoy seeing new things. It keeps their minds fresh and engaged. Plus, when you take them out of their comfort zone, they learn to trust you and it builds their confidence.
Along with exposing them, I can’t stress enough how important it is to give your horse as many jobs as possible. By doing a job, a horse gets a sense of accomplishment and begins to understand the reason you taught him to go left, right, stop and go.
At first, I give my horses easy jobs, like riding out to check fence or opening gates. Opening and closing gates teaches them patience and body control. They have to be able to move their shoulders, hindquarters and sidepass. I am amazed at the horses that are supposed to be broke, but you can’t open a gate properly on them, and they won’t stand still and wait while you latch the gate. So many, if you put your reins down, will walk off. That drives me nuts. If I have to hang the reins on the saddle horn and reach under their belly to chain the gate, they’d better stand still.
Another job I like to give young horses is dragging a tire. It’s both a physical and mental exercise. They learn to pull and get used to that rope lying over their rump. Also, you can ride them over the tire. A lot of horses fear the tire at first, so you teach them to get over that fear and they learn body control as you ask them to step around and inside it. Plus, that soft rubber is safe and not likely to injure their legs or feet should they misstep.
When it comes to introducing a horse to a rope, I have better success if there’s a purpose for it. I show my horses a rope after the first few rides in the round pen. I just pat them down with it, letting them know it’s okay, and make sure they’re fine with it sliding all around their feet, rump, belly and neck. I don’t want them scared about me swinging it over their head.
Then, once you’re outside, you can get creative in how you use the rope. You might drag branches across the pasture. When I was a kid, I started pulling hay from our hay barn when I fed the horses at night. I did that instead of putting it in the back of a pickup or in a wheelbarrow. I’d bundle up three bales of hay in my loop, cinch it tight and then drag it to the horse pens.
The best job to give a horse is working cattle, especially if you do it outside. When you’re gathering and driving cattle, they have to listen to you. If they need to go left to stop a cow, but they don’t go left in time, the cow gets away. And there are consequences for that. They might have to trot through the brush for a quarter mile to get back around the cow and bring her back to the herd. So, they learn to hook up, hustle and be a little more focused.
Is all this relevant to later on when you’re showing the horse? Absolutely. Let me explain.
Years ago, I actually tried training a mare without riding her outside or using her to do ranch work. I was planning to show her in reined cow horse competition. Back then, I thought I didn’t need to be using her for ranch work. I thought I might cripple her if she stepped in a hole, or she’d get an injury that would set us behind in training.
So, I trained for reining and for going down the fence, and I did it all in the arena. When I started showing her, she did well as long as the cow was perfect and as long as the situation was perfect. She made the perfect fence turn and circled the cow fine.
But when I drew a bad cow—maybe it would try to come off the fence and push into us—or if I fell behind a little bit and needed to hustle to catch up, that mare would get lost mentally. She’d look to me for help and wouldn’t respond the way she should have. Then I got frustrated and she got frustrated.
I then realized that I had taught her to be that way. Because while I was training her on a cow in the arena at home, whenever things got out of the ordinary, I’d just pull her up and get another cow. I’d keep changing cows until I found one that gave us the perfect run.
Really, I trained her to read the pen and work a pattern, not read the cow and work the cow. If things weren’t coming together, she’d just check off. She knew that if she messed up, the cow wasn’t really going to get away. It wasn’t going to go jump in the lake. It was going to just trot over to the corner of the arena, and then we’d stop, go open the gate and get another cow.
So, I had to backtrack a little. I took the mare to the pasture and chased cows around until she hooked up and went wherever those cows went. I learned then that horses perform a lot better if you get them outside and put them in situations that are not perfect. They learn that no matter the situation, they have a job to do.
That mare went on to win nearly $10,000 in National Reined Cow Horse competition, plus another $4,000 in AQHA money. She also qualified for the AQHA World Show in working cow horse, heading and heeling.
I’m not saying, “Don’t train in the arena.” I spend a lot of time working horses in the arena. But don’t underestimate the benefits of putting your horse to work outside of the training pen. Outside, the terrain is different. Horses have to learn to watch where the heck they’re going. There are many obstacles out there, and they make your horse think a little bit.
And outside work makes a horse learn to try. I think that sometimes in the arena, in that controlled environment, horses don’t feel like they have to try very hard.
Once your horse is comfortable riding outside, responds willingly to your hands and feet, understands the purpose of a rope, and confidently gathers cattle, it’s time to advance to the next level. In next month’s article, I’ll show you how to recognize your young prospect’s cow horse abilities and then develop them into proficient skills.
Ross Hecox is a Western Horseman senior editor. Learn more about Chris Littlefield at chris-littlefield.com. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.