Story By Richard Winters Introduction By Melissa Cassutt
IT WAS AN AFTERNOON of evalutation. Ojai, California, horseman Richard Winters had trailered to Ted Robinson’s barn in nearby Oak View for some honest feedback and constructive criticism.
With nearly 30 years of experience, Winters was beginning to focus more on a discipline for which he’d always had a passion: reined cow horse. He had a couple of futurity prospects he’d been working with, and Robinson was the perfect person to assess his work. The most successful rider in the history of reined cow horse competition, Robinson has won seven National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity championships and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles.
Winters’ challenge had been finding a bridge between horsemanship and performance.
“I’ve been playing sandlot baseball with my horses for 30 years,” Winters says. “But there’s another level. It doesn’t need to be a contentious level, but when you leave the sandlot and go to the major leagues you’re insisting on excellence.”
Now a full-time clinician, Winters’ upbringing made him somewhat of an unlikely horseman. Raised in the suburbs of Fresno, California, his parents were non-horse folks who worked in town. The most contact he had with horses as a boy was through John Wayne movies and his toy collection.
Itching for more, 12-year-old Winters pedaled his bicycle to a local stable and pestered the owner until he got a job tacking up a dude string and guiding tours. In high school, he landed a job wrangling horses at a kids’ camp south of Yosemite. The experience gave him the confidence to track down a local horseman and ask for work.
He ended up on the doorstep of Troy Henry, an early proponent of natural horsemanship and a bridle-horse trainer. Winters was looking for an opportunity to start colts, but was instead asked to muck stalls. Eventually, he got to ride.
“Looking back, I probably didn’t have any business riding some of those horses,” Winters says. “But it gave me a taste for what higher levels of horsemanship could be—what a fine bridle horse felt like and what it felt like to be in front of a cow on a horse that was truly broke.”
He’s since dedicated himself to horsemanship, and finding ways to bring out a horse’s potential through feel, timing and understanding. He’s spent hours in arenas with horses and handlers, helping them better understand one another. It’s his sense of “doing what’s best for the horse” that’s made Winters’ transition into the competitive arena so hard, Robinson says.
“He’s a horseman, but to step it up to that show level is difficult for him,” Robinson says. “Richard keeps saying, ‘They’re 3 years old, and this is where they should be,’ and he’s correct. But it’s not that way when you’re trying to win something at a horse show.”
Winters is careful to not push too hard or too soon. He’s cognizant of his colts’ minds and bodies. He seeks perfection, but offers understanding. He admits that perfect balance between horsemanship and showmanship is still difficult to achieve, but in the end, his experience offers something much greater: a solid foundation for either.
“Any of the top guys could get on one of Richard’s horses and win something,” Robinson says. “He has an eye for an individual.”
Here, Winters provides readers with a “colt-starting compass,” a guide to gauging how prepared you are for the process, and tips on how to direct your horse to the strong foundation that can unleash his potential.
I’M NOT MECHANICALLY INCLINED, but suppose I decided to save a few bucks and install a new truck engine myself. I’d work diligently for a few nights in my garage until I had parts scattered all over. Then I’d realize I’m not qualified for the job. I’d call a real mechanic, who’d see all those scattered parts, then tell me that he can put the engine in for me, but wishes I’d never started the job myself.
I’ve seen this scenario time after time with those who thought that—either to save money or experience the process personally—they’d start their own colts. Many of these well-intentioned folks quickly realized they were in over their heads.
Almost anyone can be a rider. Riding is simply the art of not falling off. Horsemanship, however, is a more elite club, reserved for those who want to do more than kick to go and pull to stop. The aspiring horseman recognizes there’s a lifetime of knowledge and understanding our horses can give us if we’re willing to invest in ourselves. For those who are serious about horsemanship, only some are up to the challenge of colt starting.
Over the years, I’ve taught many colt-starting clinics. With proper guidance and support, many folks are able to support their colts through the first saddling, mounting and riding. Yet, invariably, there are some who aren’t up to the challenge. To lead a colt, we must be mentally, emotionally and physically fit. Older, broke horses can often be there for us, but young colts can’t. Without leadership, colts are left to their own devices and self-preservation instincts. Someone has to be brave and self-confident. It’s not going to be your colt, so it had better be you.
People also need to consider the time commitment involved in colt starting. We don’t send our kids to school on Tuesday and then again on Friday. Colts, like children, need the routine and consistency of daily lessons. A couple of sessions a week isn’t going to cut it if you’re trying to build a solid foundation. I try to ride my colts at least five days a week, and with that kind of consistency they progress nicely. Still, on Monday, all the colts feel a little fresh and a little rough around the edges after two days off. Believe me, that spirals downward with a more erratic schedule.
Don’t get me wrong—colt starting can be a rewarding, exciting experience. Yet without honest assessments of your skill and commitment, it can become frustrating, expensive and dangerous.
LIKE A PILOT WHO SPENDS TIME inspecting his aircraft before taking off, I want to know my colt is prepared both mentally and physically before I get on. If a pilot flies the same plane every day, his checklist might take only a few minutes. If he hasn’t flown in awhile, he might spend an hour running through his checklist. It’s the same way with my colts. If I’ve been riding them daily and have built a certain amount of predictability, I might spend just a few moments on the ground, tighten my cinch and get on.
But, if this colt has had some time off, I might saddle him up, go to the round pen and send him around the pen at the walk, trot and lope, watching him go through the full range of motion in both directions. Only when he’s traveling relaxed and making smooth transitions through all three gaits will I consider getting on. He might be sweaty by the end of the session, or he might not. What’s important is that I’ve warmed him up, helped him relax, and have him in a receptive frame of mind before I climb aboard.
A COMMON MISTAKE made by the backyard colt starter is that he fails to get his colt moving though all three gaits soon enough. Generally it’s because he’s scared of what might happen. I’m just the opposite; I’m scared of not having my colts moving out early on. If I only spend time walking and jogging my colt, the day when he spooks and takes a loping stride will be a big surprise. He didn’t know that loping with a saddle and rider was part of the deal, and now I’m bucked off. I need my colts moving out in the full range of motion during the first couple rides, and on every ride that follows. The longer you stay away from it, the bigger deal it will be.
Another mistake of the novice colt starter is overdirecting and micromanaging the first few rides. When I first ask my colt to move out, I don’t care where he goes, I just need him to go. Forward impulsion is my main objective at first. Pulling and tugging on the reins only hinders that.
The round pen is a great tool and a relatively safe place to get started, but I try to get out of that pen as soon as I’m confident my horse and I can survive the experience. Forward impulsion will come much easier once I leave the confines of my 50-foot pen and venture into a large arena, around the barnyard, and then to the trail. Your colt will probably be unsure, so allowing your colt to follow someone on a broke horse can make a big difference in these first few rides beyond the round pen.
When I give my colt something productive to do, he doesn’t have time to be unproductive. Perhaps this means riding him down a lane or around the barn, or asking him to look where his feet are as he walks along a rocky trail.
IF I WANT MORE than just a mediocre trail horse, and truly desire more performance, I need my colt to achieve flexion and softness in the face. Often this is called a “soft feel,” “on the bit” or “driving up into the bridle.” Whatever the wording, I expect my colt to give his face and bend at the poll when I pick up on the reins. If my colt isn’t soft, it doesn’t make any difference if he can slide, spin or make flying lead changes. If he’s resistant in my hands, I’m not going to like the maneuver.
It’s important that I don’t try to achieve softness by only using my hands. Collection is a combination of vertical flexion and impulsion. My legs can be a tremendous aid in developing a soft feel and collection. As I bump with my calves in a rhythmic motion, I hold my horse’s face with my hands, causing him to pick up his back. If I move forward, this creates drive from the hind end to the front, producing a more collected and athletic frame, and a posture he’ll need to perform at higher levels.
However, this all has to begin at slower speeds with positive results before I step things up. Young horses get frustrated when they attempt to yield and soften without reward. If I don’t reward his effort by releasing, he’ll begin to brace and pull against my hands. When my colt gives, I give back. In time, I can reasonably ask my colt to hold this feel for longer periods.
Horsemanship is a lifelong journey. Softness and willingness are things you can’t buy at the tack shop. They come only as you invest in yourself.
Richard Winters is a California clinician. Learn more about him on the Web at
wintersranch.com. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.