Ask Our Expert - John McComber
This Month's Expert
John McComber has cowboyed and started colts in California, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming. He lives in Winnemucca, Nevada, where he trains horses for the public. He also shows working cow horses. He bases much of his program on the premise that a proper horsemanship foundation must be based on knowledge and understanding of the horse’s anatomy. The December 2010 issue of Western Horseman includes John’s article, “5 Cow Horse Fundamentals.”
Q: We have a 14 year old “rescue” Paint gelding. He’s now getting fit and healthy, so we decided to haul him out to trail ride. We were told that he had trailer issues, so we started working with him in and out of the trailer. We can now get him to load quite easily and he’ll stand quiet with one of us right there. But once we tie him, he wants to set back in the trailer. He’s never set back out of the trailer. We’re not quite sure how to proceed.
Sharon Hubbman, Lebanon Illinois
A: First off, I would probably haul him loose with some hay on the floor, facing the back corner, if there are no objects in the trailer that could pose a danger to the horse. Also, always keep something in there for the horse to eat, but not in a hay net, as he could get a let caught in it if he fidgets much. A nervous horse has a tendency to eat too fast, which can lead to compaction and colic. For that reason, it would be best to have a flake or two on the trailer floor. Ideally, the horse will take a bite of hay, lift his head, and chew his food properly.
I would not tie the horse solid. Try to get a longer lead rope and tether it once or twice. If he sets back, he won't get stressed or hurt himself, and you can bypass the formation of a bad habit.
If I had to, I would work him in a 50- or 60-foot round pen with a pair of three-way hobbles. Stay nearby at first, and don’t hobble him for very long. Gradually get further away and make him stand for longer periods of time, until it does not frighten him to be alone and restrained. Make sure your hobbles are safe (wide and fleece lined) so the horse does not fidget and burn himself. The point is to teach him he can stand quiet, keep his feet still, and relax by himself in what he might consider a a restraining, claustrophobic atmosphere.
Q: I have a 6 year old Appaloosa mare I have been riding for about four years. I have used her in many different situations -- trail riding in the mountains, working cattle, cow-horse clinics. Recently she changed her behavior. I was out on the trail with my husband when, about five minutes into the ride, she started getting anxious. She would stop and refuse to go any further. If I asked her to go, she would rear up. A couple of days later I worked her in my arena, and everything was fine, so I took her out on the trail. She was great for about 30 minutes, then she stopped, refused to go and started rearing. Any idea what could be the cause?
Carola Pohl, Rochester, Alberta
A: You could have a chiropractor check out your mare. I have had horses that got a little tired or stressed physically and, after consulting with a respected equine chiropractor, found that the horse’s sciatic nerve was not where it should be. In the arena, or on flat ground, you can miss something like that.
If she is sensitive around the girth, or quivers in her shoulder, withers and girth areas, maybe she was somewhat out of shape and got a little too hot when you were working cattle, or in the mountains. Those symptoms can be caused by overexertion. If that is not the case, I would stop using my feet or spurs to generate forward motion and use a riding crop instead, or the ends of my reins.
Regardless, after your ride, ask your mare to perform some minor athletic maneuver. Never ride to the barn, or trailer, and just step off. In her case, I would ask her to perform some fairly strenuous tasks before dismounting and do this at a short, but appreciable, distance from my destination. By doing so you can eliminate the formation of the barn-sour pattern.
Q: I have a 11-year-old who doesn't neck rein but does know leg aids. He sidepasses [not well], and backs okay. Some days, he rides like a dream, but there are days when he decides he is going to go in the direction he wants. We will be making a circle to the left, and when we get to the side of the corral, he will try to go right instead of left. I just started riding with spurs, and he is listening to the cues better.
Alan Smithee, Des Moines, Iowa
A: Perhaps you need to have his teeth floated by a specialist.
I would probably lope him quite a bit in the direction he prefers, then when he is somewhat tired, I would ask him to travel in the other direction, although not as far. I would be ready to reach down my inside rein and bump his nose to the inside of the circle if he tried to go the other way. I’d suggest doing this while applying leg pressure on the horse’s outside ribcage.
I save most of my loping exercises, but not all, for when I am out in open country. Most of the time when I'm riding in the arena, I just trot my horse. I ask for “shoulders in,” “haunches in,” counter bends, etc. Maybe the horse just lacks some coordination and strength. In that case, cavaletti or gound-pole excercises could help.
Also, I would probably ride him in a D-ring or a springsteen snaffle.