Using herd mentality and a bit of reverse psychology, trainer Joe Wolter teaches his horses to keep their focus and their bodies moving straight ahead.
Long-trotting across the pasture, Joe Wolter heads straight for a small herd of fillies. His sorrel gelding is attentive, watching as the other horses make a few laps along the fence line. Wherever they go, Wolter follows.
The energetic young horses aren‚Äôt the object of his attention, though. The trainer is instead giving his 3-year-old mount the opportunity to make a choice, and the gelding‚Äôs first inclination is to join the herd. Wolter doesn‚Äôt argue. He lets his horse go where it wants, and later convinces it to change its mind.
‚ÄúLoose horses provide a big draw for a horse,‚ÄĚ Wolter says. ‚ÄúThe horses are moving, so your horse is going to want to go with them. Everywhere I go, some of the most common questions are, ‚ÄėHow do I get my horse to leave the other horses,‚Äô or ‚ÄėWhat do I do when everybody‚Äôs loping off without me?‚Äô This gives you a chance to address those issues, but it also gives you another opportunity. If you can get that horse [to be] with you under those circumstances, under what circumstances couldn‚Äôt you have him with you?‚ÄĚ
Wolter‚Äôs term ‚Äúwith you‚ÄĚ describes a horse that is focused on its rider, rather than outside distractions. The goal is to get his horse to travel straight and with purpose, staying between his reins and legs, no matter where it‚Äôs pointed. He uses the herd to teach this by driving the horse toward that herd, where it thinks it wants to go, and then riding away from the herd, where here l eases pressure and allows the horse to relax.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs what I do every day, is teach the horse that if it follows my hands, there‚Äôs zero pressure,‚ÄĚ he explains.
The horse‚Äôs built-in herd instinct just makes that job easier.
Mind Over Matter
Many riders think of a horse‚Äôs tendency to want to be with its own kind as a negative. The instinct itself isn‚Äôt good or bad; it‚Äôs simply a fact. Wolter uses that to his advantage.
‚ÄúThis exercise is about straightness and getting your horse with you, and you with him,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs give and take. The loose horses show him how crooked or one-sided he really is, and how much he‚Äôd rather be with the bunch versus you.‚ÄĚ
Wolter cautions that riding among loose horses isn‚Äôt for inexperienced riders.
‚ÄúI wouldn‚Äôt recommend it for everybody,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúYour experience will tell you what you can get away with and what you can‚Äôt. It‚Äôs common sense stuff. You‚Äôve got to be aware of a horse in that bunch that might kick you. And it‚Äôs a tough deal when you‚Äôre riding colts that haven‚Äôt been in a herd situation. They‚Äôll put you in a bad spot.
‚ÄúIf you‚Äôre going to do this, it would be beneficial if they have been with other horses in a herd in order to have learned a little self-preservation.‚ÄĚ
Even though the experience isn‚Äôt for everyone, Wolter says, the concept can apply to riding in general.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs important that people expose themselves to the idea,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs okay if they can‚Äôt do it, but they should understand why this works. If you understand the ‚Äėwhy‚Äô in this, you‚Äôll be able to go do some other things with your horse that you couldn‚Äôt do before.‚ÄĚ
The key is getting the horse to decide that it‚Äôs fine to be with the rider. Get a horse to change its mind, Wolter says, and its body will follow.
‚ÄúPeople talk about a horse dropping his shoulder,‚ÄĚ Wolter explains. ‚ÄúIt isn‚Äôt that he‚Äôs just dropping his shoulder. It‚Äôs because his mind is wanting to go somewhere else, and we‚Äôre holding him from it. If we can get him to where his mind is going where we‚Äôre asking him to go, that‚Äôs straightness.‚ÄĚ
Most riders have noticed that their horses take the most direct path back to the barn. There are no wasted steps, no zigzags, no wandering minds. Wolter looks for that same straightness and willingness no matter what he asks his horse to do‚ÄĒ roping, working cattle, going through a trail course or riding along the rail in stock horse pleasure.
Wolter says straightness isn‚Äôt just a physical condition.
‚ÄúWhen we think straightness, we‚Äôre thinking of a board, but what I really mean is having the horse in neutral, right under you. If you present any kind of direction, it‚Äôs like they don‚Äôt weigh anything,‚ÄĚ he explains. ‚ÄúIt feels good to the horse as well as the rider. If the horse is happy, it can‚Äôt get any better than that.‚ÄĚ
Through the years, Wolter has built his training program on what he‚Äôs learned on his own and what he‚Äôs been taught by others. One of his early mentors was legendary horseman Ray Hunt.
‚ÄúRay talked about how a horse doesn‚Äôt learn from pressure; he learns from the release of pressure,‚ÄĚ Wolter says. ‚ÄúWhat I do here is reward the horse‚Äôs thought by releasing pressure on him.‚ÄĚ
Wolter starts by following the herd of horses, guiding gently but mainly giving the horse the freedom to tag along. At first, that‚Äôs exactly what the horse wants to do. When Wolter asks his horse to leave the herd, he points the horse away and rides off at a trot. What he wants is for that horse‚Äôs mind to be focused on where it‚Äôs going, rather than on the herd.
‚ÄúThe end result of this should be that he thinks those horses aren‚Äôt even there‚ÄĒthat he doesn‚Äôt care a thing about them,‚ÄĚ he explains. ‚ÄúUntil that happens, I‚Äôm going to work on getting him right between my hands and my legs.‚ÄĚ
He turns the horse completely away from the herd because that‚Äôs where he wants its mind focused.
‚ÄúIf I look off, I want him to look off in the same direction,‚ÄĚ Wolter explains. ‚ÄúI‚Äôll turn that horse 180 degrees away from the herd, pointing his tail at the horses, and go, waiting for him to look away.‚ÄĚ
As soon as he feels the horse shift its attention and straighten its movement, Wolter stops and turns back toward the other horses as a reward.
‚ÄúI keep doing this and turn back to the horses when he gets in‚Äėneutral,‚Äô‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI made a mistake years ago of trying to hold that horse. It didn‚Äôt work. The horse needs to feel that little bit of relief.‚ÄĚ
The horse learns that relief comes once he‚Äôs facing away from the other horses, headed in the direction Wolter asks.
‚ÄúPretty soon, the desire to go toward the horses won‚Äôt be as strong as the desire to leave the horses,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúThe kicker here is, when you feel him turn loose of those horses, so to speak, you need to say, ‚ÄėOkay, now‚Äôs the time to quit riding or quit kicking or quit pulling.‚Äô When I feel him look up [in the direction we‚Äôre headed], I‚Äôm going to leave him alone, because it‚Äôs his mind that you‚Äôre after.‚ÄĚ
The horse quickly learns where that relief‚ÄĒthe release of pressure‚ÄĒcomes from.
‚ÄúWhat the horse is trying to do is what he did last when he got relief,‚ÄĚ Wolter explains. ‚ÄúAll they want is relief. That‚Äôs a huge thing‚ÄĒa benefit for us if we know that.‚ÄĚ
Age is No Object
Although Wolter frequently uses loose horses to help with his young horses, the trainer says it‚Äôs also useful with older horses. It‚Äôs just that the younger, greener horses often exhibit the quickest change.
Wolter recalls riding just-started colts with a herd, and says that‚Äôs an ideal situation if it can be done safely.
‚ÄúThese are things we used to do on the second or third ride, but we were experienced,‚ÄĚ Wolter says of a time when he started many colts each year.
Those colts learn quickly to adapt because they‚Äôre looking for a safe place.
‚ÄúA lot of times you see quite a bit more change in those young horses than you would in horses that have been ridden quite a bit,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúIn those green horses, the really young ones, their self-preservation instinct is pretty high. They‚Äôre just trying to get comfortable. With an older horse, it might take quite a bit more time [to make this process work].‚ÄĚ
But the exercise can help older horses that are set in their ways or have developed bad habits, Wolter adds. It puts pressure on them when they‚Äôre not in the right spot, and releases the pressure when they‚Äôre straight and correct.
Every horse, he adds, has a definite opinion about where it prefers to go.
‚ÄúIf he‚Äôs alive, he‚Äôs got an idea of where he‚Äôd rather be,‚ÄĚ Wolter says. ‚ÄúThis isn‚Äôt something you can put in a horse and he‚Äôs straight forever, but this is something you can do to think like him and then get him to change his mind.‚ÄĚ
Wolter also uses the herd as a tool to teach his horses to use their bodies correctly.
‚ÄúWhen the loose horses quit moving, I‚Äôll ride in amongst and around those horses,‚ÄĚ he says.
When he does, he might ask the horse to bend its rib cage or lift its shoulder. He‚Äôll give the horse a task when it‚Äôs close to the other horses, and then offer relief when it‚Äôs headed away from them. Essentially, he‚Äôs taking advantage of what the horse wants to do anyway and incorporating a lesson into that.
‚ÄúThere are advantages to being able to move the horse‚Äôs shoulders, hips, head and neck,‚ÄĚ Wolter says. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs value in being able to move a horse laterally to do lots of things, like open a gate or work a cow. When you‚Äôre riding around other horses, you can position your horse. If he wants to go toward those other horses, you can move his shoulder or his hip toward them or away from them. He might look away and you‚Äôll feel him want to leave the other horses because he associates being with them with work. It‚Äôs about getting him to change his mind.‚ÄĚ
And although ‚Äúfeel‚ÄĚ is one of the hardest things for a rider to develop, one of the most important things is recognizing that shift in a horse‚Äôs mind.
‚ÄúYou‚Äôve got to look for that,‚ÄĚ Wolter says, ‚Äúand you‚Äôve got to reward the thought.‚ÄĚ
Joe Wolter grew up in California and got his start working on a Thoroughbred farm. After high school, he worked on several Nevada ranches; one of those jobs was for Ray Hunt. He still gives plenty of credit to Hunt and the Dorrance brothers, Tom and Bill, for developing his training philosophy. In 1994, he and Bill Dorrance were featured in a training video called There‚Äôs Roping To Do. Five years ago, he teamed with Jim Neubert and Bryan Neubert to start 20 colts for the Four Sixes ranch in Guthrie, Texas. The initial seven days of training was featured in a video series, The First Week.
In 2000, Wolter went to work for the Four Sixes ranch. During the time he worked there, he won the AQHA versatility ranch horse competition at the Fort Worth Stock Show three times (2002, 2003 and 2007). In 2003, he placed third in the Limited Open at the NCHA Futurity, and he has been a finalist at numerous NCHA aged events and AQHA events.
For the past few years, Joe and his wife, Jimmie, have operated their own ranch in Aspermont, Texas. He‚Äôs also a partner in mas O menos cattle company in South Texas. Wolter gives numerous clinics each year, with some at home and many at locations across the United States. His clinic schedule can be found at joewolter.com.
Susan Morrison is a Western Horseman associate editor. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org