My Journey to Road to the Horse 2012
Practicing with an untouched 5-year-old
By Jonathan Field
Photos by Caitlin Taylor
Please note this is not a how-to article. Please do not attempt these techniques on your own. Jonathan Field is a highly skilled and trained professional and dealing with an untouched horse is extremely dangerous.
Sometimes things in life can come out of nowhere. Last April, I had one of those moments. Walking in from teaching a clinic near Edmonton, Alberta, my wife Angie informed me that Tootie Bland had called and I was to call her back. I knew exactly who she was and didn’t hesitate to pick up the phone.
Tootie Bland is the creator and producer of Road to the Horse, what has become the world championship of colt starting. Contestants choose the young horse they will work with from a small remuda of totally unhandled, range-raised three-year-old colts. Over the course of two days, contestants get approximately four hours to catch their colt and teach it to lead, saddle, and ride. Finally on the third day, they and their young mounts are tested with an obstacle course. A much-anticipated annual event that has captured the attention of thousands, Tootie developed Road to the Horse to help spread the message of natural horsemanship.
In March 2012, Road to the Horse is going international for the first time, with two competitors each from the United States, Australia and Canada. I'm sure you can now imagine what the phone call from Tootie was about.
Tootie surprised me that day by inviting me to participate in Road to the Horse and to represent my country. It was such an honour to be invited, and my first thought was I needed to get my hands on a wild young horse to practice. I would have to be patient, however, as at the time I was going to be on the road for weeks with no chance to practice.
Before returning home to the James Creek Ranch, I spoke with my good friend Miles Kingdon, the cow boss of Quilchena Ranch in the Nicola Valley, British Columbia, to see if he had any untouched young horses that I could borrow for four hours. He had two two-year-olds and one five-year-old range colt that I could use. The problem with the two-year-olds was they were a year younger than the horses at Road to the Horse, so they wouldn't be a really good test. I thought the five-year-old would be strong and wild, and decided that if I could get it done with a five-year-old, it would give me the confidence I needed going into the competition. Once I had finished my travels, Miles brought him over.
By the time the five-year-old range colt arrived, I had studied the rules, the exact timelines of the event, and had a strategy developed in my mind. Over the years I have started hundreds of horses, but never with only four hours. Now it was time to see how I could do.
The following is my first two-hour training session with the five-year-old colt. This simulated the same session I will get in the real Road to the Horse, which is a two hour and 20 minute session with a 20 minute break.
#1 Saying hello
Here we were meeting for the first time. One day before this, this colt was on the Quilchena Ranch, which is one of the biggest ranches in Canada, running with a herd of horses—the same life as the colt I would work with at Road to the Horse. He had only been touched a few times in his life and one of them was to be gelded and branded. Now it was time to become a riding horse. After his experience with me, he was going to be going to work as a ranch horse.
#2 In the round pen
I started out like I would at Road to the Horse, with the horse loose in a round pen. I began by getting the horse to move while tossing out the coils of my lariat, having it take a little ride on his back as he moved around.
#3 First rub
After catching him, it was time for our first touch. Each wild horse I've ever handled has been a little different in where they would allow me to touch them for the first time. In this colt’s case, it was his neck where I got my first substantial rub.
#4 Desensitizing and bending
I began using my lariat rope to rub him all over to desensitize him. Then I tapped the rope up against his ribs to begin creating some bend through his body. I did a lot of this before putting a halter on.
#5 Working with the feet
Handling a young horse’s feet is very important to me, and I did it at every rest point. For safety, I started teaching him to lead by the legs with a long rope before I put myself at risk picking up a foot with my hand.
#6 Connecting with the halter
After the halter went on, I kept him away from the arena panels. I acted as if I was not in a round pen so he wouldn't be up against the walls thinking he was running away from me. Instead, I taught him to connect the feel of the halter to his feet, teaching him how to be a riding horse.
#7 Building confidence
It was very hot that day, and after quite a bit of movement you can see we were both sweating. I did a lot of controlled movement and would rest him dozens of times and touch his body with ropes or my body. This way, while he was relaxing from the movement, I was building confidence through touching him and desensitization exercises.
#8 A well-deserved rest
After offering him (and myself!) some water, it was time for our first in a series of breaks outside of the pen. In Road to the Horse, the event rules state that the horse must have a 20-minute break with the horsemen outside the pen. This I was accustomed to, as I will often leave the pen and allow the horse time to rest and soak in their thoughts. I am always amazed at how important it is to leave the horse alone and allow them to think about what's going on.
#9 Moving on
After our rest, I sent him into a circle and he moved out beautifully. This told me the previous session had gone well and the rest time meant a lot. He moved forward freely off of the fence and was level headed. It doesn't get better than that for a horse that is just learning it all!
#10 Jumping bean
Now I began my jumping bean exercise, bouncing up and down by his side and giving him a nice curry with my whole body. He wasn't sure at first, but soon realized I meant no harm. Going up and down alongside him will prepare him for saddling, mounting and eventually riding.
#11 The cinch
Next up was to have him feel the cinch around his belly using a bareback pad. I like to start with a bareback pad before the saddle so he gets the opportunity to feel a cinch for the first time without having to deal with the size of the saddle. I find the more I can isolate what I want the young horse to accept, the better they take it in.
#12 Introducing the big blue tarp
Tarps are always a part of the Road to the Horse obstacle course. At first you can see he was quite leery, but with some approach and retreat desensitization method, soon I was able to get the tarp onto his body.We've had a really great day and I am so proud of him! But it's not over yet.
See Day 2 Here
See Day 3 Here
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