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't 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's first inclination is to join the herd. Wolter doesn't argue. He lets his horse go where it wants, and later convinces it to change its mind.
"Loose horses provide a big draw for a horse," Wolter says. "The horses are moving, so your horse is going to want to go with them. Everywhere I go, some of the most common questions are, 'How do I get my horse to leave the other horses,' or 'What do I do when everybody's loping off without me?' 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't you have him with you?"
Wolter's term "with you" 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's 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.
"That's what I do every day, is teach the horse that if it follows my hands, there's zero pressure," he explains.
The horse's built-in herd instinct just makes that job easier.
Mind Over Matter
Many riders think of a horse's tendency to want to be with its own kind as a negative. The instinct itself isn't good or bad; it's simply a fact. Wolter uses that to his advantage.
"This exercise is about straightness and getting your horse with you, and you with him," he says. "It's give and take. The loose horses show him how crooked or one-sided he really is, and how much he'd rather be with the bunch versus you."
Wolter cautions that riding among loose horses isn't for inexperienced riders.
"I wouldn't recommend it for everybody," he says. "Your experience will tell you what you can get away with and what you can't. It's common sense stuff. You've got to be aware of a horse in that bunch that might kick you. And it's a tough deal when you're riding colts that haven't been in a herd situation. They'll put you in a bad spot.
"If you're 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."
Even though the experience isn't for everyone, Wolter says, the concept can apply to riding in general.
"It's important that people expose themselves to the idea," he says. "It's okay if they can't do it, but they should understand why this works. If you understand the 'why' in this, you'll be able to go do some other things with your horse that you couldn't do before."
The key is getting the horse to decide that it's fine to be with the rider. Get a horse to change its mind, Wolter says, and its body will follow.
"People talk about a horse dropping his shoulder," Wolter explains. "It isn't that he's just dropping his shoulder. It's because his mind is wanting to go somewhere else, and we're holding him from it. If we can get him to where his mind is going where we're asking him to go, that's straightness."
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— roping, working cattle, going through a trail course or riding along the rail in stock horse pleasure.
Wolter says straightness isn't just a physical condition.
"When we think straightness, we're 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's like they don't weigh anything," he explains. "It feels good to the horse as well as the rider. If the horse is happy, it can't get any better than that."
Through the years, Wolter has built his training program on what he's learned on his own and what he's been taught by others. One of his early mentors was legendary horseman Ray Hunt.
"Ray talked about how a horse doesn't learn from pressure; he learns from the release of pressure," Wolter says. "What I do here is reward the horse's thought by releasing pressure on him."
Wolter starts by following the herd of horses, guiding gently but mainly giving the horse the freedom to tag along. At first, that's 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's mind to be focused on where it's going, rather than on the herd.
"The end result of this should be that he thinks those horses aren't even there—that he doesn't care a thing about them," he explains. "Until that happens, I'm going to work on getting him right between my hands and my legs."
He turns the horse completely away from the herd because that's where he wants its mind focused.
"If I look off, I want him to look off in the same direction," Wolter explains. "I'll turn that horse 180 degrees away from the herd, pointing his tail at the horses, and go, waiting for him to look away."
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.
"I keep doing this and turn back to the horses when he gets in'neutral,'" he says. "I made a mistake years ago of trying to hold that horse. It didn't work. The horse needs to feel that little bit of relief."
The horse learns that relief comes once he's facing away from the other horses, headed in the direction Wolter asks.
"Pretty soon, the desire to go toward the horses won't be as strong as the desire to leave the horses," he says. "The kicker here is, when you feel him turn loose of those horses, so to speak, you need to say, 'Okay, now's the time to quit riding or quit kicking or quit pulling.' When I feel him look up [in the direction we're headed], I'm going to leave him alone, because it's his mind that you're after."
The horse quickly learns where that relief—the release of pressure—comes from.
"What the horse is trying to do is what he did last when he got relief," Wolter explains. "All they want is relief. That's a huge thing—a benefit for us if we know that."
Age is No Object
Although Wolter frequently uses loose horses to help with his young horses, the trainer says it's also useful with older horses. It's just that the younger, greener horses often exhibit the quickest change.
Wolter recalls riding just-started colts with a herd, and says that's an ideal situation if it can be done safely.
"These are things we used to do on the second or third ride, but we were experienced," Wolter says of a time when he started many colts each year.
Those colts learn quickly to adapt because they're looking for a safe place.
"A 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," he says. "In those green horses, the really young ones, their self-preservation instinct is pretty high. They're just trying to get comfortable. With an older horse, it might take quite a bit more time [to make this process work]."
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're not in the right spot, and releases the pressure when they're straight and correct.
Every horse, he adds, has a definite opinion about where it prefers to go.
"If he's alive, he's got an idea of where he'd rather be," Wolter says. "This isn't something you can put in a horse and he's straight forever, but this is something you can do to think like him and then get him to change his mind."
Wolter also uses the herd as a tool to teach his horses to use their bodies correctly.
"When the loose horses quit moving, I'll ride in amongst and around those horses," he says.
When he does, he might ask the horse to bend its rib cage or lift its shoulder. He'll give the horse a task when it's close to the other horses, and then offer relief when it's headed away from them. Essentially, he's taking advantage of what the horse wants to do anyway and incorporating a lesson into that.
"There are advantages to being able to move the horse's shoulders, hips, head and neck," Wolter says. "There's value in being able to move a horse laterally to do lots of things, like open a gate or work a cow. When you're 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'll feel him want to leave the other horses because he associates being with them with work. It's about getting him to change his mind."
And although "feel" is one of the hardest things for a rider to develop, one of the most important things is recognizing that shift in a horse's mind.
"You've got to look for that," Wolter says, "and you've got to reward the thought."
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's 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's 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