Ask Our Expert - Richard Winters
This Month's Expert
Richard Winters lives in Ojai, California, with his wife, Cheryl. They conduct horsemanship clinics throughout the country and operate their horsemanship program at the Thacher School, a private boarding school in Ojai. Winters won the 2009 Road to the Horse challenge, and is featured in the October article, "Higher-Level Horsemanship," on page 68.
Q:I have a 5-year-old gelding that I would like to show in trail classes. He's really quiet, but he doesn't have any show experience and I have limited riding space at home. What are some things I can do with him to help prepare him for trail obstacles? And are there some inexpensive ways I can set up my own obstacles on a small scale to practice with him at home?
Jenny, Eugene, Oregon
A: First, let me congratulate you on setting goals. Having something to shoot for will motivate you and your horse to be the best you can be. The answer to your question is, yes. Setting up obstacles to practice for a trail class is very feasible, even on a tight budget. The trick is to be creative. One man's trash is another man's treasure!
Here are a few ideas:
1. If you or your local handyman can use a saw and hammer, recycled lumber can be made into bridges and platforms.
2. Large tires can be filled with dirt and become stationary pedestals to stand on.
3. Discarded fence posts, railroad ties or telephone poles can make great step over, jumps or back-through obstacles.
4. A plastic tarp on the ground makes a good walk-over obstacle.
5. Making a water or mud crossing with a garden hose is a worthwhile obstacle as well.
6. Large plastic strips, hanging from an elevated framework, are a great walk-through obstacle.
7. Always take advantage of the natural topography around you. Creeks, gullies, downed trees and branches are all great natural obstacles.
These are just a few inexpensive ideas. Your imagination is the only limit. Always keep in mind that each obstacle should be constructed and utilized with safety in mind. For example, there should be no jagged edges or protruding nails. Always look for new opportunities to expose your horse to new things. Going places and making sure your horse is comfortable and confident in different environments will go a long way in preparing him, and you, for your horse show debut.
Q: I just bought a 10-year-old mare that had some reining training as a young horse but was then turned out for several years. She seems to remember the basics, but anytime I ask her to do something more advanced she's resistant and gets mad. I've had my vet check her for soreness and that is not the issue. Could it be because she doesn't understand what I'm asking? How do I help her get past her resentment? Are there exercises you can recommend? And is she too old to re-train?
Larry, Jackson, Mississippi
A: Horses have the great ability to remember behavior and prior training. If you are not sure how extensive her reining training was, it might be beneficial to get a professional evaluation. A qualified reining trainer can assess in short order if your mare has skills that are just rusty and need to be refined, or determine that she never had enough positive, consistent reining training to be resurrected.
With that being said, horses often get mad (or scared) when they don't understand. At this moment we need to back up and find a spot that makes sense to our horse. If she doesn't stop well, how does she back up? If she won't spin, does she even move off your leg in a simple side-pass? I wouldn't ask for a flying lead change if I couldn't pick up my right or left lead on a straight line. Reining, as with any performance horse event, is all about body control. Demonstrating that you can control your horse's head and neck, shoulders, rib cage and hindquarters independent of each other is absolutely necessary to perform high-level maneuvers. Every trainer has his or her own particular exercises to demonstrate control of these individual parts. You don't have to do it just like me, but you have to have some system to separate and move each body part independently.
In preparation, here are three things to work on:
1. Get your mare soft and yielding in the face. When you pick up on the reins, her head should yield down and in, breaking at the poll. This will be the beginning of collection and refinement that is absolutely necessary for a reining horse.
2. Leg yielding: She must respect your leg and move over laterally away from the pressure.
3. Whether you ride with spurs or without, this yielding response must be there 100 percent of the time or advanced maneuvers will be extremely difficult. Older horses are not impossible to retrain, but it can be more challenging. Horses are creatures of habit. The longer behaviors are allowed to continue, the more ingrained they become. Your horse can improve, however.
The more your horsemanship skills increase, the better your horse will respond and learn.
Q: My barrel mare has always been soft in her mouth and bends around the barrels good when I run. Lately, though, she is not flexing as much to the right and seems to resist my cue. When it began affecting our run time, I had my vet check her out but he did not find anything physically wrong with her. Friends have suggested changing bits, but I was wondering if there were any exercises I could do to try to get her back to her old, flexible self before I put a bigger bit on her.
Lisa, Saint Jo, Missouri
A: Your problem is not that unusual. Horses will often perform better in one direction than the other. Whether it's simply leg yielding, spinning or preferring one lead more than the other, they are not always equal on both sides. You mentioned that you have ruled out any physical problems. It's true that a physical abnormality can cause problems in performance. Soreness in a limb, skeletal structure out of alignment or dental problems can all be contributing factors. If you have addressed these issues, then it's time to focus on training exercises that can soften your mare on her right side.
Changing bits can be considered. However, a "bigger bit" in itself is probably not the answer. I would use a bit that has a broken mouthpiece, such as a snaffle, Tom Thumb, Billy Allen or correction bit. All of these bits allow you to use one rein at a time so that you can better communicate with each side of your horse's body. A broken mouthpiece will allow you to do the lateral work that is necessary to soften her right side and help her become more flexible. When riders use bigger bits and simply pull harder on both reins, they create horses that become even more resistant and bracey.
Your legs can also be very helpful in suppling your horse laterally. It's important that she yields away from leg pressure on both the left and right side. If you are guiding and controlling her with only your rein, without the aid of your legs, you are severely handicapped. Walking small circles, using your inside rein and inside leg, arcing her body like a train on a track, will help your horse bend her body and become more flexible. In this exercise, you want your horse stepping forward in the circle with her hind feet stepping up into the tracks of her front feet. You want her arced in the direction she is going and you should be able to see her inside eye. This particular suppling exercise can go a long way in recreating the softness and flexibility that you're trying to achieve.
For more information on Richard Winters, his training methods, or to contact him, visit wintersranch.com.