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'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.
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