Ask Our Expert - Buster McLaury

Buster McLauryBuster McLaury starts hundreds of young horses under saddle every year. He made a living as a cowboy for many years. In 1984 he met Ray Hunt, and the noted horseman’s influence transformed how McLaury worked with horses. Rather than operating as a dictator, he learned to be a leader, paying closer attention to the horse’s mindset and modifying his methods to fit each individual’s needs.

Buster McLaury

This Month's ExpertBuster McLaury

Buster McLaury starts hundreds of young horses under saddle every year. He made a living as a cowboy for many years. In 1984 he met Ray Hunt, and the noted horseman’s influence transformed how McLaury worked with horses. Rather than operating as a dictator, he learned to be a leader, paying closer attention to the horse’s mindset and modifying his methods to fit each individual’s needs.

During the mid-1990s, McLaury began training horses for the public. Today, he and his wife, Sheryl, travel the country conducting horsemanship clinics and starting horses for various ranches and large breeding programs.

Q: I have a 4-year-old gelding that really is soft and supple in his face and neck. A lot of times you barely pick up a rein and he gives you his nose. But there are also times when he has an idea about going somewhere else, and he’ll push through my rein. So there are times when he is real soft, but other times where he pushes through it. How do I work through that? Kenny, Texas

A: The deal is there the horse and/or the human, I would say the human, too, because if they understood it they could get it fixed, but what the horse doesn’t understand is that those reins are hooked to his feet, they’re not up there on his head just to pull on. But you get one that bends his neck like that, even if it seems like he’s pretty soft, if you just barely touch the rein and he just automatically puts his head around there on your knee, that’s a kind of mechanical thing, there’s not much feel there, that’s just something he’s learned to do to stay out of trouble. But if he bends his neck that far, he throws himself out of balance, to start with, so it’s not a very natural thing for him to do, although you can get one to do it. But the main thing is he doesn’t understand them reins are hooked to his feet.

To me, there’s a spot there in the very foundation that he doesn’t understand, because the human doesn’t help him understand that the reins are hooked to the feet. So to me, I would want to just back up, slow down and get him moving his hindquarters better and bend him there a little bit, set your leg against him, and as soon as those hindquarters step over, release, and start getting one step in both directions. And then, you might do that a few times and as you rode them off there just at the walk, you’re going to get in time when the front foot, and let’s say the left front, as it leaves the ground, you’re going to direct it to over to the left. You’re going to direct it with the left rein and support it with the right foot. He might have to take a few steps before you’ve got that, but as soon as you feel a change and let him straighten up, go a little ways and work on the right front foot, to where you can step the other way. So now you’re kind of getting the reins hooked to both ends of the horse a little bit.

As you get him to where you’re riding him along there and you pick that rein up and step his hindquarters, pick up the right rein, and move the right rein and right leg, tip the hindquarters to the left, and get your hand out wider and lead the front end across, so you’re actually executing a turn on the hindquarters. It’s very exaggerated and broken down into very small steps, but you’re trying to get the message down to the feet. Ray always said that all we’re trying to do is operate the life in his body down to his body and to his feet, through his mind. That’s the part that is missing in that deal where you bend the neck, but the feet don’t change. He doesn’t understand, mentally, what’s being expected of him.

So when he decides to do his own thing, there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s just being a horse. That’s what he does. So he’s thinking about going over there, and you’ve his neck bent over here, well, he’ll give you this part, but the mind you didn’t get. See, the mind is taking the rest of the horse over there, and that’s where the feet go.

A lot of people bend their horse like that, pick up both reins, and then he sticks his chin right down on his chest, and they say, “Look how soft my horse is.” But the feet don’t change. To me, the true softness is down there on the ground. It’s in the feet. If the feet are understanding of what’s being asked, that’s where the true softness comes in.

Q: My aged gelding is always in a hurry to get back to the barn or to the trailer when we go on trail rides. Most of the time he is calm and in no hurry, but things change when we’re in the “home stretch.” Rather than constantly pulling on him, I make him walk in circles, hoping that the extra work will teach him not to prance his way home. But that isn’t working. What can I do? Theresa, Iowa

A: There’s a reason why he’s wanting to hurry back to the barn or to catch up with some other horses on a trail ride, or go back to the trailer. The reason is he doesn’t have that much confidence in the human, being out there with the human. If he was okay out there with you, he wouldn’t need to be back up with the other horses. All of them go through that to start with as young horses; they don’t have that much confidence in the human. But over time, as you give him some jobs to do, he gets better.

But back to this horse who is jigging on the trail, you mentioned you learned to walk some circles until calms down, to get him to work at it—but that’s not very hard work. They can walk circles for a long time, especially very big circles, or trot a circle. You can trot a 20-, 30-foot circle, they can do that all day. They might slow down a little, or they might not. He needs to work at that a little bit harder. Since he is upset about needing to be somewhere else, anytime a horse gets upset, his instinct tells him “go”—save your life. And he believes he can save his life back with them or he feels safer back at the barn. So you’ve got to make that a little more difficult. I don’t have any techniques or methods for doing that, but there’s different things I would try.

One of the most effective things seems to be turning that horse around, and not making him turn around, but letting it become his idea. So if he started jigging, I might just pick up my right rein, and just kind of tip his nose out to the right, and set my right leg back there a little, asking those hindquarters to step to the left. He might go on quite a little ways pushing on the bit and ringing his head. But anytime he bends his neck a little and I’m not pulling on him, I shorten that rein. Pretty quick I’ve got him bent around, and I’m encouraging him to step over the hindquarters. But first thing you know, his hindquarters step to the left, and as they step about halfway around, he’s wanting to go that way anyway, so you’ll feel his weight tip back and his front end come through there on a real nice turn on the hindquarters. As soon as you feel the hind end start through there, you put some slack in your rein and you trust him to walk. If he picks up the trot again, bend him the other way. I don’t know if you’ll have to do that 10 times or 10,000 times, but that’s a lot of work for one. It takes away some of that forward momentum and yet it still lets him move. But it’s quite a bit more work than just trotting a circle. He’s got to really move those hindquarters over and bring his front end through. I’ve done that on lots of horses and it’s very effective.

Another thing might be, as he starts off, you kind of pick up a soft feel, and get the message down to his feet to slow down with both reins, but a person's got to be pretty careful about that because there’s got to be some give in your hands there. But if you sit in stone there, saying, “No, you’re not going,” he’ll push out through that and turn over backwards. So you won’t come as near to doing that using one rein, then the other. Once he slows down, you release and he might go two steps and speed right back up there. That’s alright. Let him work at it. That gives you another opportunity to get him soft or turn him around. Then, when he finally does slow down and get to the speed you want him to go, look what he’s learned: slowing down to stay with you. What that amounts to, is the horse says, “I need to save my life. I need to go.” And you just bend him around there and say, “No, pardner, you don’t need to go. You can stay with me.”

Give him a little job: let his feet move. And you’ll say, “No, I really need to go. No really, you can do this other little job. You can do this little job for you. You can do this and stay with me.” Pretty quick he’ll say, “Oh, it’s not that bad of deal being here with you.”

Q: It seems like everything spooks my little dun gelding, even though he is 5 and has been ridden extensively outside and in several arenas. He’s willing. And even though he might be terrified of crossing some bridge or walking through some brush, eventually you can get him through it. But the problem is that he is just the kind of horse that the next day he’ll be spooked at the same thing. Is there anything I can do to get him where he’s not so scared? Mike, Nevada

A: That’s all a matter of confidence. He starts to get afraid and he’s going to think you can help him at this point, so his instinct tells him to go. And you let him go. You try and direct where he goes as best you can. Anytime a horse is troubled about something, if he can move his feet, you’ll get it worked out eventually.

Often I use the analogy, it’s like you've got some horses turned out in the pasture, and a paper feed sack gets loose, and it’s blowing down across the pasture. Well, the horses are stretching the fences trying to get away from that thing. But it blows off down there and hangs up in a bush or a weed or something, so it’s sitting there flapping and they’re all running off and they're snorting at it, and they’ll run back around this way and snort at it. But gradually they’ll go back and forth, and all the way around it, and they’ll work themselves up a little closer and get curious about, “What is this thing?” Finally, one of them will get brave enough to get up and smell it and go, “Oh that’s not bad, that’s a feed sack,” and then in a little bit you've got little pieces of feed sack scattered all over the pasture, and they’ve got it all torn up. So by allowing them to move their feet, which they would do naturally, you can go from fear to curiosity.

Let’s say there’s something he's afraid of, like an old tree stump. Let him go around that thing back and forth. Keep his nose tipped toward it. With some of them you might be within 50 to 60 feet of it, and the next horse you might be 30 yards out there—and that’s all he can stand. So, let him go, give him his face, and keep turning him back and turning him back. Again, it’s just tipping his nose over and asking for the hindquarters to step over so he faces this thing. First thing you know when he steps over, he’ll stop and look at it. That’s when you rub him and say, “Yea pardner, you’re alright.” Then you stand there and think about it, and relax a little bit and ask him to step toward it. If he says, “Oh no,” you’ll have go back and forth again.

Now over time, you’ll get him where he’ll get right up there close to it and eventually he’ll want to stick his nose out there and smell it. That’s his curiosity kicking in: “Well maybe I can live with this.” Once he is able to get close to it and smell it, he’ll say, “Oh it’s not a big deal, it’s just a stump.”

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