Story and photography by ROSS HECOX
Cow horse trainer Robert Forst of the Stuart Ranch offers four tips for keeping training on track.
Robert Forst has a schedule to keep. As resident trainer for his family’s Stuart Ranch, the Waurika, Oklahoma, horseman works with a full stable of young cow horses, preparing them for big-money futurities and other major events. Chief among those competitions is the National Reined Cow Horse Association’s Snaffle Bit Futurity, held each fall in Reno, Nevada, and it’s easy for an impending premier horse show to cause a trainer to put too much pressure on his 3-year-old prospects.
Forst is quick to point out that he’s still a young trainer with plenty to learn. However, with his total earnings over $77,000 in ranch versatility and reined cow horse events, records indicate that he is on the right track.
Setting goals for each individual horse is his key to finding success in the show ring. At the same time, Forst has witnessed positive results when he doesn’t press when training. He tries to find a healthy balance of asking for top performance and keeping pressure to a minimum.
No matter the discipline or level of training, it’s easy to fall into a rut and begin forcing the horse, rather than asking. Forst shares four tips for avoiding complications, confusion and setbacks.
➊ Take a Breather
Forst admits that he can be a perfectionist. But that tendency has led to training sessions where his focus on the horse’s shortcomings distracted him from his own miscues.
“I get too controlling sometimes, getting in a hurry and trying to make it all happen right now,” he says. “It’s better to slow down and let things happen. There are times I have to make myself stop, and then think, ‘Why is this not working?’
“I have picked plenty of battles that didn’t need to be fought. One time I was having trouble with a horse that wasn’t stopping very well. Part of it was me [inadvertently] not letting him stop. That led to him running off in his rundowns [leading up to a sliding stop]. I did everything I thought I was supposed to, and that turned into a huge fight.
“I finally got help from another trainer. Watching him ride, it became plain to me what I was doing wrong. But if I would have stopped earlier and thought about what I was doing, then I wouldn’t have spent several months trying to fix that one problem.”
Forst says that stopping, maybe getting off the horse and even taking a long break usually produces better results, instead of raging through the heat of a battle.
“It seems like nine times out of 10, it helps,” he says. “I find myself trying to get something so perfect, and I go too far. Then it gets worse and worse. If you go to picking too many fights, you lose your positive experience.”
➋ Finish on the Upbeat
Forst tries to complete every training session on a positive note. Doing that takes forward thinking and the ability to accurately read the horse.
“I had a horse that one day started off great working the flag [simulating a cow],” Forst says. “Then all of a sudden he was getting worse and worse. I kept working him, then I realized he was getting tired mentally. He was not as alert. So I waited for him to make one good turn, and then I quit for the day.
“It’s important to notice things like that. He was getting bored with the flag, so I was not gaining anything. I very easily could have gone too far and done something that I would regret the next day. I don’t want a horse to learn how to give up. Instead, I was able to stop early and kept things positive.”
➌ Try a new Approach
Good horsemanship involves knowing when to be persistent with a method and when to try a different technique. Whether teaching a new maneuver or simply warming up a horse, Forst tries to constantly read his horse’s mindset and adjust accordingly.
For example, changing the warmup session with one of his mares has improved her show performance.
“You can’t lope her down,” Forst says. “She’s so mentally fast, and loping her around just speeds her up. So I’ve found that if I just sit on her before the show, then lope a little, then sit on her some more and make her wait, she eventually slows down and is perfect. It took me a while to figure that out. It’s better to mentally slow her down, instead of physically tear her up.”
➍ Change the Scenery
Working on a cattle ranch helps Forst keep his show horses fresh with a variety of activities and settings.
“All the horses I took to Reno last year had dragged calves during branding season,” he says. “I rope and doctor pasture cattle on them, and it’s good for them. I don’t get to do it every day, but it’s a nice change for them.
“I’ve got lots of acreage where I can go [ride]. And I’m lucky enough to have three different pens that I can ride in. I’ve got to keep them thinking. So if they get bored in one pen, then I go to another pen. It keeps a horse fresh and not dreading training so much. You’ve got to make it enjoyable for them, somehow.”
Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.