Five questions for trainer and clinician Mike Ross of Loma, Colorado.
What’s the best way to start handling my foal?
When a foal is 24 to 48 hours old, I use my ranch rope method, but you shouldn’t attempt this without help from a qualified horseman.
In a round pen or small paddock, allow the mare and foal to touch, follow and investigate the rope. Drag the rope behind you. Walk in and out of the pen with it. Toss it away from the foal. Walk around the pen, away from the foal, while swinging the rope. Leave the rope in the pen.
If the mare is rope-gentled, have a helper halter and hold her while you hold the coiled rope for the mare and foal to inspect.
When I’m ready to put the rope on the foal, I hold the loop in front of him. If the foal will stand, I place the loop over his muzzle and face, then take it away and repeat. Eventually, I’ll put the loop over his face and ears. If the foal walks away, he does so wearing the rope. I don’t tighten the loop. The foal is able to leave, move his feet and work at a distance.
I then start to add light pressure to the loop. If the foal gets bothered, I release. He’ll soon be ready to halter and lead.
How should I safely present new objects to my foal?
Starting with foals as young as 24 hours, be creative in presenting anything new or different. Start in a round pen, arena or paddock—not in a stall. You can safely introduce most objects, including cattle, barrels, ropes, tarps, saddles and a horse trailer. Introduce objects by bringing them into this area, but let it be your foal’s idea to investigate.
How can I keep my horse from crowding me when I lead him?
Using a rope halter with a 15-foot lead rope, longe your horse at the walk and trot, using the end of your rope to add pressure. Transition from walk to trot and back to walk, and be sure to not let your horse cut in on the circle. Point with your leading hand and cluck once with your tongue to get him moving. If this cue fails, immediately twirl the end of the rope, using it to spank him once, if necessary.
When he is following your feel and timing, move toward your horse’s hip to yield it away from you. Before his feet are completely stopped, walk toward his nearest shoulder and raise your hands to eye level, moving them back and forth and making a “shhhh” sound. When he takes a backward, lateral step away from you, stop and let him relax.
Repeat this exercise on both sides, asking for more backward lateral steps until he moves with a softer feel.
If he steps toward you without being asked, raise your hands and back him away vigorously. Only after he stands where you ask should you invite him to meet you halfway for praise.
As you lead or stand beside him, create a four- to six-foot boundary. If he crosses that, send his hip away from you and ask him to back away.
My horse loads in the trailer, but he doesn’t like to back out. What can I do?
First, review the groundwork exercises above so your horse respects your space. Then, find or build a bridge like those used in trail courses. Send your horse to the bridge at a walk on the longe line. When you can safely send your horse across the bridge in both directions at a walk, ask him to put his front feet on the bridge. Pet his neck. Wait 15 seconds and back him off the bridge. Continue until he puts four feet on the bridge and backs off in a slow and controlled manner.
Then, elevate the bridge two inches at a time using 2-by-6 lumber. At each height, repeat the above exercise. Stop when you reach 10 inches. This helps you simulate backing your horse from the trailer in a safe environment.
Next, practice in a trailer. Park the trailer on safe footing, not asphalt or concrete. With the trailer attached to the truck, lower the trailer jack so the rear of the trailer is lower to the ground.
Lead your horse so his front feet are in the trailer. Pet his neck. Wait 15 seconds; back him out. Repeat until he’s calm and quiet. Then ask him to step in with all four feet, but don’t lead him to the front of the trailer. Pet his neck again, then ask him to back up, one step at a time. After each step, stop and pet his neck. Then you can ask him to load all the way into the trailer.
I barrel race a mare that’s consistent, but I think she can be faster. What can I do to bring out her best time?
Assuming you’re following the fitness and nutritional guidelines for your horse, look at your horsemanship. When you watch the greatest riders, you see smoothness and less wasted motion.
If you have access to a training track or oval and your horse is in top condition, ride out there with another horse and rider. Be sure your horses are wearing protective boots and the footing is good. An oval track allows uninterrupted high-speed work. You can relax your horse’s mind and not overuse your aids to slow down and make corners.
Use long warm-ups by trotting in both directions. After extending the trot, slow-lope or canter the horse. If your horse tends to go faster or slower than you’d like, work on speed control from the lope to the trot.
Try to not overuse your hands, spurs or crop. When we overuse our aids, the horse concentrates on the affected spot and loses forward focus, stability and smoothness in his stride. Give your horse a cue, and when he responds, stop using that cue until you need it again. Your horse will respond more effectively to your aids and cues.