The 6,000 spectators at Road to the Horse had their first official look at the 2009 colts on Saturday afternoon when the geldings were run into the arena.
Randy and Laurie Dunn, of Bath Brothers Ranch near Laramie, Wyoming, provided 10 unbroken 3-year-old American Quarter Horse geldings from the famous Blue Valentine/Driftwood line of working cow horses for this year’s Road to the Horse competition. They were all solid, unspoiled colts; the result of generations of careful breeding that has consistently produced excellence in the physically and mentally demanding job of being a working cow horse.
The colts had been “rough halter broke” as weanlings, then turned out for the next 2½ years to grow up around cattle, wildlife, wild weather, challenging country, and predators. It’s not that they weren’t handled at all. They were only handled as much as necessary-and that was by good horsemen. While the group of them could be described as extraordinarily naive in comparison to colts raised in a barn-and they were certainly frightened by their new surroundings-there was also no mishandling or undue trauma in their backgrounds for the trainers to overcome.
Luck of the draw is a major component of this competition. It’s not a matter of picking a “good” horse or a “bad” horse; although certainly some horses have easier temperaments to work with than do others. Ultimately, as John said, “It’s such a guess. Honestly, you flip a coin and hope you have enough knowledge to work with what you chose when the horse throws a monkey wrench into your plan.”
The trainers drew numbers from a hat to decide who got first, second, and third pick. Tommy Garland got to choose first, and he picked a nice grulla colt named Blue Leo Bonnet. This colt was also Richard’s and John’s first pick. Richard went second, and he chose a soft-eyed little bay named Plenty Brown Hancock. John, in third position, then chose a big, solid sorrel named A Dunn Wiggy.
Choosing a partner who might work best in this competition is essentially the same as picking out any good prospect. John was looking for an inquisitive colt who watched him, would be big enough to stand up to the hard work that would be asked of him, and had a pretty gait.
He walked into the herd of colts to check their responses to him. As the others moved away, the big, sorrel colt stood and focused on him. “He was afraid, but stayed watching me. I knew he would be a little more difficult. He was a bigger, stronger, more aggressive colt.”
The remaining seven colts were removed from the arena and the three that had been chosen were run into separate round pens. The trainers had a total of an hour to work with their colts in the pen, but had to give them an additional 10 minutes of rest time at a point of their choosing.
John’s first job was getting his colt to pay attention to him despite the extraordinary distractions that surrounded them both. There were photographers, microphones, judges, training paraphernalia, and two other pens where Richard Winters and Tommy Garland were simultaneously busy with their own colts, not to mention those 6,000 fairly noisy people watching it all.
The colt-understandably-stared over the fence at the crowd, tuning John out completely at the beginning. John needed to teach him to turn and face him. To do this, he tossed the end of his lariat toward his colt’s hind feet. That effectively got him moving and more fully aware of which human he had to watch.
This was the beginning of teaching him the four-part formula of Pressure, Spot, Direction, and Reward. The pressure began as the lariat toss, but was refined to more subtle body language as the colt paid closer attention to John. The spot was any specific part of the colt’s body that John wanted to move. The direction would be forward or backward, up or down, left or right. The reward was the release of the pressure and later soft words and gentle rubs. The colt began to learn that people could control him without hurting him.
Tossing the lariat toward his colt’s feet as reinforcement, John taught him the cues to go forward, stop, turn, and face him, always using less and less motion (pressure) to get the proper response.
In three minutes, the colt walked up to him and let John touch him on the nose. For the rest of the weekend, if John was in the vicinity, the colt was watching him, waiting for indications as to what he should do. Like all horses, he didn’t necessarily understand the cues right away, so he often tried different things before discovering the right way to respond to a situation. But he watched John so carefully that spectators in the top rows could see the wheels turning as he tried to figure things out.
Until they are taught otherwise, horses react to physical touching and pressure by leaning into it. This particular colt also tended to present his hindquarters, which is a more aggressive reaction. When he showed this response, John really pushed him forward and then started teaching him the “hips over” cue.
“Hips over” can also be known as disengaging the hindquarters or as a really spectacular turn on the forehand. It’s an emergency stop (because one hind leg crosses in front of the other), a method of teaching the horse to give to the bit, an excellent physical exercise, and-of course-it removes the horse’s hindquarters from being a threat.
Never done at a halt, but always as the colt was moving forward, John taught the colt to bring his nose toward his shoulder, stop moving his nearest forefoot, and take a big step away with his hind legs. This is more often taught in a halter or bridle. For this particular colt in this particular situation, it was better to work on it earlier than later so John began teaching this before putting the halter on.
When his colt was standing quietly and was more relaxed, John started passing his hand quickly over his colt’s ears. By the time he realized John’s hand was on his head, the hand had already moved on, so there was nothing to fuss about. Moving his hand more and more slowly, at eight minutes into the competition, John was rubbing his colt’s neck, shoulder, and belly and hugging his head.
At this point, John put the halter on. Attaching the lariat to the halter, he again sent his colt forward, gently turned him, stopped him, and had the colt turn to face him, but now he was using the halter as part of the “give to pressure” cue.
At 25 minutes in, the colt was bridled with no difficulties, had made major progress in overcoming head shyness, and had learned that people could control him without hurting him. It was a good time for John to leave the pen for the first break.
Rick Lamb-host of Road to the Horse-came over to visit. “John, you had a lot of early success in there. Were you surprised how that went?”
John: “No.” He went on to explain that the colt had shown a tendency to “run over top of people.” Colts sometimes do this when they’re afraid. John had to let him know things were okay and that John was the one in control. This is what establishes a horse’s respect.
After the colt’s break, John returned to the pen. Still working at liberty, he resumed encouraging the colt to come to him and to go forward on cue. He began to teach the colt to follow that “go forward” cue no matter what was in front of him. First he cued him to walk over a series of poles. He then introduced a tarp on the ground. When the colt spooked at that, John quietly re-presented him to the tarp and rewarded any “try” whenever the colt even thought about stepping on it until he willingly walked over it four times.
“Good job, Dad!” came a shout from proud daughter Brandi up in the stands.
John then draped the coiled lariat on top of the colt’s head and began getting him used to the feel of it all over his body. When a colt is “sacked out” with a rope or anything else that can be used to get his attention, he only incidentally learns that the object won’t hurt him. Since there’s no way to desensitize a horse to everything he might encounter that might scare him, it’s much more important that he learns to follow a cue no matter what else might try to distract him.
At this point, John had handled all four legs and began rubbing the colt with a rolled up, dark blue, striped Navajo blanket. He shook the blanket out, put it over the top of the colt’s head like a cumbersome wedding veil, flapped it at him, and eventually had the colt walking quietly with the blanket on his back.
Next, John’s colt stood still without a lead rope while John put his saddle on him. He pulled the cinch close to the colt’s belly, then released it. He took the saddle and blanket off. The colt spooked when John re-approached with the saddle and a different (light-colored) blanket. To the colt, the light-colored blanket was something entirely new and scary, so John used this as an excellent opportunity to repeat and reinforce the earlier lessons of turning and facing him.
John’s colt stood to be saddled from either side. John led him around with the cinch dangling, then held it against the colt’s belly again. With ten minutes left, John tightened it up and moved the colt around to get him used to flapping stirrups.
By this point, the colt was accepting John’s leadership in a highly visible way. Whenever John turned his back, the colt followed him.
He attached the lariat to the saddle horn and flipped it from side to side and around the colt’s neck like a big jump rope as the colt stood quietly. He wrapped the rope around the colt’s hind legs, feet, and chest.
With four minutes remaining, John put a regular snaffle bridle with full reins on the colt and put his foot in the stirrup. (It was a stretch-this was a big colt!) As he put more weight in the stirrup, the colt got nervous, so John started swinging his leg forward and back while the colt stood still.
John then unsaddled the colt and was out of the pen with all of his equipment with 30 seconds to spare. The colts were done for Day 1.