Schooling a ranch horse

It’s not necessary to own a fancy sand arena to school a working cow horse the cowboy way

When it comes to schooling working cow horses, you don’t need a fancy sand arena. After all, the cowboys of old trained their horses to work cattle effectively in the wild.

You can build up and train horses while riding in the veld. The trick is to use natural obstacles and situations to build up muscle and balance and make the horse obedient.

In the US, roping is used as a means of restraining cattle. It’s not often used in SA, but one of the principles of training a roping horse is making it stand quietly while you build a loop in your lariat.

This degree of calmness is generally achieved after a long run or hard work, when the horse is tired and wants to rest. You stop against or close to a natural obstacle and let the horse stand.

Then relax your body and sink deeply into the saddle. The reins and contact with the mouth should be slightly loosened. Usually, the horse will also relax and you can reinforce this by using a word such as “whoa”, said softly and slowly.

Roping and shooting
For roping from a standing horse, introduce the concept slowly, training by what’s known as “successive approximation” and “habituation”.

Gently and rhythmically pat the horse on each side of the neck with the coiled lariat, while talking quietly. A similar method can be used to get the horse accustomed to a stockwhip. If you want to train a horse for shooting from the saddle, the horse should be close to other horses that are schooled to stand still during gunfire, while other riders are shooting.

This technique makes use of the herd instinct, which makes horses calmer. When the horse accepts this, you can introduce a rifle, which is slowly moved up and down and around the horse, from the saddle, until the horse is accustomed to it or “habituated”.

Backing up
Use the terrain to teach a horse to back up. Ride it into a tight corner using rocks or trees, then squeeze gently with your legs while lifting your hands and pulling and releasing the bit contact until the horse takes a few steps back. Reward this action by turning the horse out of the corner and allowing forward movement.

A good way to build up muscle is to go up and down steep hills or dongas. Make sure the horse doesn’t rush, but moves slowly, forcing it to get its hindquarters “engaged” (that is, dropping the hips and working from the hocks). This not only builds muscle, but also improves the horse’s balance.

Neck reining
Neck reining, which allows for riding one-handed (essential for roping, using a stockwhip or shooting), can be taught by weaving between small bushes, particularly thorn bushes, as the horse wants to avoid the obstacles. It will soon learn to associate turning to the left or right with the pressure of the rein on the same side of the neck. This exercise also makes the horse more supple, as it bends its body around each corner.

Although the exercise should be started at a walk, the eventual aim is to achieve it at a fast canter. Flying changes can also be taught at the canter or lope if the horse is asked to jump a small natural obstacle such as a log and turned abruptly as it lands, with the rider using its legs to indicate the change.

With each of these examples, the key to correct training is patience and repetition. Rushing a young horse into things before it has built up the muscle and balance required could land both of you on the ground.
Email Dr Mac c/o Chris Nel on [email protected]