It was my second time to South Africa and my first time to do a clinic at Q Stud Ranch in Potchefstroom. As I am there giving lessons, Madre Colyn says to me “if you have time, can you hop on our stallion Sail and just tell us what you think?”. Anyone that knows me will know that I’m always willing to lend a helping hand, so I said “sure thing”. I had heard a little about their imported stallion Sail on Frozen Shadow, but had never seen him ridden and didn’t exactly know what to expect. So when I got a moment, we got him all saddled and I just grabbed the closest thing to a mild bridle that I could find and put it on him. Next thing you know, I was off to the arena to give him a whirl.
There I am riding around and the stallions owner, Ian Colyn, was watching very intensely. I put the stallion through the normal paces that I would any other bona fide reining horse. He felt a bit rusty because he hadn’t been worked in a very long time, but he sure felt like he knew his job to me. He circled, spun, and stopped really well. Before I got off and put the stallion away, I looked over at Ian Colyn and said with a big smile, “Man, this horse here is really really broke” and I went on to cool him down.
A few weeks later, during a conversation with Madre, an incident that I found as hilarious came to my attention. She told me that her husband Ian, came to her and said “I think we have a big big problem….Ed told me that Sail was really really broke”. Madre didn’t know exactly what that meant nor what to do about it, but she just knew that for a horse to be “broke” couldn’t be a good thing! Madre was distraught and looked for an answer. She phoned her good friend Colette that originally brought the stallion into South Africa and cried to her saying, “Colette what do we do? Ed came and rode our stallion. He said that Sail was really really broke, what are we going to do with him now?”. Colette laughs hysterically and says “Uhm…well that is actually a compliment, especially coming from an American trainer! It means that he is well trained and really knows his job”!
Since I have started coming to South Africa and familiarizing myself with the relatively close knit equine community, I feel compelled to write this article. A budding interest in the western riding disciplines have steadily been on the rise in the countries of South Africa, Namibia and even Botswana. I would like to help the western horse enthusiasts of these countries grow richly in the knowledge of what a western horse is supposed to be. Allow this article to serve as a brief introduction to understanding what the finished or “broke” western horse is.
There are many misconceptions about what a western horse is. To some, when the word “western” in mentioned, as far as riding disciplines are concerned, thoughts like fast, dangerous and out of control are often attributed, but a true western horse is quite the opposite of the previously used adjectives. I am going to make a very bold statement, but one that I feel is a statement of the utmost truth. Finished western horses are the Cadillac sedan’s of the equine world. Just like a cadillac sedan, the finished western horse whether it be a reining, pleasure, or cutting horse, will let you sit back and enjoy your drive with minimal effort.
Much different than the classical english disciplines where constant communication is happening during each maneuver, our approach tends to be a bit different. When we have a finished horse, we simply want to be able to clearly communicate to our horse what maneuver is next on the list to perform. Once the proper cue has been given, it is time for the rider to get out of the horses way and allow the horse to do what it has spent years learning how to do oh so well. I have had the privilege to help a few english riders try their hand at riding a finished pleasure or reining horse for the first time. They were astounded at how much happier (and less cranky) these horses were when they were left alone to do the job they spent many years learning to do. I have started to tell my students “take your horse to it and let him do it”. Getting a horse to that point doesn’t happen overnight however and can take years of consistent and methodical training.
How do I train my horse to be a finished western horse?
If you want to have a finished western horse, you must first decide what type of western horse you will want your finished horse to be! There are many events that fall under the category of western (reining, cutting, pleasure, trail, ranch & etc) and though the tack looks fairly similar to the spectator, most of our western riding disciplines can be very different from each other. You will need to first determine before you begin to ride the horse, what the horse is best suited for. Yes there are exceptions to every rule, but generally it isn’t recommended invest time and resources to train a horse with racing bloodlines for the western pleasure just as it isn’t recommended to invest in making a pleasure bred horse into a cutting horse. A knowledge of stock horse bloodlines and their associated disciplines, or at least access to all breed pedigree and google will definitely serve as a tool to help you determine what your horse is bred to do. The goal is not to simply have a horse in the arena wearing western tack, but to have a horse in the arena that can perform to the standard of that western discipline and excel with you at the reins! Matching your horse to a discipline that it was bred to do increases your chances of coming out of the training process with that finished cadillac that will let you cruise through the show ring and into the winner’s circle.
The next thing on the list is to begin to ride your prospect from the very first ride with the end result in mind. If you lack the knowledge of how to reach your desired end goal, I would strongly recommend investing in a knowledgeable trainer to take your horse to the level at which you can show it successfully.
Here are a few quick rules of thumb:
Pick a direction for your horse
Understand that your prospect may have raw talent or ability but must still be taught what to do, not intimidated into doing it
Communicate clearly what you are looking for from the beginning
Be consistent with what you expect from your horse
Look for opportunities, when applicable, to let your horse operate on it’s own. Reward your horse if it tries even just a little
Understand that your prospect is going to make mistakes and that it is okay, it is part of the process.
Don’t be afraid to go back to square one. Always go back to what your mount understands and build from there.
Making a finished horse is not a race because all horses don’t progress through training at the same rate
Time will do the trick. Every horse needs adequate time under saddle to gain the confidence to do it’s job on it’s own
Let’s take the next featured horse for an example. Pictured below is a 2 year old filly by Teelusified and out of Arabesque Ciscos Rosebud. She will be a Western Pleasure/All Around Horse when she is broke, but for now, she is still considered a prospect. She has a natural desire to go very slowly and have a low neck, but I can not rely on her natural inclination as a substitute for training. If I work with her natural inclination and show her how to accurately use it, we may have a winner. If I don’t, it will lead to problems in the future.
Here I am loping the filly around in circles. She started off loping forward and after a half circle, she began to become quite hollow. The filly doesn’t know how to carry herself at any gait as she is still very young and green in her training, so it is inappropriate to chastise her for what she doesn’t know. Instead I simply bring her back to square #1 and remind her to lift her front end by elevating her shoulders and off we go again!
The key to making a broke horse from the first day is to show your horse precisely where you want him to be and how he is supposed to get to that position. Once you have done that, don’t be afraid to turn your horse loose to make the mistake. If you are consistent in putting your horse in the correct position without making a fuss about it, your horse will grow confident at it’s job!
If you lack the knowledge or confidence to train your horse for the western discipline of your choice, purchasing a finished horse will be the best option for you. Finished horses on the African continent are not very numerous, so be prepared to invest in importing a proven horse in your desired discipline that can teach you and make your experience riding western an enjoyable experience.
(Featured image: Ed sliding bridleless on Sail on Frozen Shadow owned by Q Stud Ranch, Potchefstroom, South Africa)
*Photos courtesy of Fine Photography