Knowing the Boundaries and Making New Ones

Part 2 of “My Dreams Come True”

"First Saddling" watercolor and color pencil sketch made on location for a book I was planning

The following is the way I used to break colts. Some of those old methods I have changed or abandoned, some I have retained, and all are a part of my education and personal history.

Sacking was a training method I learned from Will James.  I tied the colt with four feet of free line to a post, running the lead rope through the halter secured around his neck with a bowline.  Sometimes it was a major fight to get them close enough to the post to tie them safely.  Once the colt was secure, I flopped and flipped a blanket all over him.  All the colts fought this in terror.  Some of them were violently hostile.  One time a buckskin filly striking out took nearly all the buttons off my shirt.

These wild horses ‘sensitized’ me, because the dangers were immediate and explosive.    The untrained ‘tame’ farm horses that had been my previous experience appeared generally calmer, but were less predictable.  Perhaps a farm colt would show signs of friendliness, but touch them in the wrong place, do something unusual and they were every bit as savage and explosive as the wild ones.   Because of the consistently violent behavior from these wild horses, I learned to evaluate each horse’s boundaries, how and when to push these boundaries and how an individual horse could be trusted or not trusted.   I learned to stand in the safe places which were generally just to the side of their shoulders. Not that this was perfectly safe, but they could not reach me with their back legs and if they struck or bit, I had time to jump out of the way.  The sensitivity I learned from these wild horses has stayed with me ever since.   I no longer just assume a horse is safe just because it appears tame.  Trust is built by spending time with an individual, and that goes both ways.    This sensitivity is not about fear.  It is about respecting each individual’s boundaries and the sober evaluation of the potential danger.

Within a half hour of the first session, all of these wild colts stopped fighting. They stood, allowing me to swing the blanket all over, touching every part.  They settled down.  They even seemed to like it.  I touched them with my hands on the left part of their necks, shoulders and polls. I threw the saddle on and off (careful not to bump them too hard with the stirrup) until they received that calmly.  It was still dangerous to reach under the horse’s girth for the cinch.   Following a Will James method, I made a hook with my lariat to reach under the horse’s belly to the cinch.  I cinched up the saddle, turned them loose in the pen, let them buck and chased them around the pen until they forgot about the saddle.  Finally I got on.  Most of them bucked.  I rode until they stood or walked quietly.  I pulled their heads right and left and made them turn following their mecate (reins) attached to the bosal (rawhide or leather band around their nose).  This concluded the first day.  It took about two hours.

In those days I thought they were supposed to buck. In fact I thought it was good for them to buck it out and I liked the challenge of a fight.  Green colts can’t buck as well as seasoned buckers. I was thrown off at the rodeo a lot more often. With these wild horses I could almost always ride them to a standstill.  Nowadays I make an attempt to avoid bucking entirely.  Even if the rider stays on board, a horse that bucks will likely buck again.  If a rider can avoid or distract a colt from bucking on those first rides he may never buck.  Almost all the horses I started in those days bucked in their first sessions, now hardly any buck, and when they do I can usually see a specific mistake that I made.  The mistakes fall in the area of crossing a boundary too soon.

The second day was same as the first, except that the fighting decreased dramatically.  I spent more time riding.  The third day there was little or no fighting, so from that day on I took them on trail rides.  The trail rides provided more exposure, because from a horse’s perspective the world looks different with a human on your back.  Within two weeks they were reasonably safe and accommodating for someone with lots of horse experience.  Hardly any of them bucked.  They turned both directions and moved forward at a walk, trot or canter.  A cowboy could put them to basic work and begin the on the job training.


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