Friday, April 13, 2012
Read on to find out what Julie loves about cow work, then check out the clinic and join us there to teach your horse to work cattle, or to get some great tips if you already love the sport: http://juliegoodnight.com/clinics/chino.html
--Heidi Nyland Melocco, Horse Master Director
Julie, when did you first start working cattle?
It wasn’t until I graduated from college and moved to Colorado that I first enjoyed the thrill of working cattle from a horse. After the hunter/jumper identity of my youth and the race track jobs of college, I was eager to try something totally new with horses and learning about western performance horses became my personal ambition. My professional ambition still kept me busy teaching people and training horses of all persuasions, so it was really only in my down-time that I got to pursue the nitty-gritty work of the cow horse.
Since I already knew a lot about herding, from a lifetime spent with horses, moving cattle, rating cattle and sorting cattle was easy for me to understand, in concept. But putting it into practice, slowing down the high-adrenalin rush that comes with working cattle and learning the precision of the technique takes a lifetime to master. I’ve had the opportunity to train with many great cow horse trainers over the years and continue to study as much as I can, but not as much as I’d like to. Like a lot of you, my real job keeps me pretty busy.
Working with cow horses that are bred for the sport and live to conquer the cow, is a thrill all its own. The concept of letting a horse do his job and think on his own, of putting your hand down on the neck and trusting the horse to do the job for which he was selectively bred for many generations is an important lesson in letting go. Working with an incredibly cowy horse and keeping him well-disciplined while letting him think and work on his own is an interesting exercise in trust.
What did it feel like to rope your first cow?
I never really threw my first loop until about 10 years ago. After more than 40 years of riding, the most important thing for me to work on in roping was building a loop (the first great challenge), throwing with accuracy and learning when and where to swing and throw. Unfortunately I was not very disciplined about practicing on the dummy but fortunately, I had a finished rope horse that was great on both ends and knew exactly how to get you to the right spot to throw. So I did practice some. He taught me a lot, once I managed to learn how to handle a rope.
I’ve taken a bunch of roping clinics and learned from some top-notch pros in the sport, from Florida to Hawaii. Beyond rope handling, rating a cow and throwing with accuracy, you have to learn how to dally and stop a cow and that is the tricky part—the part where you can lose your thumb. From ponying colts for years, the dally wasn’t too foreign to me and again, with good instruction, I learned to dally fast, safe and without looking down (thank you Charlie).
I threw a bunch of loops at live cows before I finally caught one. It turned out my first catch was during a competition—quadrupling the thrill that comes with roping, catching and stopping a running cow. I had participated in a ranch roping clinic the day before with one of my favorite clinicians, Merritt Linke. The day of the competition, I sat outside the arena with Merritt and watched the dozens of competitors that went before me. He showed me the predictable pattern the cows were following and where the sweet spot in the arena was to throw your loop. Rider after rider, I saw the cows turn and memorized that spot in the arena and now many strides before it I would start my swing.
It was the working ranch horse class—the hardest of the five classes of versatility ranch horse competition. First you ride a reining pattern, then call for a cow, box the cow on the end of the arena, turn him twice on the long fence, then get your rope out, build a loop while you are following the cow and rating him, then throw, catch and stop the cow. All of this within six minutes of entering the arena, so there is a little time pressure.
My horse reined well, boxed brilliantly, then we took the cow down the fence and made two high-speed turns. I got out my rope as we loped behind the cow, my horse patiently rating the cow while I built my loop. Then I looked up and saw we were about two strides away from the sweet spot—just enough time for two swings and a throw. It was exactly as I visualized talking to Merritt but still I was stunned as I watched the loop settled around her neck, seemingly in slow motion. Miraculously, I kept my wits about me long enough to straighten out with the cow, dally and stop. What a thrill! What an honor to ride such and incredible horse that works so hard in so many different things and teaches me how to ride.
How has learning cow work impacted your riding?
First, what I love about good cow horses is how athletic they are, quick thinking and even quicker reacting. To work cattle head-to-head like with cutting, with a horse that is hooked on to the cow so hard that every cell in his body is attuned and you are just along for the ride—one hand on the horn, pushing yourself back into the saddle while your rein hand sits on the neck of the horse, sitting back and trusting him to do his job. The stops and turns the horse makes on his own cause a real rush of adrenalin; staying in the middle of the horse and staying out of his way requires balance, relaxation of all your joints, good reflexes and the ability to move with the horse exactly as he moves.
Turning a big cow running at full speed down the long side of the pen is a thrill that has to be equivalent to sky diving, but you’re much closer to the ground. When I was youthful, I got this kind of thrill from riding jumpers; in college it was race horses. Now, to me, the ultimate ride is on the back of a good cow horse.
Cutting horses and reined cow horses are among the most elite equine athletes. To be able to ride one, knowing that it is trained and bred to do the job, with only your occasional guidance, and knowing that at best, you will stay out of the horse’s way as he performs, makes you want to become the best rider you can for your horse.
The skills of the ranch horse are many and varied—trail obstacles, riding a pattern of transitions similar to dressage, reining maneuvers, cutting, working cattle, dragging logs, roping, opening gates. Having total body control from head to tail and being able to put your horse in any situation and rely totally on his compete obedience. Any one of these pursuits are fun and challenging; to have a variety of things to work on keeps the horse and rider fresh.
What does it teach you about your horse?
Moving and controlling cattle is like herding horses. Understanding and putting into practice all the spatial understanding involved in herding, learning the balance points, how to move cows slowly, one step at a time and control their every movement makes you a better horseman too since horses and cattle behave the same way in this respect. Whether you are working a horse in a round pen, on a lead line, in a pen full of horses or even riding in a group, it is useful to know how to move horses and where the pressure points are.
Working with a horse bred to work cattle is much like working with a champion border collie or retriever. They instinctively know how to do their job and they live for every moment of working cattle. The rider just keeps the horse correct and makes him follow the rules of play, work on command and remain obedient to the rider. One thing I learned about my over-zealous cow horse is that his reward for performing correctly is getting to work the cow. If every time he makes a mistake, I pull him off the cow as punishment and he has to endure his personal walk of shame for losing the cow, those mistakes soon disappear.
Not all horses can become high-level cutters or cow horses; most are not athletic enough and not all horses will be cowy enough to hook onto a cow intensely. However, most horses can learn the job of a ranch horse and although they may not be naturals, they can be taught how to work a cow with the rider’s help. The same could be said for jumping.
In versatility, since the ranch horse has to do all the tasks of the ranch horse, he may be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Hence the term “ranch cutter.” In ranch cutting, the rider is not penalized for assisting the horse and picking up his hand from the neck for guidance while he is cutting. The ranch cutter may never beat a “hand down” cutter, but if he performs well in all the other disciplines, he’ll rise quickly to the top in the competition.
What skills does it help even if you don't necessarily want to compete in cutting or cow events? What's the benefit for all?
Learning total body control of your horse and how to communicate with imperceptible aids through transitions and turns. Working in partnership with a horse that is totally obedient and willing to listen to the cues of the rider in any situation that might occur on the ranch. Challenging yourself and your partnership with your horse to try new things, cross new obstacles, teach a horse to work cattle. Set a variety of goals to improve your own horsemanship and your horse’s training, while having fun and never getting stuck in a rut. Even if you never worked a cow, learning the skills required of a cow horse—go forward willingly, stop, turn, back, leg yield, stay calm and focused—are sure to improve your horsemanship and your horse’s training and are lofty goals.
In my ranch horse clinics, we work on understanding the requirements and skills of the working ranch horse; the classes and procedures, the rules and philosophies of judging versatility ranch horse competition. We explore the skills required of the horses and riders; and work to progress toward those goals. Join me there: http://juliegoodnight.com/clinics/chino.html
Thursday, April 5, 2012
I’ve just recently returned from my first clinic of the year in Topeka, Kansas. It was a great group of riders and horses and I enjoyed working with all of them. We had green horses, finished horses, novices and experts, a variety of breeds and disciplines and everyone had fun and progressed well with their horse. I learned a long time ago that the more I can help the people, the better off their horses will be.
I don’t always know exactly what topics I will cover in a clinic because the content is often shaped by the group. Although I have some standard sessions that I always include in a clinic—the fundamentals of our sport that all riders need refreshing on—often people in the clinic have specific goals or issues to work on. I start each clinic by asking the riders to introduce themselves and their horses, and ask them specifically what they want to work on throughout the weekend. I always make a list, to make sure I cover it all.
For the most part, the lists from one clinic to another all look more or less the same: control, communication, hone riding skills, confidence, bit problems, slow down/speed up, canter cue, leads, and of course, the inevitable, flying lead changes. Sometimes a person has a specific training issue, like their horse won’t take the right lead or their horse won’t bend to the right and so on.
At this clinic, I one of the riders was a lovely woman from Arkansas, who had hauled her Paint mare eight hours to ride in the clinic. MaryAnn was a sponge of a student—my favorite kind. She was knowledgeable, experienced and a very good rider that couldn’t learn enough. In the introductions, she stated that her biggest problem was that her horse bucked at the canter. Never a good thing.
We did ground work all morning, and the mare seemed pretty good; MaryAnn seemed to have a good handle on her. I started getting the picture that the mare perhaps had a touch of what I call PMS. Pissy Mare Syndrome. Kind of cranky and kind of bossy, but overall doing what MaryAnn asked of her.
It wasn’t until after lunch that I first saw the mare under-saddle. As we warmed up at the walk and trot I didn’t see much that concerned me; although the mare was a little cranky, she did everything asked of her. The first time I ask people to canter, in a clinic with 15 horses that are unfamiliar to me, I always ask them to canter two or three at a time. That keeps my blood pressure down.
When it was MaryAnn’s turn, her horse stepped right up to the canter on the correct lead, but as she proceeded around the arena, it was obvious her horse was not happy—crow-hopping around like a pogo stick with her tail was wringing like a propeller. Unlike a cold-backed horse (check out my Training Library if you aren’t sure what this means), the mare didn’t warm out of it. Taking a closer look at the picture, my mind went immediately to a physical problem; specifically a saddle fit issue.
MaryAnn had a very nice saddle with a Wade tree—a popular kind of Western saddle that is built up in front with a deep seat to help keep the rider seated. Very popular amongst colt-starters, for the same reason MaryAnn liked it—helps you ride through the bucks. Although it was the right saddle for MaryAnn, it just wasn’t the right saddle for the mare.
When I evaluate the saddle fit on a horse, the overall balance is important, as well as checking some specific areas on the horse. If I step a few paces back and look at the horse from the side, I want to see the saddle (be it English or Western) sitting pretty level on the horse’s back. If it is sitting downhill, the horse’s shoulders or withers could be uncomfortable and if it is sitting uphill, the horse may be getting undue pressure at his loins. In either case, the rider’s balance and position is impaired when the saddle does not sit level and balanced on the horse.
I could see from looking at MaryAnn’s saddle, and the uphill slant, that the horse was getting a lot of pressure on the loins from the way the saddle fit her. It is not surprising she protested the canter since she has to round up her back and lift it with each canter stride; not to mention that the rider’s weight can come down hard on the saddle at the canter. So I tactfully suggested that perhaps MaryAnn might like to try the demo saddle I had brought to the clinic. I knew the saddle she had was not cheap, nor was it the first one she had purchased for this mare, so I know the thought of getting yet another saddle to resolve this problem was not what she wanted to hear. But of course she did.
It was at the end of the first day—all the horses and riders were beat an headed for the barn, but quite a few spectators stuck around to see what happened when MaryAnn tried the new saddle. She trotted a circle or two and cued her horse up to the canter. Although the mare still seemed tense and tight in the back—there was a noticeable improvement in my opinion and many of the spectators saw it too. Unconvinced, MaryAnn was eager to try the saddle again the next day.
After the ground work, MaryAnn saddled her horse with my Monarch Arena Performance/Trail saddle. We spent a long time working at the walk and trot and when she cued her horse for the canter, she was smooth, relaxed and with her ears perked forward. Gone was the crow-hopping, wringing tail and pinned ears. MaryAnn went home with a brand new saddle and a smile on her face, thanks to her sweet husband who watched the transformation and bought the saddle before MaryAnn got off her horse.
It’s amazing how often horses work day in and day out with ill-fitting and inappropriate equipment. Imagine working on your feet all day in shoes that caused you pain. Did you ever notice the number of horse’s that have white pots on their backs? Did you know those white hairs are scars caused from pressure points? Sometimes, when the fit-issue is fixed, the hair color comes back but over time the scars become permanent.
The other things that are important to check on the saddle is the clearance at the withers (can you stick your whole hand in there?)—even the pad pressing on the withers can cause painful pressure. Check to make sure it is not pinching at the withers at the front of the tree and, in the case of Western saddles, that it is not too long for the horse and or pressing into the loins or hips.
Most of the saddles in my line of saddles made by Circle Y have a Flex2 tree. Although the flexible tree is not suitable for all riders (can’t rope in it; the rider must weigh under 230#), it offers greater comfort to the horse and fits a wider variety of horses than a traditional wood tree Western saddle. It has enough rigidity to distribute the weight of the rider while flexing enough to conform somewhat to the horse’s back. As the bars of the tree flex slightly, the front of the bars open up just a little, giving the horse much more freedom in the shoulders.
Since I have a demo saddle with me everywhere I go, I’ve tried it on a lot of different horses around the country and have been very impressed by the fit and balance to most horses. The design of my saddles also takes the rider into consideration—the saddle should be fitted to horse AND rider and be comfortable for both. So for the rider, my saddles have a very narrow twist (the part that is just in front of the seat), close contact to the horse’s sides, highest quality pre-softened leather, pre-twisted stirrups and memory foam in the seat. Need I say more?
The seat size of the saddle should be comfortable for the rider—neither riding on the cantle or crowded by the pommel. With Western saddles, the style of the saddles vary so greatly that you probably need to sit in a saddle, to know for sure how it fits you. The stirrups should be the right size for your feet with the leathers short or long enough so that you ride in the middle hole. The width of the saddle is important too—you should not feel outward pressure on your seat bones or get the feeling that your legs are being wedged apart. The comfort and balance of your saddle are huge factors in how well you ride so these are things you don’t want to compromise on.
There is much to know about saddle fit, for both horse and rider, and I always appreciate advice from professional saddle fitters. I am by no means and expert but after decades in the business and working with thousands of horses and riders, I’ve developed an eye for it. If you’re not sure about the fit of your tack, consult a professional and get the best advise you can. If your horse has “issues” under-saddle, always consider a physical cause first. If you have “issues” in your riding, you may want to check your saddle.
I’m glad I could help MaryAnn and her mare and I look forward to hearing more about how they progress. One down, thousands to go!
Enjoy the ride,