How to Introduce Intensity to Your Horses Throughout Their Training.

The 24-time World Champion Cowboy’s take on horsemanship, team roping and the mental game each month, exclusively in The Team Roping Journal.

Question: I have a 6-year-old mare, and she’s not finished, but she knows her job. After how many steers should I stop with her during a practice or a roping? —Rob H.

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Answer: There are so many different schools of thought because horses are repetition animals, but they have to have a release or reward to learn what’s right and wrong. There’s no magic number of steers to run, but I can talk about how I bring one along and how I introduce pressure situations to my horses.

My strategy isn’t to wait to a certain age or progression to start to put my horses in pressure situations. I put pressure on them all along in short increments. I don’t like to ease around a horse until a certain point. The pressure I put on my 4-year-old may be fence work or chasing a steer around the arena. The problem with most people’s training process is the only high-intensity training they do on their horses is that roping run. My intensity on a green horse might be a lot of roll backs, or making sure he’s off the rein immediately when I lay my left or right rein on them. I make my horses’ eyes get wide in other situations than just backing into the box.

I like to bring my horses up a level, then let them ease back down and let them get control of their heart rate to let them know that intensity isn’t going to kill them. They are going to experience it, it will be over and they’re all right. I try to mix that in along the way from my 3-year-olds on up. I try not to put them in high intensity situations longer than they can take it. I try to feed it to them incrementally. You build stamina in those situations without ever letting them overload, so timing, and being able to feel when enough is enough, is everything. That will get them more confidence to where they can take longer intervals of intensity.

Going from riding and practicing at the house to jackpotting is hard on green horses, unless you’re at a very low-numbered roping to where the steers are slower. If you’re introducing a horse to jackpotting at a #15 or an Open, and you’re asking them for 90% of the talent they have every run, that’s hard on a horse. If somewhere you’re letting them operate at 70%, I can see introducing them to jackpots earlier. Asking them for more than 70% of their talent is calling on them a little too much. You should do that in short increments. If I go to take a green horse to a weekly jackpot—say at Ryan Motes’ place—I have something else to ride too, but I’ll use my young horse on the runs with legs or the barriers and get a run or two on them. I call that a win, to take horses that have never been to a jackpot, and use them in a situation where I’m just making runs anyway.

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In those early jackpot situations, you can almost feel the heartbeat when they’re nervous or tight. I want to get through that, but I want to put them up. I want to get past it, and then be off them. I don’t wait until I have a problem then get off. I want to feel it coming and not let the horse get all the way to that point. Most people wait until their horse won’t get in the box or wants to kick his butt out in the corner. If you create a problem, then get off, they see that behavior as their release. That’s the worst thing you can do to a horse. Unfortunately, making those mistakes is how we have to learn. That’s why I hope this column helps people instead of having to learn the hard the way.

Trevor wants to answer your questions about roping & horsemanship. Email cshaffer@aimmedia.com to be featured in a future issue of The Team Roping Journal. 

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