The 26-time World Champion cowboy’s take on horsemanship, team roping and the mental game each month, exclusively in The Team Roping Journal.
“So I know I screwed up with a young horse. He’s already really nervous in the box, and he’s really hard to score. He’s only 5, and I think I started him on fast cattle too soon. What’s the process you would use to gear him back down and get his mind right?”
— Richard Piper, Scottsbluff, Nebraska
There’s a reason making good horses takes so long, and there’s a reason why going slow really matters. The only thing you can do is start over at square one and, even then, there’s no guarantee that whatever bad habits you put in them early won’t rear their ugly head the next time you apply the same pressure. I’m not saying you can’t fix it, but it’s so crucial to do things right along the way. The shame of it is, everybody who can make a good horse now gained those skills at the expense of other potentially good horses in the past. It’s just how you learn.
In everything you do with your horses, especially in box work, stay on task and be goal oriented for your horse. It sucks to go to the arena to rope and not be able to because your horse needs work, but, if you’re signing up for young horses, it’s a necessity that you don’t rope every day.
There are very few people who make good horses. It’s not about what you have planned for you that day. It’s about reacting to what the horse needs.
We bought my son, Treston, a project horse this spring—a little horse that the kids who owned him loved to rope on in the pasture. These kids were punchy, so they were constantly chasing something and roping it. But when Treston started roping on him in the box, he’d hop up on his front end because all he knew was go.
At our house, you do it right or don’t do it. So all summer, we’ve been working on calming this horse down in the box. We do a lot of moving, but only at Treston’s request. He’ll make the horse do a tiny barrel turn in small circle—moving the rib cage and all four feet, instead of spinning him. Most people will get to kicking and pulling, because they’re frustrated, but I make them move forward. Treston isn’t pulling and kicking at the same time. That’s the worst signal you can give.
Even when he’s backing his horse up in the box, it’s got to be Treston’s idea. I don’t want the horse to go backward without any pressure, because then the horse is in control. If the horse backs up faster than Treston wants him to, I have Treston ride him up and back until the horse is responding to Treston’s cue to back up.
Every time Treston’s horse messed up, that horse had to work—whether in circles or going forward and backing up. It took a while, but he figured it out eventually. The last seven or eight times, everything was smooth, but the horse tried Treston again the other day, and now we have to be really precise with our corrections. If he’d go to pop up and Treston ran that steer anyway, we’d reinforce the bad behavior. If you don’t have enough discipline, you’ll worsen the problem.