Question: What are some good benchmark tasks and corresponding ages to make sure a colt is ready to go for a futurity season? I know every horse is different, but I’d really like to know a baseline to work from.
— Paige Meckelberg, Stephenville, Texas
Answer: You’re right, every horse is different. While writing this column, my training partner Miles Baker said he couldn’t answer this for that very reason. But that’s why I write columns and he doesn’t, so I’ll start with this baseline: I want my 3-year-olds, by the end of their 3-year-old year, really solid in pen roping. That means they will go to a cow on their own as soon as you point them to the cow. They don’t require a lot of maintenance once they’re heading that direction. They take over from there and go follow without much guidance and know their lane.
Obviously, these horses are broke but not just ready to go out there and get after it. You can have a horse tracking at a high rate of speed, but the collecting and stopping isn’t there, so you lose them when you ask them to rope and stop. Reinforcing the collection and the stopping is really important at this level, so keeping your cues consistent through the pen roping is critical.
That tells you that there can’t be any skipped steps. Some horses get cow-fresh and turn their head away and get their nose out in the air. Cow-fresh or skittish is not solid to me. I don’t want to be pushing on them with the left rein because they’re rating the cow. If they’re bowing away from the cow with their shoulders or hips or are skittish or cow-fresh, that’s not solid to me. They have to know their position and know the frame to hold as far as keeping their head, shoulders and hips in line when they catch up and stay in their lane. I don’t like it when a horse wants to put his nose to the inside to the cow in the heading. A lot of times, if a cow moves to you, it will restrict your vision on the left horn. You can follow through and hit them in the neck, and you have to stay out so wide, they don’t react fast enough. Those bad habits can all start in the pen roping on a cow-fresh horse if you’re not careful.
On the facing, I’ll do pulling and facing drills, from logging to pulling a Smarty like I explained a few months ago. (You can find that on teamropingjournal.com.) I do it at a trot so they can distinguish the very specific facing cues in a controlled environment. The key cue I’m talking about at this stage is that right rein. The first, specific use of it is when I’m pulling across the neck with it, with my right foot in him right behind my front cinch. That means to keep pulling the steer. But when I move my hand more to the middle and barely tip his nose and use my right foot, that moves his hips to face. My rein is off his neck and I tip his nose in a bit, then move my foot in front of the back cinch to move his hips. The movement is only the distance between your front and back cinch, so that’s why you have to practice that to make them really understand pushing their shoulders through and their hips around. Different cues and different rein pressure go with it. I want to be disengaging their hips and really defining which cues mean what so they’re not seeing these cues for the first time in the heat of battle.
Lastly, especially as the limited divisions of these futurities are growing and more people are having the chance to ride young horses for a lot of money, it’s important, especially when you’re showing a horse, to make sure you keep them looking settled and as solid as relatively possible. There’s obviously some maintenance needed on most horses when you get done putting them under the heat of pressure in competion, but that’s part of the development process of that horse. They have to deal with pressure, and then they have to recover from it. Some are going to handle that pressure better than others. The main thing is getting them through it and not avoiding pressure all the time. I’ve said it 1,000 times: You’re doing more for your horse by getting him through a pressure situation than you are by avoiding one all the time. TRJ