All head horses won’t be so great in the box—that’s just part of it. As horsemen, we should try to make each horse as good as he can be and as comfortable as he can be when we back him into the corner. A lot of box problems can be corrected by gaining your horse’s trust in the corner. My wife tells me all the time that I’m really good at bringing a horse’s blood pressure up. Just recently, I had a horse getting overheated and he started peeling out in the box. He lost his confidence in the corner, and now I’ve got to take the opportunity to defuse the situation so I can constructively put him back together. We demand a lot of our horses, so that happens. Because of that, I think it’s more important for our horses to stand in the bridle with what I call the reins loaded, meaning your horse is in the bridle, than to stand calmly on a loose rein. I don’t mind if a horse moves his feet in the corner or is anxious, so long as our communication is clear when I drop my hand.
A lot of horses are fidgety in the box. That’s OK, as long as you keep them confident and listening to your left hand. If our communication is clear, when I drop my hand, he leaves. I want to be able to walk in the box, ride forward, back up, move forward again, etc. I want the feet moving forward comfortably. I see people ride into the box, start to make the turn toward the cow and start pulling back on the reins to try to get the horse in the corner right away, all in one cue. That causes some horses to peel out of the corner.
Some people try to get horses really calm on a loose rein in the corner, but then the gates bang, they go to pursue the cow and then introduce the bridle to the horse for the first time. I want my horse calm in the box, but I don’t want to be sneaking it by him. To me, that causes a lot of confusion for horses. So many times, a horse isn’t trying to be mean, we’ve just confused him and he’s frustrated.
That’s not the approach I like to take. A fully developed horse has the mind of a 5-year-old child, so your communication with him must be clear, with no mixed signals. Leaving your horse on a loose rein and then picking up when you nod, that’s a mixed signal. You’re playing a guessing game when you’re trying to score. Because I’m going to introduce the bridle to the horse, I want to do that before the gates bang. I practice a lot having him stand in the bridle reins and accept the bit. I want him in his starting position and ready. My left hand is the accelerator. If I mash it to the floor, he needs to be squealing some tires.
To explain more what I mean by “in the bridle,” Chad Masters explained it to me like this: If making my horse stop and back up is 100 percent and a loose rein is 0 percent, I want to be in the 50-percent to 60-percent range for him to be in the bridle. I want him giving to the bit comfortably. I’m looking for no slack in the bridle reins for good communication. The closer I am to the bit, the more subtle I can be with my cues. If you have loose reins then pick up when you leave the box, you don’t realize how much leverage you have. When I can’t gauge how much power I have on the reins, it’s hard for me to communicate quietly. I like to keep my hand in front of the saddle horn to gauge how much pressure I have on the reins.
I want to be on “go” if I’m in the corner. When my hand drops and my horse moves, my upper body can go forward and my legs can come under my hips, allowing me to keep weight in my stirrups. Then, it’s easier to put my first swing on the target and pursue the cow. Here, I’ve got my feet under me, my left hand down on his neck and my body up ready to throw. That all happened because I left in time with my horse.
In this photo, everything about my upper body is going forward, but my horse is still in the corner. My clutch was slipping here—when I dropped my hand, my horse didn’t leave, putting me ahead of him. When he starts, it will throw my body back. This is a common problem. He’s still waiting there, and that will cause my timing to get off. I’ll get my feet rocked forward. Working on this is important for me getting ready for the Wrangler National Finals. And with ropings using the World Series’ barriers, this is really important, too. Your horse needs to be sharp right here. The hotter he gets, the more he tries to argue in the box. No matter what, he must leave when my left hand goes down. We just aren’t communicating well in this picture. I like to compare training my head horse to trying to talk my wife into going to play golf instead of going antique shopping. I have to have clear communication with a little bit of salesmanship, and I can’t be mad when I show up to the discussion. To get the best results, it should be her idea—just like training my head horse.
Bonus Tip: I really want this horse to learn to rest in the box. When I complete my practice for the day and I score the last one, I try to make that score as realistic as possible. When the steer is gone and I want to get off, I ride him to the front of the box and step off him. I uncinch and unboot him there. I see people score the last steer of the day on a tight rein, and they just step off and uncinch and unboot in the corner. I don’t want to confuse him. I like to walk him forward and ease my reins down so the communication remains clear. So many times, I feel like horses are not trying to be difficult—they’re just really confused.