Another Lesson Learned


The ranch is a great place to learn due to the variety of horses brought here year to year to eventually work their way into the string. Each one is very unique and has more then a little to teach. Just this past week, a horse had my head spinning for two days and to be honest I am still thinking about it seven days later. Still asking myself questions about everything. Not just about the horse, but about myself. Horses such as this particular one make you rethink your whole life.

The horse looked like dozens of other horses I had dealt with, so I didn’t think there were going to be any issues that I hadn’t encountered previously. Boy, was I wrong on that notion. The horse had no life to him in any situation, whether it be saddled or not. When you would look at the horse in the corral, it was as if the horse wasn’t even alive. He moved and looked fine, but there was a certain state of consciousness that was missing. These type of horses have been drilled, trained, or abused to the point of mentally shutdown to protect himself to survive. At least that’s how I have come to understand them.

These types of horses are my kryptonite. Right when I think I have dealt with the dullest horse that ever walked the earth, another one shows up at the ranch even more lifeless then all the others combined. With these horses I have found a serious lack of forward, no shoulder pick up, no bend towards the inside, and complete lack of mental intuitiveness. Worst of all, is the reluctance to move away from pressure. These horses usually try to explore all their options that have previously guarded them from the human, as far as I can understand it, before they truly make a change or break through.

Physically these horses have wrecked me many times before I made a break through. Not only because I am going about the process wrong, but I’m trying to make the break through how I started with regular ground work on foot with a halter, lead rope, and sometimes flag. The flag and tarp have little to no influence on these horses so I usually just use the lead rope unless a particular situation calls for a flag.

With doing the ground work the way I have, I can then reflect on the scenario to help myself understand the process more to know the boundaries and the tipping points of horses. Going through step by step to try and fully understand what took place. Then I compare what I did with a great horseman who dealt with the same type of horse, way smoother and quicker, to try and figure out what, where, when, why, and how I missed the previous opportunities to help the horse find the correct movement.

Ultimately learning my major short falls and making adjustments to never let the process repeat itself in that rough manner. Whether that be using a flag, working from a saddle horse, or any changing of the situation to help myself get the break through quicker with less effort, but with even more feel to help the horse find the correct movements in less time. I am always trying to do less to get more, but I’m pretty far off from any sort of that right now.

What this past horse had taught me was to read the lack of life in a horse and prepare for the situation ahead of time. I tossed around a lot of different ideas in my head of how to deal with this particular situation in the future. Ideas such as:

  • Working the horse in the round pen; getting the horse to start bending and stepping its hindquarters correctly before doing halter work. Basically starting from scratch.
  • When doing the ground work, carry a spur in my hand to help assist the horse in picking his shoulder up and away from me. Giving me an easier way to help assist the horse in finding the correct bend in its body and movement in his feet with little to no extra effort. Quick to stop using the spur as the movements become correct and the horse stops crowding.
  • As I heard from a friend, one of the Dorrance brothers would put a 50 gallon drum of water between him and the horse to keep the horse off of him till the horse would start moving correctly.
  • I like the idea of working him from a saddle horse and a lariat to get him to back away from pressure and pick up his shoulder. This way I am doing many different beneficial things at once. Working my saddle horse, getting better with the lariat, riding in one hand, and work the ground horse all at the same time.

The reason for having to come up with these solutions was the three days of hell I put myself through with a particular horse. After the third day of straight up ground work, meaning halter and lead rope, the horse made a full break through. The break through came at the expense of my physical state for the rest of the week. I will walk you through the scenario so you can see why I was physically exhausted and embarrassed to even admit how I went about the issue.

My hope is that someone out there will put this to good use and save themselves physically and mentally, unlike myself. I tend to do things the hard way a few times before I start understanding that there is an easier way and that some horses aren’t meant to start where other horses are. Feel free to rip on my process, but please do not reenact the way I went about this horse. I am embarrassed that it took me this long to finally realize that some of these dull, lifeless horses aren’t meant to start out with ground work. If they are, I have not become good enough to get a break through due to bad timing, positioning, and feel. Demanding way more then the horse can handle at the time, instead of asking for less sooner.

I actually started out riding this horse before going to groundwork. He was a typical dull horse that took a little bit to get moving, but overall wasn’t to bad in the saddle. I brought the life up in the horse then went to bending and working the horses hindquarters. Nothing perfect, but nothing that was a real issue.

I got off the horse to go put the halter on to turn him out, but he wouldn’t break his feet loose to come of the pressure forward. I tried bumping the horse forward and using the lead rope to assist in coming off the halter, but the horse didn’t respond to either. Then to my lack of conditioning, I went to doing ground work because the horse had no clue how to move away from pressure let alone come forward off of pressure.

I offered forward with my hand at first, but the lack of response from the horse caused me to firm up with the tail end of the lead rope. He moved forward with out respect of my space, trying to walk all over me with his shoulder. I went to ask the horse to step back by sending some life down the lead rope, bumping after offering a good deal. The horse responded by putting his head straight up in the air to proceed to infiltrate my bubble. I put a little more life down the lead rope, but the horse just kept coming forward. I finally grabbed right under the knot of the halter and shook rhythmically right to left. The horse stopped his feet, but still wouldn’t come off the pressure. I did give a slight release for the stop, but picked right back up to back the horse off the pressure. The horse crept forward again while I was firm with the lead rope and halter.

At that point I was putting every thing I had into the backing, firmly going left to right with the halter. The horse reared a few times until he finally took one step back and I released. I slowly progressed at the backing for awhile longer until I felt the horse put a little more effort into the movements. Meaning the horse was starting to put better quality of steps together, progressing towards really breaking the feet loose and holding it’s head with a better posture. The horse was finally far enough away to where I could start back up with the respectful forward movements of groundwork.

I offered forward in a soft and gentle manner, but had to follow through with firmness to break the feet loose. The horse began moving forward, but seriously leaning on the halter. I bumped just as the inside hind foot was leaving the ground to help encourage the horse to bend, pick up his shoulder, and break over behind. None of the following in which happened, instead the horse kept going forward coming straight into me with his shoulder. Not only dropping his shoulder, but as soon as I had bumped the horse tucked his head on the opposite shoulder so that there was no way of correcting the movement until I got his head back in position. I tried to stay in position use the lead rope on this hind and front quarters, trying to make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy.

Despite my effort the horse kept barreling into me. I ended up turning my back to his shoulder to keep from getting stepped on, simultaneously trying to bump the head around while using the lead rope to help pick up his shoulder. This was the moment of time where I felt completely lost and wish I had a mentor with me. For I knew the way I was going about it at that moment was incorrect.

After spending some time there I was getting to where I couldn’t keep bumping and swinging the lead rope at the same time. I had to abandon the position to try something else to help the horse find the answer quicker. What I ended up doing next was walking the lead rope all the way around the hind quarters to help the horse break over behind, bend to the correct side, and square up. Well, he turned his head after backing for awhile, then the hindquarters sort of stepped over. He was still dropping his shoulder, but at least I had got him to come through a little. Wrong, he squared up and started walking on me again, this time I tried to direct him away by swinging at his front quarters.

Started swinging, but the horse wasn’t even flinching. I gave a few good taps on the shoulder only to get no response so then I bopped him on the nose with the end of the lead. Instead of going away from the pressure he only pursued more. I continued to try every thing I ever knew to get the horse to pick up his shoulder. I tried bending his head around with the lead rope on my waist until the horse stopped his feet. He only dropped the shoulder more and more stepping all over me.

Since everything I ever knew didn’t work I started resorting to other ideas. What ended up working a little at the end of the first day was just holding the halter under the knot, while asking for a quality step forward. Took a lot of offering forward and backing him off of me, then starting again before a change occurred. I would back straight or back a circle to the outside to get the horse to pick his inside shoulder up and away. Finally he took a few correct forward steps around me with his head and neck correctly bent to the inside. I left it there for the day for I had to get back to work and my physical state was not so good. My hands were blistered and I was sweating like a banshee.

Thought about every move I made over night and thought I had a game plan to get a quick break through the next day. I started where I left off and he just ignored me and started to walk all over me again. Tried to get the hind to break over by going around the hindquarters with the lead rope, but never did get a good break through. I was back to the drawing board. I regressed to putting my back on the inside shoulder while just bumping till I could get the head around 90 degrees to the inside instead of a 180 degrees to the other side. By the end of the day I could keep his head around with brief moments of picking up the shoulder. Once again had to rap it up for work and physical reasons.

At this point I am starting to think of other ways I have scene good horseman work horses. I am also thinking about how everything I have done with this horse is nothing I have ever seen a great horseman do, which bothered me more then anything. Realizing how inept I really was. I was trying to be smooth and soft, but all I was outputting was rough ugliness as far as I was concerned. During those past two days I couldn’t think of anything other then that horse and myself.

Day 3 rolls around and I can hardly raise my arms up because my hands, arms and shoulders are shot. Not to mention my abdomen felt as if I had tore it completely apart in some places. All while waking up at 3 in the morning to put on seven miles to gather the herd in the mornings for a “normal day of work.” Saddling over 100 of the horses for guest to go on trail rides, horsemanship classes, and a cattle drive. I was physically and mentally a wreck by this time. When I should have taken my personal well being into consideration the only thing I could focus on was making a break through with that horse. Working every day during my lunch break till I made a break through. It killed me to have to stop working the horse with out a full blown break through, to get back to normal work.

The third day started pretty similar to the first two days, but I went right to the position in which I felt completely demoralized, putting my back to his shoulder. He was still dropping into me. I was able to get the head around quickly, but instead of having to bump I just pushed his hindquarters because the head was already to the inside. Trying to force the life up in him to where he would pick up his shoulder. That didn’t pan out so I went to something that I still can’t figure out why I even tried it. I started to not only use the lead rope to push the hindquarters, but to tap the horse on the nose. Shortly after doing so the horse started picking up his shoulder.

The only reason I could fathom that this worked was because the horse had no where else to go. I had the head bent and forward movement, the only place for the horse to go was away from me. That’s how I still feel about it, his only option to get away from me was by picking up his shoulder and moving his body away.

From there I was able to back him and do normal ground work, which caused his whole demeanor to change. I didn’t feel good about the whole process all I could feel was relief of breaking through. I only feel that the horse filled in for me and figured it out in spite of me. I felt out of position and completely inept the whole time, until the break through. I just know I will never go about a horse the same way again. If you have ever seen a respectable horseman work a horse, you never see them do any of the weirdness that I had done. That bothers me the most, was how rough and tiring the whole process was for the horse and myself.

The horseman that I desire of someday becoming is further away then I had ever realized. The main thing is that I learned from the horse to a point to where I will never repeat the actions that I took in that scenario. I am grateful to the horse for this teaching. I need to slow down and maybe completely switch gears based on where the horse is at, not only to get the break through, but to sustain my physical state as long as possible. Granted I am only 25 now, but I want to be learning and teaching horsemanship till the day I die.

The horse makes you reflect on everything from the moments dealing with the horse at hand, to every horse you have ever dealt with. Going back through the actions taken with the past horses and the moments where you wish you could go back and redo it based on what you have learned. After reflecting on all the past horses you start to look at yourself and your timing, process, and other mishaps. Ultimately starting to form a outline for particular horses, knowing what to do with them just by watching them.

The one thing that I have really started to realize is that horses make you question everything about yourself. Always questioning you as if to make sure you are 100% confident in what your doing. Not only with them, but in everything in your life. I often find myself, after learning moments from such horses, that I reflect upon my whole life and how I have went about everything. Sometimes second guessing the way I act, think, move, and go about my daily life. Ultimately either reassuring what I think is right is right, or changing what I think is incorrect. Little by little as I progress, based on these moments, so does my horsemanship.

In the end its all about the progression of the human, because the horse is perfect to begin with. I often think of it as human-ship rather then horsemanship. Reflecting first on my actions and what I needed to do differently to avoid any issues, rather then causing an issue based on my personal state. For me it usually boils down to patience and situational awareness.


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