Cornbread Thinks: Who Started That Horse?

We are approaching the halfway mark on this year’s National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Futurity. If you have been here, you have seen a lot of horses work – outstanding ones, good ones and some embarrassingly bad. What everyone is looking for is the future, which is kind of why we call it the “Futurity.” Last month, I mentioned the 600 or so days a trainer has to get a horse ready for the Futurity. Not a minute is wasted or rushed. Everything is done just right, in order and in time. 

Right off, horses must be taught that the ugly-looking wood and leather thing is not a saber-toothed tiger that, when it lands on their back, is trying to take them to the ground. The fastest way to get this done is to slow down. This is called “ground work” (because it is done from the ground).

Cutters can put a “turn” to words better than anyone. Part of getting a good turn is putting bend and flex in a horse early. Many trainers will “set their heads,” teaching them how to use their heads to add power and leverage to a stop and a turn. They’re becoming comfortable, automatic and precise. A rider works on calming fears, but not numbing them. It’s all about creating respect, building a bond between human and animal, and giving them purpose, a job.

Cutting would be infinitely easier to learn if it was a single line of learning – step one followed by step two – instead of steps one through six, then back to step two, section G, then step three, section D, subsection five. The more you learn, the less you know. It’s one long remedial learning experience. And it’s very frustrating for a pony who has just been hanging around for two years eating treats from the nice lady.

We see who rides these young horses to the herd. Often, that is not who trained them; there are lots of “catch riders.” Even when the person going to the herd did most of the training, he is often not who “started” it. Starting a 2-year-old is dangerous. There are laws no one can break. The laws of gravity and averages are two of them. Even if they aren’t trying to get rid of you, they can just fall down. They are not any lighter when it is an accident, either. All this means is there is a special person in your horse’s career, and this person is often unknown.

This person is the layer of the cornerstone, that rock from which the biggest of buildings is built, that foundation which keeps it all together. No matter how much “cow” a horse has, no matter how bad he wants to head that cow, no matter how bad he wants to come out of that turn even with the cow, if his feet aren’t set to push off, if that head has to go three extra inches, if the momentum isn’t there… if, if, if. I hate that word, but those “ifs” are the difference between glory and taking clean clothes home. 

Teaching horses to be athletes is discovering their abilities, measuring their talent, finding their personalities, solving the puzzle – a puzzle with 50,000 pieces and no guarantee they are even all there. There is no instruction book, no formal schooling. There are no classrooms, at least not ones without a dirt floor. For most, it is a fascinating process, an “old world” craft.

It is learned from others, others who have deemed them worthy. Coupled with what God gave them, some of this knowledge is centuries old. (Truly, centuries.) Plenty started learning while in diapers, others when their bull riding career wasn’t happening. No two are exactly the same, but they are exactly alike. The differences can be hair thin or miles apart. One will spend 10 days on the ground, another an hour or two. One will start tracking cows the moment they have some control, others wait 120 days. None the same, they go by what “feels” right. Women and men, young and old, there is only one hard rule: They must be taught all they can be taught.

People want to know how much money the great-granddam’s sister’s third cousin won, but they rarely ask, “Who started this horse?” These are names known to trainers and experienced owners, but never heard otherwise. It requires a lot of learning and a lot of intuition. Know this, though – it must be done right, and not everybody can.

Cornbread Thinks: Learn who starts the horses you like.