It takes more than just the steering wheel to drive a car. A driver has to watch the road ahead, the road behind and what is going on in the side-view mirrors, in addition to operating the brake and accelerator. It is no different when riding a horse. A rider cannot depend solely on the reins to guide a horse. Matt Gaines, Equi-Stat’s No. 2 all-time leading rider, trainer and earner of more than $7 million in the cutting pen, explains how he uses leg position and cues to guide and reassure a horse in the show pen.
Consistency is key
“Tabula rasa” is an idea expressed in philosophic writings from Aristotle to John Locke, which theorized that humans are born “blank slates,” upon which conditions in their environment write their personalities and behavior; it favors the “nurture” in the nurture-versus-nature debate.
This ideology can also be applied to training horses. There is no doubt that a horse is born with a unique personality and abilities, an immutable nature, but it is what we, as owners and trainers, teach them, and write upon that blank slate, that helps develop them into successful individuals.
Gaines, Weatherford, Texas, said that this process starts on Day One of training and must be cemented with consistency and repetition.
“To train a horse, you have to do the same thing every day, every day, every day. Eventually, hopefully, they get it,” Gaines said. “But if you tell a horse to do this one week and then something different from that the next week, before long, they are confused.”
Using your feet to guide a horse, in conjunction with your hands, should be at the foundation of their training and continued, consistently, through the course of the horse’s career.
“You use your feet on them a lot when you start them and all the way through the training process, so my horses are comfortable with my feet,” he said. “It’s not something that I wait until it’s time to go show and now all of a sudden I’ve got my feet in them. I use them all along through training so they learn.
“Whatever I do with my hands I try to mirror with my feet because I want my horses to learn that if I pull my horse to the right, then I am going to use my left leg to push them through that turn and make them go to the right.
“I think the most important thing is consistency. You need to train your horses that way. If you take a horse that wasn’t trained with someone using their feet a lot and you go and start using your feet on them, then it’s going to drive them crazy. They are not going to understand,” Gaines added.
A rider’s leg isn’t just used to aid a horse directionally, but also to help it in its overall body position in reference to the cow and alignment going into a stop, making the horse better positioned to go into the turn.
“I use my feet to hold a horse up if they are wanting to fall off or if they are leaning on a cow a little bit. I’ll use my cow-side leg to pick that horse up, to pick up their shoulders, or scoot them away from a cow,” Gaines said.
“I’ll use my herd-side leg if I need to hold that horse up against a cow a little bit. When I use my herd-side leg to hold a horse up, I also try to square them back up as they come out of a turn, scooting their hip back up under them so I can send them straight into that next stop. I am also keeping them against that cow and challenging that horse a little bit. If you keep them against the cow a little more, they have to think a little quicker, they have to get ready a little quicker. It just makes them smarter.
“I think it’s our job as trainers and showmen to help that horse stay in the right position, be in the right position on a cow and in the right position when they go into the stop.”
The trainer said he doesn’t use his feet to punish a horse.
“It’s just more to teach and guide, to be there for them, to be an assistant. That’s basically what the rider is,” he said. “The horse does the work and we are just there to assist them to stay in the proper position.
“I feel like when it all comes together, they actually learn that [your legs are] a security blanket for them a lot of times. If they get a little lost then I can put my legs on them and they think, ‘Oh, OK. He’s here to help me,’ ” Gaines said.
A game of Simon Says?
Should the horse wait until the rider directs it to turn? Wait for every command? No. A horse should have some element of automatic steering.
“I want a horse to be a smart horse. I want a horse to be smart about a cow,” Gaines said. “I don’t want a horse to turn because I’m telling him to turn. I want a horse that’s smart and tries to hold a cow and does that on their own.
“No matter how ready you have one, there are a lot of situations that happen in a show pen. If you are fortunate to get through four runs and make the finals at the Futurity, somewhere in there they are going to be exposed to some things that they are not really sure how to handle.”
That’s where the leg cues come in handy.
“If you get in a little tough spot and your horse gets confused, you can put a little leg on them here and there and they think, ‘Oh, OK. This is what I need to do.’ If they are a little unsure, it helps them,” he said. “If they are comfortable with it, it will not only help them, but it will help them build confidence. You can reassure them that it’s the right thing to do.
“If you can help them a little bit and provide them a little security and let them know you are there for them, then it pays big dividends. It has for me in the past.”
As horses develop their style and progress in their show careers, is a rider’s leg still as important? The answer is yes, but for different reasons. The horses have been exposed to more situations and are better equipped to handle them.
“As they get a little bit older, they get smarter and they probably need less assistance. But there are also a lot of horses that, as they get older, they will want to cheat a little, so now you are using your feet for a different reason,” Gaines explained. “It’s more of a reminder to say, ‘Hey, you have to wait right here. You’ve got to be here.’ It’s not so much teaching a horse what they need to do or how they need to handle a situation. It’s more of a reminder to a horse that this has to happen before that happens.
“I think with a lot of horses, as they get older, they get more mature. If you go to cut a tough cow, I am just going to get out of their way. That goes for a young horse, too. If they are dead-on and they are smart, the best thing a rider can do is get out of the way and let that horse handle that. If you feel them get a little unsure in spots, then help them a little bit.”
A short cut
Stirrups have been on the rise in the cutting horse world. Gaines explains that shorter stirrups allow the rider to maintain close contact with a horse during a run and use leg cues more efficiently. With horses and riders facing faster cattle, timing is important.
“Shorty Freeman was the first person that made me shorten my stirrups and started making me understand how to use my feet and ride with a little shorter stirrup, like the style I have now. He was the one that really got me started in that direction,” Gaines said. “It puts me closer to that horse. If you need to use your feet right now and you are a second late, then you don’t get the desired effect. You use it and your horse thinks, ‘What was that for?’ ”
For a long-legged rider, shorter stirrups allow his legs to sit closer to the horse’s ribs.
“If they ride where [a shorter person] normally rides, their feet are so far away from a horse that they might have to come from two feet out to get to that horse, especially when a horse is moving and your leg flies out,” Gaines said.
It would be akin to trying to move someone out of the way of an oncoming car from inches away, or from 10 feet away. From a longer distance, you are probably going to use more force when you get to the person, and you may be too late to have an effect.
“By shortening those stirrups, it just brings you closer to that horse and it helps your timing. It keeps you from having to make a drastic move, coming from way out here and doing something that shocks your horse, to being right there. You can guide them and be part of that horse,” Gaines said.
He cautioned that a rider can have his stirrups too short, just as they can be too long. A rider must be sure to push his seat down in the saddle and not stand up in the stirrups in the stop, as that will tip him over the saddle. A rider cannot simply react to a cow stopping; he must anticipate the animal’s next move.
“A rider has to read a cow just as you want your horse to. Part of reading a cow is that when that cow goes to stop and that horse goes to stop, that rider has to stop, too,” Gaines said. “What happens a lot of times is the cow goes to stop, the horse goes to stop, and the rider is still going forward. So now they are up over the front and that’s usually because the rider doesn’t read the cow. The stronger you as a rider read that cow, the stronger your horse is going to read that cow.”
Judging Rule 8 in the NCHA handbook address the issue of visibly cueing a horse. While using your leg in the show pen is legal, there are restrictions.
Subsection C of the rule states that spurring a horse behind the shoulder shall not be considered a visible cue. However, a three-point penalty will be assessed each time a horse is spurred in the shoulder. A toe, foot or stirrup in the shoulder is considered a visible cue and will be assessed a one-point penalty.
Gaines cautions, however, that excessive use of a rider’s leg will affect a horse’s run content. The judges want to see that horse work the cow and be smart about it.
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