jason-vanlandingham-a-vintage-smoke
Jason Vanlandingham has built a successful program that focuses on building horses up to their peak and easing off during downtime. • Photo by Kate Bradley Byars

LEARNING CURVE: Peak at Prime Time With Jason Valandingham

For Jason Vanlandingham, keeping 3-year-olds primed and ready for futurity season means stair-stepping them up and down to ensure the horse peaks at show time.

Article & photos by Kate Bradley Byars 

From August to December each year, reining horse trainers are at their height of stress and training preparing 3-year-old horses for the big-money futurities. Having a young horse ready to show at a specific time means building confidence, physical fitness and skills, according to Whitesboro, Texas, trainer Jason Vanlandingham.

No stranger to the show pen, Vanlandingham is a two-time National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Futurity Level 4 Open Champion with more than $1.9 million in earnings. His continued success is attributed to a consistent program that defines what he expects from a horse and how he expects a horse to perform.

The horse show is the test and everything he does prior, the homework.

“For me, before I ever get to the horse show, I want everything ready to go,” he said. “I don’t want to be rushing around to make maneuvers work. If I show up at a horse show and they can’t stop or turn around, I’m in trouble. The idea is to get our homework done.”

Here, Vanlandingham lays out the details of his program and offers advice on how to handle three common show pen issues.

Whether warming up or putting in a downtime workout, Vanlandingham sticks to repetitious fundamental work, such as neck reining and guiding.
Whether warming up or putting in a downtime workout, Vanlandingham sticks to repetitious fundamental work, such as neck reining and guiding.

The Philosophy

At a show, Vanlandingham won’t use his entire hour-long schooling time to drill one horse over and over on a single maneuver. Rather, his program focuses on having the horse prepared so that in one or two spins and stops, he has the horse primed to walk into the show pen.

“I want them mentally and physically prepared so I can actually back off coming into futurity time,” Vanlandingham said. “I want them rested and relaxed mentally. If I can do those things, then the horse is able to perform at the highest level.

Many show-time issues are easily corrected so the horse can continue at a peak performance level, but only if a solid foundation is there to build on. Three problems Vanlandingham sees regularly are: a horse that doesn’t guide well through the middle; a horse that wants to lean on the rundown; and a horse that isn’t performing up to expectations.

The basis of Vanlandingham’s guiding cue is to lay the outside rein on the horse’s neck, which should result in the horse’s head, neck and feet moving away from the contact.

1. Get Guidance

With ride No. 1, Vanlandingham sets clear expectations of what he wants the horse to do in response to his cues. One such cue is the neck rein. When he puts the outside rein against a horse’s neck, he wants the horse’s head, neck and feet to go away from the pressure. However, a horse that is getting show smart often starts to drift or look away in the middle of the arena where a lead change occurs.

“The good horses learn where you do what in different parts of the arena,” he explained. “They anticipate the lead change in the middle; they anticipate where you’re going to turn for the rundown. Those are the things you have to work on after a horse show. We focus on no lean in the middle and that the horse is mentally focused on the direction you’re telling them to go.” 

Vanlandingham said that even if a horse is moving in the right direction with its body, when the head or eyes are looking elsewhere, it is not mentally connected. He refocuses a horse by reiterating his cue.

“In the middle, I want the horse looking the direction we are going. If the horse is looking away, I guide them more and refocus the circle. I want the horse to wait for me to give them the cues,” he said.

“Whenever I guide my horse, I want the outside rein to come across the neck. I don’t turn loose until the horse looks in the direction we are going; then I don’t turn loose until they look and relax the neck.

“My horses understand when the outside rein touches the neck, they need to have the feet and head going in the direction and also relax. My horses understand what that means through consistent pressure and release of pressure in a consistent place in the arena. You shouldn’t have those issues if you’ve done your job training, but them anticipating the lead changes, that will happen.”

Where many riders tighten up and believe the slightest movement will illicit the wrong reaction from their horses, Vanlandingham loosens up. He moves his legs and lets his seat loosen up. He is baiting the horse to make a mistake.

“A horse is waiting for any sort of cue at all. I loosen my body up and get wiggly through the middle,” Vanlandingham said. “That helps desensitize a horse to any cues you may give to change leads. I dare a horse to make a mistake. I want them to make it so I can fix it. If I avoid the opportunity to potentially create a mistake, then I’m never going to correct anything.”

He advises riders to remember their job is to guide and ride through the middle, not expect the horse to do the work. As a trainer, Vanlandingham has taught his mounts the correct body position and correct response to cues. Now, he needs to not only sit the horse but also ride it thoughtfully.

“A lot goes on from the waist down,” he said. “You can’t forget to ride your horse. Your job is to ride through until it is time to set up and change [leads]. As a rider, you also need to make sure you’re doing your job so you’re not confusing the horse. Remember, it is all about the horse knowing, confidently, what you want them to do. Whenever a horse is making mistakes, it is [many times] coming from you even if you don’t realize you’re doing it.”

2. Lose the Lean

Vanlandingham corrects a leaning rundown.
As he loops around the end of the arena, if Vanlandingham feels the horse lean to the inside, he draws it to a walk and walks to the far fence. Then, he lopes off and starts the rundown again. • Photo by Kate Bradley Byars

Control around the ends is vital to setting up a successful rundown. Vanlandingham has dealt with horses that have learned to lean or take off prior to the rundown. How the horse completes the turn into the rundown is something he works on regularly.

“You don’t want to be drifting around the ends or dropping the shoulder as you make the turn,” he explained. “The horse has to turn the corner to go and be lined up; if the horse is leaning to the outside, it is going to be very, very hard to recover from that. The horse will be diving to the side and will hit their front end when they stop and fall apart. If the horse doesn’t hit the [rundown] line, I just guide a circle around to go again.”

Rather than make it a complicated request, Vanlandingham keeps his cues simple. He rides with his legs, seat and hand to guide the horse and to ask it to shape up around a corner.

“If I come out of the corner and the horse leans to the outside, I am going to draw into the ground, softly turn to the inside and make the loop to do it again,” he said. “If the horse wants to drop their shoulder, I pick up [with my hand], draw to a walk and walk [straight] to the outside fence.”

Vanlandingham advises that every cue or correction to a misread cue is an opportunity to either build confidence or confuse a horse. His corrections are consistent, and he only adds intensity to a correction after two or three failed attempts. Once the horse makes the corner properly, he focuses on how it runs down the center.

“Once I start down the arena, I don’t want them to gain every stride,” he said. “I want to shift gears down the arena. If a horse tries to skip a gear, from third to fifth or something like that, I don’t rip them but rather draw down to third gear and lope down the arena. I want a horse to wait on me.

“Now, if a horse tries to run through my hands, I will draw a horse down and go back to start again. I don’t want to get into a pulling match with my horses. A small amount of pressure should be enough, but if they don’t respect that, I’ll take their feet away from them. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it so that it becomes a big deal and the horse gets scared. I don’t want a horse in fight-or-flight mode, but rather wondering what I am asking him to do.”

When a horse leaves the rundown corner with too much speed or too much lean, Vanlandingham corrects it by lifting the reins and making a loop. If the horse continues to lean, he adds a draw down and turns away from the leaning shoulder to emphasize his cue.

3. Fall Back to Basics

Even champions have bobbles. In 2018, Vanlandingham knew he had a good horse under him at the NRHA Futurity. In previous pre-futurity events, he and A Vintage Smoke scored plus-1 marks in the spins; however, the horse wasn’t turning as well as expected in the Futurity go-rounds. 

Instead of asking for more speed, Vanlandingham did the opposite with tact.

“I think I had pushed too hard for a [plus-]1.5 that I actually made it a minus-half,” he said. “After the semifinals, we snuck into the finals as the last horse back in.

“I broke him down like a 2-year-old and just worked on my first two steps in the turn. We showed Wednesday in the semifinals and Saturday in the finals. Thursday and Friday, I never even clucked in the turn. I walked in and out of the turn building his confidence, just like you would a baby. I made sure he was stepping properly and quieted the whole thing down. In the finals, he turned the best he had in months.”

Breaking a troubling maneuver down to the basics can go against a rider’s inclination to get after a horse that isn’t performing, but for Vanlandingham, slowing things down builds more confidence in the long run.  

“If you have a horse getting anxious, riding harder is not the key,” he said. “You can’t run it out of them; in the show pen they will run off. Make sure the horse is slowing down when you tell them to, and do quiet things on them rather than trying to wear them down.”

Jason Vanlandingham and A Vintage Smoke go back to basics.
When he and A Vintage Smoke were not connecting for a show-stopping turnaround during the 2018 NRHA Futurity, Vanlandingham went back to the basics. He focused on the first two steps of the turn. The result was a score that led to the NRHA Futurity Level 4 Open Championship.

Keys to Success

Having a horse ready to peak right at show time is a regular struggle for professionals and non-pros alike. However, keep in mind that physical fitness, mental confidence and good communication are the keys to preparing a horse.

“You don’t have to go full speed when you’re doing things every time,” Vanlandingham said. “That is part of maintaining peak performance, being smart about how you ride your horse and not overriding him. A lot of people think they are peaking their horse by running and stopping 20 times and spinning 200 times. That is just making them tired and grumpy.

“I consciously try not to override my horses at a show. That is how I maintain peak performance in my horses. If they go down and do it right, I leave them alone. If you maintain what you are doing, then you will have a horse confident in what you are asking. A horse that will last, that will like its job and that you will enjoy riding is a confident horse.”

Triple Crown winners Jason Vanlandingham and A Vintage Smoke.
Triple Crown winners Jason Vanlandingham and A Vintage Smoke.

ABOUT JASON VANLANDINGHAM

Equi-Stat Elite $2 Million Rider Jason Vanlandingham has nearly 20 years of Open earnings to his credit. Things really began to heat up in 2007, when he and Whizin Off Sparks captured the NRHA Derby Intermediate Open win. The rider won the title again in 2008 aboard Gallos Stylish Star.

Vanlandingham rode A Smokin Whiz to the 2011 NRHA Futurity Level 3 Open win, and starting in 2013, he piloted Not Ruf At All to many titles, including the NRHA Triple Crown. Since then, Vanlandingham’s winning streak continued with the 2018 NRHA Futurity Level 4 Open Championship and the 2019 National Reining Breeders Classic Level 4 Open Co-Championship on A Vintage Smoke. In 2020, the pair completed Vanlandingham’s second Triple Crown of reining, winning the Open NRHA Derby.

Also in 2019, Vanlandingham appeared on the hit TV show “The Last Cowboy” and competed at The Run For A Million in Las Vegas. Aboard A Vintage Smoke, he placed fifth in the Million Dollar Invitational, while also earning his way back to the event in 2020 with an Open Shootout Reserve Championship.

Vanlandingham lives in Whitesboro, Texas, with his childhood sweetheart, Adrienne, whom he married in 1996. They have four children — Alexus, Dalton, Courtney and Emma.

The article was printed in full in the October 15, 2019, issue of Quarter Horse News.