Building confidence in horses

Training Confident Cutters with Kody Porterfield

Kody Porterfield creates confidence in a young cow horse by keeping cutting simple.

In cutting, it’s all about the cow. Kody Porterfield adheres to that philosophy every day when he trains horses. Mixing old methods he learned from the famed Buster Welch and his grandson Dawson Burns with new techniques he’s gleaned from the likes of Equi-Stat Elite $1 Million Rider Tarin Rice, Porterfield builds confidence in his horses through simplicity. It’s all about the cow.

When a horse’s physical abilities are limited, its confidence can be the difference between making it to the show pen and becoming a reject. Similarly, confidence can propel a talented horse into the winner’s circle, while a lack of it may prevent the athlete from even making the finals.

“You can have the smartest horse or the horse with the most athletic ability, but if they don’t believe in what they do, then they’re not going to be able to do it in difficult situations,” Porterfield said. “Something I try to achieve with all of them is to get them to believe they can hold any cow or do anything on a cow. Then when I go show them, when I push them that extra bit, they step up and just do it because they believe so much in themselves.”

Kody Porterfield spends a lot of time outside to help a young horse find it's feet.
Porterfield begins his young horses’ training outside the arena. The varied terrain helps teach them how to use their feet. Photo by Bridget Kirkwood.

Training 2s

Building confidence starts from the beginning of a horse’s training. Colts started in Porterfield’s program spend at least 30 days being ridden outside before seeing a cow. One of the most important aspects of riding on the imperfect footing found outside of an arena is that the horse learns how to use its feet properly.

“Most of these horses were raised inside or on little pastures so when you take them out, they’re looking around, stumbling and don’t know how to move their feet,” Porterfield said. “If you get their feet good outside and they can travel good outside, then when they come into the arena, they should be ready to go.”

While working outside, a colt will also learn how to change direction from rein cues and how to move off the rider’s leg.

“You need them to be with you instead of it being you up there fighting with them. I only start them on a cow after I feel like they’re with me,” Porterfield said. “Before they see a cow, they’ll be able to stop, back up and turn around, but it’s when they get on a cow that they learn how to really do those things.”

The more a horse works a cow, the more broke it will become and the better its footwork will become, Porterfield said. For this reason, he doesn’t pressure his 2-year-olds to do too much, too quickly.

“The horse gets broke with the cow,” Porterfield said. “I don’t try to have my 2-year-olds doing a whole lot by the end of the year; I keep it simple to where they understand that their job is to travel, rate, stop, draw and turn with the cow. If we do it enough and the horse is smart enough, then they should be plenty trained by the end of two years.”

If given the choice between two equally talented 2-year-olds, Porterfield said he would select one that is less broke but tied to the cow over one that is well broke but not as cowy.

The most important thing for a young cow horse is being tied to the cow.
The most important thing for a young prospect in Porterfield’s program is that the horse gets tied to the cow. In time, a horse that reacts to the cow rather than waiting on the rider will have more confidence. Photo by Bridget Kirkwood.

“I used to think that was wrong, but after being around guys who win a lot, I’ve changed my mind. Now I know that the horse has to be tied to the cow,” Porterfield said. “I started with Buster Welch, and the minute you walked to a cow, they felt way broker than anybody else’s.

“Today, you can get on horses that are broke to death – that have had two years of training – but when you put an amateur up there, the horse won’t cut because the amateur doesn’t know what buttons to push or how to ride well enough to get that horse to cut,” he continued. “Buster always told me that no matter what, whether you’ve got your foot in their flank or their shoulder or what you’re doing is wrong, they’ve got to know their job, and the cow is going to teach them that. I truly believe in that.”

Being tied to the cow means the horse reacts to what the cow does rather than waiting to be told what to do by the rider. Having to wait on the rider makes a horse slower and erodes the horse’s confidence that it can read and control the cow.

“During the 2-year-old year, we need to get the point over to the horse that we’re the ones that make the cow go somewhere and as long as we’re applying pressure, the cow is going to go,” Porterfield said. “I teach them how to drive a cow, and they need to learn that they can push a cow, but that they can also get on top of a cow.”

At the most basic level, tracking (or following) a cow teaches the horse to stop and rate with the cow. If the cow stops but the horse doesn’t, the horse will run into the cow. If the cow slows down and the horse doesn’t rate (or slow down) with it, the horse will run into it or go past it.

“When that cow stops, the horse can stop – that’s the horse’s release; it’s where they get their rest. To me, that is the most valuable part of a 2-year-old program – when the cow stops, the horse stops. If you can get that done, then all the rest of it will come together,” Porterfield said. “I also try to teach them the different areas of pressure on the cow. For example, they need to learn that if I step them up to the cow’s right eye, the cow will move left.”

Helping a horse create a connection with the cow if it has spent a year only doing what the rider tells it to do can be difficult.

“It’s hard to get them thinking about the cow if they’ve spent a year thinking about what the guy sitting up on top of them is doing instead of what the cow is doing,” Porterfield explained. “I believe how that cow is presented to the horse from the start of their 2-year-old year has a lot to do with how successful it will be later on.

“Having them broke and being able to move them around really helps with getting their footwork right, but the cow always has to play the biggest role. If they’re tied to the cow but don’t have their footwork down due to them not being broke that well, then we can clean that up as much as its athletic ability will allow you to during its 3-year-old year if you need to.”

Kody Porterfield uses his hands and feet to help build confidence in his young cutting horses.
When working correctly, the cow tells the horse what to do. Porterfield uses his hands and feet to enhance his horse’s performance, but the mount’s desire to cut comes from the foundation he teaches early. Photo by Bridget Kirkwood.

Hands & Feet

The rider’s feet play an important role in training the horse. Three major ways the rider’s feet influence the horse are: telling the horse where to position its feet; speeding up the horse’s reaction to the cow; and slowing down the horse’s reaction to the cow.

From the beginning, Porterfield incorporates the cow into his process for getting a horse broke to his feet. Rather than initiating a stop, draw and turn with his feet, he allows the cow to dictate what the horse does and when. When the cow moves, Porterfield encourages the horse to react appropriately by using his own hands and feet.

“You create a perfect horse when they know where to put their feet, they’re comfortable with putting their feet in the right place and the cow tells them when and where to do it,” Porterfield said. “When the cow tells the horse what to do, they’re tied to the cow.”

Although Porterfield uses his feet to help enhance the horse’s performance, he doesn’t use his feet to make the horse cut.