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Table of Contents

1. Western Horseman Magazine article Nov 2007... ?
2. How to correct a wrong lead ... ?

3. Wasn't spooky before ... ?
4. Why does my horse pin her ears at the lope ... ?
5. What new mustang owners need to know is ... ?
6. What is the best way to teach a horse to tie that... ?
7. When I ask for flexion my horse resists and... ?

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Q: Western Horseman Magazine Readers Questions for Matt... ?

A: Matt was selected as the first clinician to assist Western Horseman with writing a new section for the periodical. This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue. [Reproduced with express written permission from Western Horseman Magazine.]

I’m an experienced horseman in the market for an unstarted prospect, and willing to take on a training challenge. What are the pros and cons of adopting a Mustang?

One of the things I appreciate most about wild horses is the fact that they come with few bad people habits. However, a mustang’s temperament and trainability is not always discernable from the other side of the fence. Mustangs have the ability to go out on the trail and into the hills comfortably. They are sure footed and are generally not bothered by natural surroundings. Unnatural obstacles on the other hand can be an issue for a percentage of these horses. Mustangs are affordable to purchase, however, gentling and training can ultimately make them more expensive. Allow yourself extra time when initially working with a wild horse. If you have only ever worked with domestically raised horses, you may want to seek the support of an experienced mustang handler.

I have observed that many wild horses have good feet and straight legs. This minimizes the need for shoeing and future soundness issues. Mustangs from different areas of the country may have different conformation depending on what breeds have influenced the gene pool. Evaluate conformation for your event when adopting.

For more information on training and owning mustangs I recommend events like the Wild Horse and Burro Expo held in Reno, Nevada each year. You can also go online to

A riding coach used to instruct me to keep my feet parallel to the horse, with my heels down. To me, it feels safer and more natural to point my toes out just a little, as long as my spurs don’t accidentally touch my horse. What’s the correct foot position for a Western rider, and why?

I was taught at a young age to point my toes straight and I try to do so when I ride. The primary reason for this is to keep riders from using the spur or heal unnecessarily.

An exercise that I have my students practice to improve foot position in the stirrup is to have them stand in the stirrups and point the toes at the shoulders of the horse. It acts as a stretching exercise for your leg and will enable you to be more comfortable maintaining straight feet. Practice standing and pointing your toes at the horses shoulders at a stand still, walk and the trot. You will find that this exercise strengthens and refines your leg contact with your horse as you relax your leg again.

In the case of western saddles, stirrup leathers often need to be turned by a saddler. Use of a broom stick between the stirrups breaks the grain of the leather but does not reposition the actual stirrup. The turned stirrup leather will enable a person to ride with less pressure on the knee and ankle.

My young kids are about to start riding. As a parent, what kind of “lesson plan” should I follow to ensure they get the right start?

In my opinion, children need to learn ground work before they are ever put in the saddle. This means they need to learn how to catch, halter, and lead the horse correctly. I taught my daughters how to approach horses, where to stand when haltering and how to tie a horse up before they started riding.

Once they began to ride I kept lessons short, no more than 30 minutes, and fun. It is important to teach kids correct hand and leg position first. I like to have them ride with two hands before they ride with one hand. Two handed riding enables them to correct a problem that they may encounter while riding. This practice also keeps them from dragging on the horse’s face when turning and stopping. To improve leg position, I help them learn to keep their legs forward and slightly bent because kids’ legs tend to curl up behind them. I teach children to pull their toes up. They seem to understand this easier than the traditional “heals down”. I like to use games like “Tag” and “Follow the Leader” to support correct riding. Children learn from imitating my actions during play.

While children do not need to know how to do everything, a foundation of correct lateral turns on both the hind quarters and forehand are important. Teaching them how to back correctly and get some collection is beneficial.

Finally, when choosing a trainer, I recommend visiting and observing several instructors in action. See if they are safety conscious and will meet your child’s equestrian needs.

We’ve all been told to end riding sessions on a good note. But when a new maneuver—say, introducing the sidepass—just isn’t coming together, and it’s clear the session isn’t going to be remotely successful, what should a rider do?

As riders, we often have a presupposed goal or outcome in our minds. When things are not going well it is time to reassess the goal. The first thing to do is back off from what we wanted to accomplish. The pressure that is created in a training session can be too great for the horse or rider. Next evaluate what has gone well. Maybe there were many good stopping points in the training session but the focus was on the end product not the steps towards the end goal. Finally, it is important to go back and build from what was working. When the horse and rider experience success in the process, it is more likely that the goal will be reached.

In the example of the sidepass, there may have been times when the hind quarters were yielding a step or two or the horse took a lateral step well. All of these movements were successes. If it seems that nothing has been accomplished then the task may have been too great for the horse or rider at that moment. Possibly the horse is repeatedly bumping a pole on the ground, or unable to stand still. At this point it may be better to take a short break and review what skill is lacking in the horse and/or rider. Both the tension of the horse and rider will be less following a short time out. Upon return the rider should address the most basic missing skill and consider it progress when the horse begins to respond in the desired fashion. It is best to quit while the horse is still trying to do the maneuver than after it has completely shut down both mentally and physically.

I’ve worked with Quarter Horses all my life, and often hear negative comments about other breeds. If a horse has the temperament and conformation I like, does its color or breed status really affect anything negatively?

When I was a boy my grandfather overheard me verbally bashing breeds other than Quarter Horses. He had won multiple national championships with many different breeds in his career. These are the words he shared with me. “Never put down another breed until you have trained, worked with and completely understand that breed.” Those words have stayed with me my whole life. While there are breeds that I personally don’t work with on a regular basis, I have learned to appreciate all breeds of horses. His words enabled me to learn to be successful with horses that others had failed with. I enjoy each horse for what he is and not what his papers or lack there of say about him. Any breed that enables you to accomplish your riding goals is appropriate for you as a rider.

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Q: My young horse often takes the wrong lead when loping to the right. How can I fix this?

A: This is a problem that will come up often with horses that are leaning on the bit or with a shoulder. We often refer to this as dropping a shoulder. To take the correct lead consistently, a horse must drive from the hind leg. Many horses that I observe are taking the lead from the shoulder. While this may work most of the time, it can be problematic particularly when showing.

I would recommend doing a few things. First get the horse softer in the face. Focus on getting the horse balanced in the bit. In other words, he needs to have an appropriate amount of elevation in the neck, be even between the reins (not leaning left or right) and his flexion should be on the vertical. If he over-collects or pushes on the reins he is trying to escape the pressure. This will cause him to "leak out" in the body and take the wrong lead.

Once the horse is square and soft, work to be able to push the hip with your outside leg to the inside of the circle. When the horse will do this you should have a better lead departure. Be careful not to let the horse tip his head to the outside of the circle as this will cause him to drop the shoulder. I like them looking slightly inside the circle when taking a lead. Keep in mind that you are working to elevate the shoulders and drive the hind quarters up into the lead.

In some cases it is a good idea to take the horse to the round corral and observe how he takes his leads both left and right. Some colts struggle with a lead because of lack of experience or some physical reason. When they take the wrong lead in the round corral we can see it and correct it from the ground. When very green horses catch the wrong lead in the round corral I will drive them up to the lead when I am on the ground. If I am in the saddle, I prefer to slow them by tipping their head to the rail until they slow down and then approach the lead again. By doing this the colts weight is bearing to the off-lead shoulder. When he breaks gait you can then encourage him to take the correct lead again tipping his nose to the inside of the circle. Don't get discouraged. This can take a few tries with some of the stickier horses.

One last thought: Should you be riding a three year old (or there abouts), check his teeth. I have had colts that had teeth problems that were taking the wrong lead due to pain or discomfort. Switching to a bosal for a while or getting the problem fixed will often help.

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Q: When I first got Henry he seemed to be really well sacked out. I wondered how you went about doing that. Now he's afraid of plastic blowing and that sort of thing. When I got him he wasn't even afraid of a gigantic bag of cans. I'm thinking that maybe it was a matter of his just getting around more. Do you think that's it?

A: When I had Henry I was riding him four to six days a week on average. I also hauled him all over the place. He went to Oregon and all over California with me. Part of a horse staying "super tuned" is the process of using them regularly and teaching them always. He always had ample curiosity in him so I just encouraged it. Often horses will seem to lose their curiousness because of the way in which we ride them as well as the amount of riding that they get. Horses that work hard often don't have time to find as many excuses. By working hard, I mean to engage the mind. No amount of sacking out fixes that. This is accomplished through any number of exercises that requires both the horse and rider to use their brains. As a matter of fact the most he ever got in the way of sacking out was the occasional flagging I did on him with other horses or to practice moving him in his ground work. (ground work the way I do it-now there is a whole other subject) In other words, his sacking out was practical experience. I don't even sack horses out anymore. I expose them to a lot of things and let them learn to handle it. I am supporting the horse so he can experience success without me making him do it or learn it or tolerate it. Most of this is done from the saddle. Horses are not by nature spooky. This may sound contrary to everything you have ever heard. I believe that horses are reactionary. They respond to their environment. They have to or else they become dinner for a lion or something. This behavior can be turned into curiosity in anything. Sometimes to sack a horse out means to remove his nature and inquisitiveness.

I once had a lady that told me she knew of a trainer that could "bomb proof" a horse in ten days. I told her it was a lie. She asked why and I told her that the truth is that good horses have to be refreshed and maintained just like good people. If I rode only once a month, how good would I be at doing dressage, jumping, cutting or reining? Not very! So goes the story of the lady with the ten day wonder. Her horse came back 100 pounds lighter, skinned up and standing very still....for about a month. After that the horse became worse than before the great work was done. Why? Because the horse was forced to learn and not given the chance to learn. As we all know forced learning is not learning at all. When learning is made interesting with just enough challenge. it becomes a pleasure. The end result was a horse that got the lady hurt more times after the so called bomb proof training than before it.

So how to “unspook” a horse that used to never spook? Go back to basics for both you and the horse. Start working his brain and focus more on engaging him actively instead of reactively. Give the horse lots of little jobs that bring him back to you instead of an excuse to focus on the things that scare us. By scare us I mean that these things that never bothered us suddenly bother us because our horse responds to them and after all he weighs 1200 pounds! That would scare me! Be aware of your surrounding but more aware of your horse. Ask the question of yourself: How can I be a support to this poor defenseless prey animal? When you can answer that, with or without a trainer, you will know the answers to so much more than can be written in volumes of books or e-mails for that matter.

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Q: I have come across a problem I can't decipher. Every time I move (my horse) into a lope she pins her ears and knacks. My first thought is that the saddle hurts her but when she is out on the trail she lopes just fine. Is this something that needs something fixed or is this attitude on her part?

A: Yes your problem can be addressed. It is a combination of attitude and riding. I had a bay mare that was a little that way too. There are a few things I do. I work to get the horse soft while moving up in speed. This is usually done at an extended trot. I work to get the horse to move forward and collect waiting for the horse to more or less initiate the lope. The crankiness happens sometimes when horses sour a bit in the round pen or arena. In that case, I either back off the work I am asking for them to do (lower expectations) or I push them harder (raise them). Which you need depends on the horse.

Try lower expectations first, i.e.: softening and moving forward at the trot. I will often ask the horse to keep trotting faster until a lope happens. This is known as tipping a horse into a lope. Remember though that the goal is a fast trot that just happens to become a lope. "You will work at this for quite a while sometimes." By quite a while I mean maybe 45 minutes to an hour. This is best done in series-daily for a couple days or more. Consistency is the real key here. I am looking for the horse to pick her back up and keep the shoulders square. If she drops a shoulder or is hollow backed it only makes the problem worse.

If that does not seem to work you can try expecting more. Push her a lot harder than she acts like she wants. "Light a fire under her". The second approach is less desirable because then you have to go back and help the horse slow down again later. If a horse has had a while to get resentful about being asked, this is sometimes the approach that is needed. What we are doing here is changing attitude and mind. (The first mentioned method we are shaping the horse or framing.) Once the horse has been "scared" up into a lope and believes that you mean business then you go back and readdress the softness and roundness that you were asking for in the first method.

The number on rule! Do not peck at your horse. Too often the resentfulness comes from pecking and sort of asking, instead of insisting or asking firmly. Do the old saying: Say what you mean and mean what you say. In this case you legs are doing the talking. Also, clear communication is always easier in theory than in application, so be patient with yourself and your horse as you work this out.

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Q: What new mustang owners need to know... ?

A: When working with a wild horse remember to treat him like a wild horse. Most of the time, the horse has not lived in close proximity to humans. Its reactions and way of responding to stress can be much different than that of domestically raised horses. Keep in mind that biting, striking and kicking are not bad habits. The mustang will use these as a way to tell the handler that they are uncomfortable or defensive. Do not punish a horse for these behaviors in the process of gentling it.

It is best to use an extension of ones own arm to first touch a wild horse. A pole or whip with a small flag can be used to establish first touches. Use them to gently reach the animal and protect oneself from possible bites, strikes or kicks. Continue to use this tool until the horse relaxes. Look for licking and chewing or a bowel movement as a sign to back off or take the pressure away. These are para-sympathic responses to pressure and need to be honored every time.
Do not sneak around the wild horse. This behavior will only make them more suspicious. Instead, move around normally and as fluidly as possible. Smooth movement is reassuring and will act to calm rather than alarm the animal. The predators that hunted these animals in the wild probably did a lot of sneaking. The more one can exhibit confidence, the quicker the horse will settle and gentle.

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Q: What is the best way to teach a horse to tie, (especially) one that has broken three halters and two lead ropes?... ?

A: When working with a horse that has experience with pulling back the first thing that needs to be addressed is not a gimmick that will help us survive or avoid to problem but a program that will provide the horse with a way to deal with his panic. Why do horses pull back? Simply stated, they feel trapped. Much like “cinchy” horses or those that won’t load in a trailer, we are dealing with an issue of the feet. The horse senses that it is unable to move the hind feet.

Horses pull back, won’t load, or are cinchy because they do not feel that they have a way to move their feet that is productive. Because of this we see sometimes explosive behaviors. How should the horse move? By getting the horse to move its hind quarters laterally from left to right, we are providing a positive way to move. Watch a pull back horse some time. The first thing that happens is the weight shifts into the back feet. Next the horse hits the end of the lead rope and either bounces forward or breaks the restraining device.

In order to teach a horse to release off of pressure, it is best to start out free of the tie rail. Get the horse to move the hind quarters around the fore quarters. This is accomplished by bending the head and neck and driving the hind end away from pressure. (For more information, refer to my article on the one-rein stop in July) While I find that accuracy in teaching this is form of yielding is important, being general will get a person 90% of the way there. When teaching the horse to move the hind quarters use a verbal cue and a tool that reinforces the desired motion, such as a dressage whip, flag or other tool. These tools teach and enable the horse to respond to pressure in an appropriate way. When do you reinforce your cue? Every time the horse does not respond to the “cluck” then the physical reinforcement is added. It is important to teach this because when the horse is tied up and attempts to pull back there needs to be a series of steps to alter the behavior.

So why not just use a gimmick such as a bungee cord, tie ring and tire rubber to make things easier on the horse? By teaching new behavior you are contributing to the horses training. The first time the horse is tied up it will return to the behavior it knows best. Don’t be afraid to let the horse pull back but be sure to have pre-taught the desired response. When the horse first pulls back, “cluck” to request that the hindquarters move laterally. Next, if the horse continues to pull, use the physical tool to reinforce the desired response of a lateral move in the hind end. When the horse finally moves the hind quarters laterally, rub the horse and be reassuring as if the horse did things perfectly.

Be prepared to repeat these lessons over and over. Horses learn through repetition. This is how the original behavior came into being. The horse experienced success by pulling back. The horse now needs to learn to be successful in standing tied. Being able to escape even a little bit supports undesirable behavior. A horse that is able to pull back even a little bit can never be fully trusted when tied.

I have experienced great success with a number of really bad pull back horses by following these steps. Many of these horses not only pulled back but where also known for flipping over, falling over, choking themselves or even coming over the top of the tie rail. Over a period of time the horses became responsible for standing tied without pulling back. Because they had a way to respond to pressure, they did not require continual monitoring. A horse that is able to move its feet is far less likely to pull back.

As a handler, always invest in good training tools. A sturdy nylon or other blended lead rope without snaps or clips, and sturdy halter (preferably rope type) are highly recommended. Use of a web halter, cotton lead or other material that has a “weak” point in it will not enable the handler to experience ultimate success. Always carry a sharp knife to cut a horse or rider out of a dangerous situation. Better to ruin a little rope than to experience serious injury.

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Q: Western Horseman Magazine Readers Questions for Matt... ?

A: Thanks for writing. I want you to consider a couple of things before I give you my answer for how to increase softness. Not knowing your horse I would ask when was the last time her teeth were examined and floated? Also, I would like to know what kind of bit you are using when working on lateral flexion? My reason for these two questions is that these can be contributing factors to a lack of softness in our horses. I like to keep my horses teeth floated about every 6 months on 2- 8 year olds and also on horses over 12. Also, when I have a flexion problem, I will often go back to the snaffle bit with no leverage cheeks.

Having said this let's address your concerns about flexion, softness, and dropping his shoulders. When correcting a problem always remember to work only one aspect of the problem at a time. Don't try to address flexion, softness, shoulders, size of circle, head set or elevation all at once. You will only frustrate yourself and your horse by tackling it all. Instead let's work on the biggest concern, flexion, first. Then we can address shoulder and circle size, finally we can concern ourselves with his head set.

When making a circle start with what I call a leading rein. That is a rein hand that is held at about saddle horn height and well to the inside of the circle. The rein should be also in front of your knee when doing this. Think of leading rein as a rein position that is forward of the whithers. As you do this do not concern yourself with the size of the circle. As you offer for your horse to make a circle, use your inside leg by bumping with rhythm gently but obviously to encourage give to the bit pressure. Your leg supports creating bend in the horses body rather than in his face only. At the first sign of any give, no matter how small, release the rein and praise your horse by rubbing his neck rather than patting. As your horse starts to give to light consistent pressure on the bit with a bump from the inside leg you will start to achieve both flexion and softness.

In order to eliminate the shoulder dropping you will need to maintain proper leading rein position with your hand. This is best achieved by keeping your hand held like an ice cream cone and also turning your elbow up slightly. You may have heard the first part but the second about your elbow keeps you from dropping your arm which supports the dropping of the horses shoulder. If I have a horse that drops the shoulder excessively I will raise my leading rein hand slightly higher to support holding the shoulders staying up. With horses that are very heavy on the front end it will take some time to get the shoulders where I want them. As a rider this requires persistence on your part.

The last part about circle size should almost come naturally if you are able to maintain softness and roundness in the body and keep the shoulders up. Circle size is defined by our legs and only guided by our hands. I have been using a little saying this year that is a spin on an old one....."Direct and Drive, don't Direct and Drag". In other words, if you can create an idea for the horse by directing his nose and then driving him there with your leg you will accomplish far more than directing his nose and then dragging his whole body through his nose. Most riders that I encounter believe they are directing and driving but really are directing and dragging.

By adjusting your level of direction and driving you will tell the horse how big of a circle and what direction that circle is to go in.

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