Is Your Horse’s Head in The Game? by Richard Winters
Richard Winters – Many years ago I lived right across the street from the national reined cow horse Hall of Fame member Tommy Sondgroff. I was a young horse trainer with a small stable trying to raise my young family. Tommy was gracious enough to give me some young horses to start and was always willing to help me with my horsemanship.
On one occasion, after delivering a young horse back to him, he made the following comment: “Richard, after a month you have these colts going really well. They can walk, trot, lope, stop, back up and move off your leg. That’s all great. However, you’re missing one thing. These colts are not soft in their face. When you pick up the reins, they don’t break at the pole and yield their heads back to your hands. That’s a missing piece in your program.”
I wasn’t immediately able to go out and fix that “missing piece” in my horsemanship program. However, 25 years later I now know exactly what he meant. Today head and neck control and having a horse soft in their face is a top priority in my training program and my horses early development.
If a horse will not stay soft in their face when you are guiding and directing them, you’re probably not going to like the feel of any maneuver you’re trying to perform. If a horse is stiff in his face and sticks his nose up and out, there’s a pretty good chance that he is also hollow in his back and not in an athletic frame. It’s all about developing a soft feel. It’s the ability for me to pick up on the reins and have my horse soften and come back to my hands saying, “Yes sir. What can I do for you?” One of my mentors is fond of saying, “If a horse sticks his head above the saddle horn, all their brains run out into their neck and they can’t think!”
In my program, this all begins as my horse learns to back up. At first my horse just makes a connection to his feet and yields backwards when I pick up on the reins. However, as time goes on I’m also looking for him to get soft, break at the pole and bring his nose to a vertical position to the ground. At this point, I find value in using my legs along with my hands to achieve this softness. Pressing and releasing with my legs in harmony with my hands helps my horse to pick up his back and soften in his face as he yield backwards. When I have my young horse comfortably yielding his face in the back up, I’m now ready to ask for the soft feel with forward momentum.
When developing the soft feel with forward momentum it is important that you reward the slightest try and that you don’t get greedy with what you’re trying to achieve. When asking for beginning steps of what will ultimately be collection. I make the following promise to my horse. “Step forward into this bridle and give me your face. I promise I will give it back to you.”
To teach my horse the soft feel I hold with my hands and drive with my legs. At first it can be confusing for my horse as he feels like I am pushing on the brakes and the gas pedal at the same time. This is when you have to reward the slightest try. As I start my horse forward, if I feel the slightest softening and yielding in his face I immediately release and let him walk off on a loose rein.
Collection is a combination of vertical flexion with impulsion. We ask for vertical flexion with our hands and impulsion with our legs. Our hands slow down the front end while our legs speed up the hind end. Some trainers refer to this as “driving the horse up into the bridle”. Imagine a stick. It is dead and lifeless. However, if you could put something in front of the stick to hold it and then begin to push the other end of the stick, it would begin to bow. Now you can put a string on this bow and shoot an arrow clear across the valley. The stick now has life and energy. This is what proper collection does. We soften the face, drive from behind and the horse’s back comes up in an athletic frame.
This all needs to begin at the slowest speeds. I would never ask for a soft feel and vertical flexion at the trot if my horse were not comfortable traveling in a collected frame at the walk. And of course I would never ask for collection at the lope if he had not mastered this maneuver at the walk and trot. It’s important to understand that being in frame and collected is physically and mentally fatiguing for a young horse. If you ask for too much too soon, they will get tired and frustrated and start bracing and leaning on your hands. That soft feel that you were acquiring will quickly disappear.
How long will you need to work on developing this soft feel? The answer is forever. There will always be a tendency for your horse to be a little lazy and slip out of an athletic frame. Just like a human athlete, a coach needs to be there to insist on excellence and help the player become better than they would ever be on his or her own. If you’re looking for more refinement, collection and athleticism then it’s important that you get your “horse’s head in the game”.
For over 35 years Richard has dedicated himself to honing his horsemanship skills and to passing this knowledge on to others. Richard’s credentials extend from the rodeo arena and high desert ranches of the west to being a highly sought after trainer, horsemanship clinician, and expo presenter.
Richard Winters’ horsemanship journey has earned him Colt Starting and Horse Showing Championship titles. Obtaining his goal of a World Championship in the National Reined Cow Horse Association became a reality where he is also an AA rated judge. Another of Richard’s horsemanship goals was realized with his Road to the Horse Colt Starting Championship and then returning for 5 consecutive years, as the Horseman’s Host.
International travels include Canada, Australia, Mexico, Sweden, Scotland, Brazil, and Poland where he earned the European International Colt Starting Championship title. Richard is a “Masterful Communicator” with horses and humans alike!
For more information about Richard Winters Horsemanship and the learning opportunities available please go to www.wintersranch.com.
This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 6
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