Keeping Your Attitude and Your Horse’s Fresh, by Sandy Collier
After returning from a major futurity, Sandy answered a few questions that will help everyone before and during a competition.
What do you look for in your selection of the right horse?
What’s important to me is how the moves, because the one who accomplishes the most with the least amount of effort is going to be the winner. A horse who is athletic and efficient in his movement has a presence about him that commands attention, even if he is not really pretty. As for conformation, I like them to be a little narrower in front than some people do. I look for a smart, kind eye and a willing horse who is intelligent and eager to learn and to please you. If they aren’t, in spite of all their training, they will never look like they enjoy what they’re doing and won’t be a winner. When riding, even on a green horse, I want their hindquarters to just drop beneath me–when I sit down and they stop. I find that they either have the ability or they don’t.
How do you keep their attitude fresh and willing?
I never fatigue a horse. That can bring on injuries and it takes away their enthusiasm. I remember that there is always tomorrow, and if a horse has gone at least a little way toward what I am trying to accomplish and the horse is getting tired, we stop. My theory is that I try to improve the horse 1 percent each time I ride them. I plan one little thing to work on each day. This has resulted in a very low injury rate and perfect results in avoiding a sour horse. Another way to keep them fresh is to give them variety. I ride them out on ranches, I have a big loping arena for them to lope on, we gather cattle, we work the cows, etc. When they come out of their stalls, they never know what they’re going to do that day.
How do you keep yourself fresh and excited about riding?
The same way I keep my horse fresh and willing. I do a lot of things beside ride horses. I run every day and play racquetball or squash. I take lots of adult education classes and work part time in the emergency room at the hospital, and I also have my real estate license. I am hooked on learning and trying something new and different. So, I strongly feel that a variety works very well for animals and humans alike, in keeping enthusiasm high.
What are your thoughts about being a woman in the horse training profession?
In some ways, it has advantages, as I don’t necessarily resort to physical strength as a solution to problems. I think we tend to make up for any lack of strength with fitness and creativity. When you can turn a potential weakness into strength, that’s great. Since horses are bigger and stronger than I am, rather than dominate them, I try to challenge them and get them to be enthusiastic and want to participate and be team players.
How do you encourage a horse to want to participate when basically he would rather do nothing?
Give the horse a choice, but make what you want to him to do more pleasant and give him lots of praise for succeeding. Then his confidence is raised and he will start volunteering, just like a kid in the classroom. I use the principles put forth by Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, the legendary colt starters who developed a system that is pretty stress-proof. This leads right from the round pen to a training program that allows the horse to make choices.
Is it more difficult for women to compete in these events?
When I first started showing, I thought men and women had equal opportunities to win, but I was mistaken. However, it has now changed a lot because of some fine women competitors who, in spite of the odds, kept turning up with great horses from their excellent training programs and they became highly respected because they have earned it.
What popular training techniques do you depart from?
There is a common theory that many subscribe to “peaking a horse.” In other words, getting the horse to improve steadily in his performance and timing it so he reaches his apex of performance right at the time of the major futurity, before he tapers back down. I don’t want my horse peaking at the futurity season. I want him solid; so I take him to a place in his training where he is really comfortable, and we form a solid foundation there. Then, no matter what happens, he can fall back on a solid foundation. If I have to ask them for one more inch during a futurity, they are confident and comfortable that they will revert to that spot if necessary, but not stress out and fall apart. Miss Rey Dry was happy and fresh and sound mentally and physically. Although I had shown her at five futurities previously, she never acted like she had been shown yet. She was still fresh. Since I must train a futurity horse to be able to compete in reining, cutting, and cow horse work, I have to teach them one way and make everything fit it in an orderly way. But this is really a tricky thing to do. With Miss Rey Dry, I did something a bit different. I rode her like a reiner on her dry work, so by March I was riding her in a shank bit with a jointed mouthpiece, one handed. We did all the moves that way (normally you use two hands with snaffle but training). I wasn’t helping her so much and she was making more of the decisions. I really think this made a big difference. When I did herd work, I rode her like a cutter ““ “˜one handed.’ I repeated these techniques, because I was really pleased. In a way, a horse is like a computer. If you put the right things in, step-by-step, in the right sequence, then when you push the right buttons, it all comes out and forms a pretty picture. If it’s crammed in there and you beat it in, you get a little picture of a bomb on your screen.
What bits are you happiest with?
For reining, I use a Billy Allen, a bit made by Greg Darnall that has a medium length shank and a little roller in the mouthpiece. The cutting bit is a short-shank correction bit and it has a mouthpiece that is broken in two places instead of just one. It puts a big whoa on them. The snaffle bit is the third bit I use.
How did you prepare for the futurity?
I increased my workouts at the gym, I can run for an hour effortlessly, and I have two high-ranking belts in Aikido and Kenpo karate. Along with that comes the mental high of being up and positive, and these are sustainable. I never went through the common pre-futurity stress syndrome. You have to learn to control the pressure on yourself. Instead of being obsessed with winning, vow to be the best that you can be on that day, on that horse. The winning will take care of itself. That’s what I did at the futurity. As we went into the herd work, I was aware of everything but distracting by nothing, rather than having tunnel vision. I learned this in martial arts training. The fact that there were 5,500 people there didn’t faze me because of the preparation I had done. I didn’t perceive it as pressure. I felt like I had a team behind me that wanted us to win and my horse knew it, too. It was like being on a crest of a wave, and we were going to ride it to victory.
How do you advise students to handle pre-show butterflies?
Get out of that fight or flight response, which is dysfunctional in the show ring. Convert it into enthusiasm and feel excited and challenged. Remember that, after all, this is not brain surgery. No one is going to die if you don’t do great. A positive attitude should become a way of life. Negative thoughts are your opponents. Feel like you’re a winner by reviewing your victories and your strong points. Having good mental skills is half the fight. Be relentless in pursuit of your goals. Have complete faith in your ability to be great. If you don’t completely believe in yourself, you will never get past mediocrity. You don’t make excuses and you don’t cast blame. Everyone loves winning but you must love the struggle to get there.
About Sandy Collier: AQHA Professional Horseman Sandy Collier is the only woman to win the National Reined Cow Horse Association World Championship Snaffle Bit Futurity Open Championship. She is an AQHA World Champion and International clinician and judge and was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame last year. Many training videos and advice can be found at: www.SandyCollier.com
[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 5, Issue 12.]
Tell us your favorite way to prepare for the show pen – do you have a ‘mantra’ or something that you do every single time before you enter the showpen?
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