In the third part of our futurity series, we look at how developing a balanced training program will benefit your horses at home and on the road.

Keeping it Consistent

You’ve found the perfect prospect and have set out to turn your prized colt into the futurity champion you’ve always dreamed of owning. But beware – training colts, especially for novice trainers, takes more care and comes with more challenges than many people would guess.

Champion futurity trainers Bo Hill, Kelly Yates, Kay Young and reigning Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Champion Brittany Pozzi have all experienced the inevitable ups and downs that come with training colts on a futurity year deadline. While their individual training methods all vary based on their own experiences and the demands of their personal schedules, they all agree that a consistent approach to training and maintaining your horse will help him do his best at home and on the road and will also help you balance your goals with what is good for your horse.

Consistency Breeds Consistency

Perhaps the most important element in any training program that is supposed to prepare young horses to run top times at futurities is the development of a consistent, daily routine.

“Consistency is the most important thing,” Kay Young says. “If you build consistency into everything that you do, then you build confidence in that horse, and you’re going to have a good, solid horse when you’re through – but you can’t be erratic and expect that horse to be consistent.”

There is no single way to turn a 2-year-old prospect into a fire-breathing futurity superstar. Regardless of what age you start a futurity horse, whether you give him all summer off or work for a month and give a month off, building a consistent training program is less about repeated drilling and more about the quality of the lessons taught. Quality teaching not only gives a horse time to digest all that it has been asked to learn, but also gives it time to grow and mature and simply be a horse.

“I think futurity people that are in it for the long haul start with a 2-year-old and spend a year and a half making that horse like his job,” says Bo Hill, “and being kind to him and bonding with him and preparing him to be a mature 4-year-old.”

The speed at which a colt progresses through any individual trainer’s program depends solely on the attitude and aptitude of each individual horse. Patience on the part of the trainer is vital throughout the training process, but especially so in the beginning.

“When I take them out to run, I let them go at the speed I feel they’re comfortable with,” Kelly Yates says. “I think that gives them confidence in themselves, and the more I take them and the more they’re comfortable with that speed, then I can take it up. I try to keep them real focused on what he’s doing. I take my time and let a horse build his confidence up at the speed he wants to go.”

Bo Hill
Trainers such as Bo Hill believe getting a futurity horse to compete at the highest levels takes time, patience and a consistent training program. Photo BHN File Photo.

The horse’s personality and the feedback she gets from it when she’s riding play a big part in Brittany Pozzi’s training program.

“You feel by the way they’re moving underneath you which horse is a more mature horse and which horse needs to be guided along a little better,” Pozzi says. “It’s nothing more than just riding them and knowing my horses and knowing their maturity level.”

It is important for young horses to be brought along at their own rate instead of trying to force them to advance too fast in order to hit a specific target date.

“I tried to do that,” Pozzi says, “and I’ve realized they are either ready to go or they’re not, and don’t try to force something that’s not going to happen.”

The best way to avoid forcing the issue with a colt is to simply back off and give them time to process what you are asking them to do. Making a futurity horse doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process with ebbs and flows, advances and setbacks that can only be overcome in time.

Sometimes the most effective way to handle a roadblock is to turn the horse out and let it relax for a while.

“I think it’s important that they get to be a horse,” Young says. “They may only get out for 2-3 hours, but they get some time to put their head down and be a horse.”

Time away from the grind of drilling and training is precisely what young horses need to keep from souring on running barrels. Allowing some mental downtime to regroup and recharge is necessary to keep them happy and wanting to try.

“Maturity has a lot to do with it,” Pozzi says. “I have horses that are more talented than other ones, but don’t do as well at the barrels because their mental maturity hasn’t kicked in yet compared to these other horses.”

One of Pozzi’s futurity mounts this year was not as mentally mature as his stablemates.

“I was not as concerned about his physical condition as I was focused on getting him to relax doing the pattern,” Pozzi says. “You want to get them mentally prepared.”

The methods of mental preparation are as varied as each trainer. Young walks the pattern 10 times for every time she lopes it, stopping her horses by a barrel and simply standing next to it for several minutes to teach the horse to relax at that spot. Yates prefers to ride in the pasture, letting her horses walk in the river near her training facility, cross over logs, anything to avoid over-exposure to the pattern.

“If all I did was go around the barrels day in and day out, I wouldn’t enjoy it either,” Yates says, “so I want to go out and ride and chase steers and chase calves, so when I take them into the pen, they’ll enjoy and focus on what they’ve supposed to be doing, instead of just drilling and drilling.”

Young shares a similar philosophy when it comes to working away from the barrel pattern.

“I like to think that I go forward all the time,” she says. “If I see one that’s not working a barrel right, I’ll back off and slow down on them and wait for them to figure it out. Instead of getting mad and making them do more, I’ll do less. I don’t run them on the barrels. I don’t ask them for their life at home. Even at the jackpots, I don’t ask them for everything they’ve got because I wasn’t to keep that edge for when it matters.”

Keeping the pressure off her colts is a philosophy that Pozzi shares.

“I don’t ride them over the summer,” she says, “and I don’t just ride them because they are standing there looking at me. I give them breaks. I give them really good breaks, and I let them just be horses.

“Before I go rodeo for the summer, I have them all loping the pattern. I turn them out for two or three months, and I come back, and it’s like they grow up in the pasture. I think a lot of people get wrapped up in the fact that, that horse is just standing there, and they think they need to be riding it, and I, personally, think that it is too much.”

Taking Home on the Road

Ensuring your horse is comfortable on the road is paramount if you want him to focus on his job and perform up to his ability and your expectations. The more you can make your horse’s road experience feel like home, the more comfortable your horse will be.

When Young is on the road, she keeps her feeding program the same and follows the same routines of riding and maintenance that she would at home. Hill does the same, but goes a step further by making her home barn feel as similar to an arena barn as possible.

“I don’t keep them turned out,” Hill says, “because when you’re at an event, they’re kept in a box stall and don’t get the opportunity to get turned out. I try to make my environment at home the same as it is on the road. I don’t change my feed. I don’t’ change my stall environment. I try to keep things pretty consistent for them.”

On the other hand, Yates, whose program is focused more on keeping her horses out and riding in open pastures during training tries to replicate those conditions on the road whenever possible.  

“If I’m on the road, and I want to ride,” she says, “if I can go ride in the pasture somewhere, I’ll do it. I don’t keep my horses at the Fort Smith grounds. I keep them at a friends. I can take them out in the pasture, I can put them on the walker, and I can let them roll. You want them to be relaxed wherever they’re at.

“The more places you take them and exhibition and get used to the noise, the more they’re going to focus on what it is they’re supposed to be doing because all of that is out of their system. They don’t even think about it, so when they go in, they’re thinking more about performing and focusing on the barrels.”

For Pozzi, the big difference comes just before and during the run itself. The mindset she carries into a run differs radically depending on whether she’s running a rodeo horse or a futurity horse.

“When you’re out here on your old rodeo horse, you’re going for first, and you’re doing everything you can to get by,” Pozzi says. “On your futurity horses, you’re wanting to make a good run and keep them together, and it’s a totally different mindset. I just go in there on feel rather than going in there to try to blast one off.

“When I get off the Open horse, I have to take a deep breath, and when I get on the colt, just ride them and feel them and don’t just go for it. I think it’s more of a me thing than it is them.”

For Hill, the key to performing as well on the road as you do at home comes down to a simple maxim.

“Just do everything you do at home o the road,” she says. “Don’t get to an event and change bridles or change saddles. Whatever you’ve done to prep that horse to be at the event, stick with it, and don’t go to that event if you don’t think you can win. If the horse isn’t ready, or he’s doing something silly, don’t go. Stay home. Don’t set them up for failure if they’re not prepared.”

It’s a sentiment that Young wholeheartedly embraces.

“If your horse is not good enough to do it at home, you’re not going to fix it at the last minute,” Young says. “They always have exhibitions at a futurity, and I’ll do that, but I just lope them through it so they can see the arena and the ground, but I’ll never make a competition run in one, because I feel that they only have so many of those in them, and once you use them, they’re gone.”

A One-on-One Relationship

All trainers develop a bond with their horses, but those with just one horse often have an easier time developing consistency with that horse than those with many.

“The advantage they have is that they don’t have a barn full of horses,” Young says, “so they can spend more time and take better care of that horse than say someone that has 10-12 horses. They have a more intimate relationship with that horse. If you don’t have a lot of horses, you can spend more time with the ones who aren’t as gifted or as talented, and you can make up for it with the extra work that you put into it.”

Hill strives to achieve that kind of bond with all the horses she trains.

“Having basically two years of training on a horse before they call your name makes those horses last a long time,” she says. “And I think training the horses yourself, not having any help, doing all the saddling, washing and riding on them yourself is best. I think it’s really hard on those young horses passing them around between four or five people. I don’t have help. I think it gives that horse confidence in me. There’s no change.

“It’s just a consistency thing. They can count on you, and you can count on them.”

This type of bond can also help ease the pressure the single-horse owner often feels when they arrive at a futurity and are confronted by a field full of top trainers.

“The most important thing is having confidence in your horse,” Young says. “I see that so many times. They show up and see all those big names, and they think, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t do it, or my horse can’t do it,’ ad they start getting nervous and asking the horse for more than what the horse can do.

“I think if they what that horse’s abilities are and don’t push that horse over the edge, you can find that you have that special horse where they teach you more than you teach them. Sometimes it takes that one special horse to help you build your confidence in what you have to bring to the relationship.”

The Hard Decisions

Whether you own your own futurity horse or are training one for someone else, eventually, you will be forced to determine if that horse is truly ready to run, and win, at a futurity.

Those who own their own horses often have an easier time making the hard decision whether or not to run. For trainers, the rise of juvenile futurities and slot races has pushed up the timetable for getting a horse ready to compete. The first tough decision many riders have to make is judging the consistency of their horse’s progress and determine if it can truly handle the pressure of an event.

“I think [juvenile and slot races] have been positive for the industry,” Hill says. “It’s made for good horse sales. It’s made the prospect bring a premium. If you have that prospect that has a great foundation, and you’ve done your homework and gone slow and rode him all his 2-year-old year, and he’s mentally and physically ready, it’s a great event.

“I don’t’ think the slot races and juvenile races have made good trainers ruin horses trying to get ready.”

But at the same time, Hill doesn’t feel any pressure to have the horses she owns and trains ready for any race.

“If my horse isn’t ready, they’ll still have [the race] without me,” she says.

On the other side of things, Young, who mainly trains outside horses, doesn’t necessarily get to make the decision to run or not run a horse by herself.

“I’m going to do what’s best for my horses,” she says. “It’s a dilemma because if you’re entered there, you have to go and do your best because the customer expects you to.

“That’s the rub on the futurities, that you make that commitment to an event like Oklahoma City a year ahead, and those slot races, those are paid for well out, and you designate that horse. You’re locked in, and there is no turning back.”

That early commitment is precisely the reason why Pozzi refrains from entering most juvenile and slot races.

“Most of my futurity horses right now are just loping and three-quartering through the pattern,” she says. “I don’t really start running them until December and getting them ready for January and February because so much is going on with the rodeo deal, and the {National Finals Rodeo] takes up so much of my time.

“The only slot race I really do is Lance’s [Graves] slot race because I can ride my own horse, and it’s later on in the year, so I can have more time to get my horse ready.”

The decision to press a horse for more or to hold back and focus on the bigger, long-term picture is also part of the quandary many futurity trainers face.

“Those owners have paid you a lot of money to train the horse,” Young explains, “so you have to do the best that you can, but where do you draw the line on how hard to push them?

“I would rather place and have something when I’m through than try to win and have nothing when I’m through, but that’s a judgment call, and it comes down to knowing your horse, your confidence in your horse and that horse’s confidence in you.”

In her National Cowgirl Hall of Fame-worthy career, Yong has had many horses that were ready to do well at a futurity, but who were not ready to win. The decision to push for that last bit of effort when a horse may not be ready to handle it is a hard call considering the payouts the big futurities offer.

Still, Young tend to err on the side of caution.

“If you have one that’s not ready for the pressure that it takes to win first, then don’t put [the pressure] on them,” she says. “The owners expect you to go and try, but you have to know your horse’s limitations.

“Young horses haven’t learned the school of hard knocks, and when you ask them for their life, they’ll give you their life – where an older horse will figure out a way to save themselves, a young horse won’t.”

This article was originally published in the October 2010 issue of Barrel Horse News.


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