Adding speed seems to be the great horse training equalizer, particularly when it comes to seeing which horses hold together for the long haul and which ones do not. Any number of factors, from soundness and conformation to mentality and foundational training, play a part, but few would argue that the right start is the best cornerstone to a successful training program. It’s a truth that former National Finals Rodeo qualifier and top ranked futurity champion Jordon Briggs and her husband, Justin—himself a highly sought colt starter and accomplished roper—take seriously in their training partnership.
The couple agrees that if barrel racers feel like they’re always stepping up to a bigger bit or in a constant state of tug-of-war with their horses, a lot of it may trace to the education the horse has received. Does your horse strain and force you to hold him back? Would you prefer to have to ask your horse to go, rather than constantly pull on him to slow down? Does your horse push on you and get strung out in the turns? Is lack of collection or rate costing you time? If any of these problems hit home, read on, because the Lott, Texas training tandem has methods that are proven to get respect, rate and balance, all of which are on their minds from day one in their training routine.
“The main thing is that if you’re holding your horse—no matter the speed, in the warm up or whatever you’re doing—if you’re holding your horse back all the time, then you’re going to get them numb to the bridle and they’re not going to respect your hands. You’re just not going to be able to have speed control—or very good brakes,” says Jordon.
“If you’re pulling to not go faster, there’s no pull to rate down and go slower,” agrees Justin, who works tirelessly to teach all of the prospects at Briggs Performance Horses to respond to light cues and carry themselves with collection while keeping the forward motion that barrel racers so desire when starting their horses on the pattern.
Working daily on speed transitions and balance, Justin uses the one-rein stop as a tool to help teach rate and respect. He took time out to explain his approach and demonstrate a few key cues for colts that can help most any horse that’s getting into a speed jam.
Pressure, release and the one-rein stop
If adding speed to your barrel prospect seems like it never works out quite as perfectly as envisioned, Jordon and Justin agree that teaching speed control long before you ever approach a barrel is key. They say that holding a horse together with your hands might get you by for a while, but negative habits result from this crutch, particularly in young or green broke horses.
“Holding onto a horse without providing release makes them No. 1, more numb to the cues from the bridle, and No. 2, they lose respect for your hands and you end up with no brakes,” says Justin. “When you make a habit of teaching your horse to be broke so you can ride around on a loose rein, then when you pick your reins up, it means something. For instance, running to the first barrel on a loose rein helps on a ratey or a free-running horse, either one, because when you need to raise your hand and prepare for the turn, the signal means something to them since we teach them that it means to collect up. If you’re constantly pulling, the signal is mixed and a horse, especially one that’s already ratey, tends to dump on the front end at the first, or the freer horses run by.”
This is where the one-rein stop comes in. Using this exercise to keep horses soft and listening, Justin conditions colts early on to rate off of fingertip pressure and cues from his body. The need to hold them together with his hands dissipates.
To get a one-rein stop to the right, Justin says the first step is to keep the left hand in the middle of the reins (using split reins) and slide the right hand down the rein to pull the nose around to the right.
“Sit and cue with your hand and as soon as that horse gives his nose and gets slack in the reins, release him and repeat, repeat, repeat. Do not hold a horse in the one-rein stop; release him when he gives you the response of giving in his face and slowing and stopping his feet. The release is what communicates to the horse, ‘When you rate off my hand and stop, that’s what I want.’ Use your leg to disengage the hip so they’re not bound up and don’t let them hang on your hand, ever,” instructs Justin.
Once Justin’s colts grasp the basic expectations he has of them when asking for a one-rein stop, he wants them to do it willingly. If they do not, then he adds a little leg pressure to make it easier for them to find the release from his hand.
“If I pull that head around to the right and they just go to sleep on me and they’re just sluggish and they don’t give, then I’m going to take my right leg, if I’ve pulled them around to the right, and disengage the hip. It just has to be one step or two, it doesn’t have to be much, just enough to move their feet and wake them up again,” he explains.
Justin has found that colts understand the expectations better if they find their own release from pressure.
“If they’re trying to give to my hand, I’m going to let them just find it. If they’re not trying to give, if they’re just going to sleep, I’m going to give them until a count of about three and then disengage the hip. But if they’re bouncing their head back and they just really don’t know where to give, I’m just going to wait for them to find it,” he says. “You can build what they learn in the one-rein stop into softness in the ribcage and moving them off your rein and your leg. People try to lift or really bridle them up, but then the person is doing it all.”
While the Briggses tend to use the onerein stop mostly on their 2-, 3- and 4-yearold prospects, they’ve also found it particularly beneficial to problem horses or those that have a hard time focusing once the run hits them.
“A horse that gets tense about the run needs to be reminded to give and come back to you. It can help older horses, even, to relax and back off when they get tense in their neck just waiting to push on you. You can do it on any horse. When you’re just warming up, it’s a good thing to be able to shut them down, get them off your hands and soften them up before you go in there to run,” says Justin, who adds that making a conscious effort to work on speed control for the first five minutes of the warm up can pay great dividends. “It doesn’t have to be something you do the whole time you ride. I mean this is just something we build on. I want to be able to walk, trot and lope my horse on a loose rein. If they’re not going the gait I want them to go then I one-rein stop them. Then that next step would be transitioning from one gait down to the next by sitting, taking slack out of the reins or getting a hold of them harder.”
Justin rides a lot of young horses and knows that in order for any horse to learn how to rate on its own, it must know how to move out.
“Let them find out how to move ahead. If they want to speed up, that’s fine. Horses are repetitive in their learning. Teach them to trot and listen on a loose rein; this really helps them understand forward motion and listen to your hand. You need that for transitions from run to rate and for your turns around the barrels later,” he says.
If your horse doesn’t seem to want to travel off and go somewhere, Briggs says it can be a byproduct of numbness.
“If you find that you’re always kicking on a young horse, it might mean they’ve sort of gotten numb to your leg and forgotten to yield, so we work on leg cues along with the rate cues. I want them to move off away from that leg cue. Young horses, and problem horses, especially, might forget that they need to yield and move off leg pressure.”
Briggs believes that building these conditioned responses into his program goes a long way to break tension and remove any brace existing in the horse’s body.
“It’s also a good tool to have in your warm up—walk, trot and lope on a loose rein; move them off your legs going forward and especially laterally in a two-tracking motion,” says Justin.
“A lot of the time, and I’m guilty of it the most, I get on the horse and I just immediately go lope it in a circle,” echoes Jordon. “I think you need to teach your horses how to trot. If you can’t get on and trot your horses off on a loose rein, if they just jump into a ope every time or you just have to really hold them into a trot, you have to get them listening. I think trotting gets your horses reaching forward again and reaching around through the turns, and you’re going to need that trot when you go to work on speed transitions on the barrel pattern. The good thing about the trot is all four feet have to move forward fluidly and have to hit the ground, pull, push and dig. At a trot, they have to really pay attention to where their feet are.”
While barrel racers are often geared toward bend, bend and more bend, Jordon and Justin both appreciate a horse that travels fluidly in a straight line, so they ride in the pasture or ride squares and octagons in the arena to change things up.
“That horse has to be able to go in straight lines a little bit and it’s going to help that by not always just going in circles. Ultimately, you want to keep one hand on the rein, guiding them around and getting some balance,” says Justin.
Gearing down and applying the brakes
You can run a horse as fast as it can go at the barrel pattern, but not have a prayer to win the race without throttling down for those three hairpin turns. This is where training horses to transition smoothly from slow to fast and fast to slow is the foundation for record breaking runs later, say the Briggses. They want their horses to feel them sit down on their pockets and take the slack out of the reins and to respond by rating down.
“Use the one-rein stop if they need it to remember to back off your hands and slow down when you sit,” says Justin. “Transition down to nice, soft, smaller circles as they advance in their training.”
In the early phases of teaching speed transitions, Justin asks colts to slow from a trot down to a walk and finally down to a stop.
“Sit and count, ‘One, two,’ to wait on them, then use your hands if they don’t respond to you saying whoa and sitting down. Give them a warning and if they don’t acknowledge that, then slow them down by setting your hands. Get the stop and then release them. Don’t jerk and alarm a horse about stopping or slowing down,” he adds.
These cues come in handy on the barrel pattern later, too.
“On the barrels, you can lope and break it down to a trot at your rate point. You want collection and straightness through their body. You want to be able to push a horse around with your feet,” says Justin.
Jordon finds that working on speed transitions helps her horses stay nice and soft in her hands instead of lugging on the bit. “You can’t just one-rein stop all the time,” she says, “so it really helps if your horse is a bad stopper to teach them how to transition. The transition from the lope down to the trot keeps their front end moving and when you ask them to stop, it’s easier for them. I see people all the time in the warm up pen going on a high lope and they just slam their horse in the ground. I think if we can break them down one gear, it helps them gather up so the stop is not abrupt. Justin tells me to sit, count to one or two, and then use my hands.”
Providing a warning signal helps horses slow their feet and prepare for the stop, or for the slower gait, whichever is the desired response.
“You need to kind of sit and take the slack out at the same time and say, ‘Hey, we’re fixing to slow down,’ and then have a slow pull with your hands. Don’t just sit down and pull hard. Sit down, take the slack out and then pull. Set your hands and get them on their butt. Once they start to slow down, I don’t pull any more. That’s their release,” Justin explains.
“I hear a lot of people say, ‘My horse is ratey so I don’t need speed control,’” says Jordon. “But I think both free and ratey horses need speed control because without it, you run the risk of the horse not rocking back on its hindquarters to make an athletic movement through the turn. Balance, speed transitions and preparing for the turns all require speed control.”
This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BHN