Jordon and Justin Briggs have created a top-shelf training program built on simplicity and consistency, and it all begins with the proper foundation for their 2-year-olds.
Seldom do married couples work seamlessly well together in business, especially the horse business. Even more rare is when they are able to produce some of the most successful horseflesh in the industry. Jordon and Justin Briggs not only epitomize horsemanship at its finest, but they are equally inspiring as individuals. Together at Briggs Performance Horses in Lott, Texas, they use individual and combined talents to operate a strong training program and successful breeding business, and they do so together from the ground up.
Benchmarks for 2-Year-Olds
At the base of their training program, Jordon and Justin rely on proper horsemanship and a solid foundation to build their young prospects into winners. Jordon, a multiple futurity champion, expects her horses to progress in a certain way so they are ready in time for aged events. However, the couple believes in not pushing a horse too much or too fast. Their training program for starting 2-year-olds is fairly simple, rooted in teaching a horse to use itself naturally and independently. That way, transitioning to the pattern comes easily to a colt in its 3-year-old year when Jordon begins the barrel training. When fall rolls around, the Briggses expect 2-year-olds to be doing six things: traveling straight on a loose rein, rating with rider body language, backing up, following their nose, maintaining softness in small circles and breaking at the poll. It sounds like a lot, but Jordon and Justin have found a way to achieve all six tasks while keeping the colts assured of themselves and fostering confidence and work ethic along the way.
Travel in a Straight Line
Beginning in spring, the Briggses put the initial handling on their 2-year-olds. They get the horses gentle and broke and then turn them out for the summer to pick back up in fall of the 2-year-old year. The first thing they expect a colt to accomplish is walking a straight line with minimal guidance. “We think it’s really important for 2-year-olds going into their 3-year-old year that you teach your horses how to stand up on their own on a loose rein,” Jordon said. “One of our biggest things we do with our 2-year-olds is after we have them gentle and where we can control them in the round pen so we’re not in danger, we take them out to the pasture and just go in a straight line on a loose rein.” Teaching horses to travel on their own on a loose rein is a key building block of the Briggs’ training program, which teaches colts to stand up and balance on their own. This sets the horse up for the rest of the training process, making it easier for the prospect to advance quickly and safely. “They learn how to find their own feet, stand up and balance on their own without us constantly helping,” Jordon said. “The first month Justin puts on a colt, they are probably not that broke. They don’t do anything fancy, but they learn how to travel in a straight line. [When you take horses] straight to the arena and start trying to teach them to lope a circle, you’re constantly holding them up and pulling them around. We want them to learn how to go in a straight line and keep their shoulders up on their own.” Jordon says making sure you are safe by doing enough groundwork ahead of time will lessen the chances of injury for you or your horse. She also suggests being able to perform a one-rein stop before taking a young horse out to ride in the pasture in case the colt gets too strong. Perhaps the most important thing a horse learns from traveling on a loose rein is collection. “If they’re not moving their feet, you can’t work on softness going forward or going backward,” Justin said. “If they are standing against you, bending their head [laterally at a standstill] all you want is not going to soften them up, because they get stiff-bodied, not stiff-mouthed.”
“Sit When We Sit”
Rating in response to rider body cues is crucial to a good barrel horse. Jordon and Justin both agree using body language and staying out of the colt’s mouth as much as possible is paramount to the horse’s career longevity, because it keeps the horse soft, responsive and willing to work. When teaching a 2-year-old to stop, Justin doesn’t pull on the reins right away. He stops riding with his body and sits deep in the saddle. Justin gives the horse two seconds to respond—slow down or come to a stop. After two seconds, he’ll go to the reins and bring the horse to a stop. Eventually the horse learns to respond to body language first—“sit when we sit.” Jordon says slowing a horse without using the reins is essential when she begins teaching rate on the barrel pattern. “We don’t use our bridle reins very much,” Jordon said. “It’s hard to have really good timing with your hands, no matter who you are. I want to run up into the barrel leaning forward—that means go—and when I get to my rate point I sit, and I want the horse to sit with me so I don’t have to get in their way with my bridle reins. “With 2-year-olds, we walk, trot, sit, count to two and then go to our bridle reins, so eventually they go off our seat,” she continued. “I use that toward the barrels. I trot up to the barrels, sit and I want them to melt down. Justin wants them to stop hard and have a sliding stop in the team roping, but I just want them to break gait.” If your colt is quick and wants to keep moving or very green, you can use a fence to your advantage to reinforce that sitting means slow down and stop. “With the green, green colts, I might trot up to the fence and just let the fence stop them,” Justin said. “I don’t run them into it, but I might trot them up to it and sit down and ask for a stop. We want them to slow down when we sit down.”
Along with stopping and rating, Justin teaches a young horse to back up the day he starts it under saddle. He starts all colts in a halter and says if you’ve done your groundwork, the horse will understand how to back up with a rider. “Once I have my forward motion and can shut them down with my seat, I’ll see if I can back them off,” Justin said. “I ride them in a halter for probably 10 or 12 rides first, and if I’ve done my groundwork and backed them with my halter on the ground, I can back them up when I’m on them. As long as I have them over being scared of me being on them, they should remember when I take the slack out of the halter to back off.” Backing up is a useful tool beyond the task itself. It teaches the horse to back off your hands, yield to pressure and drive with its hind end—all critical in barrel racing and when moving forward. “I don’t think people back their horses enough,” Justin said. “Many horses either don’t back up at all, or when you pick up the bridle reins they stick their nose out and walk into your hands, or they hit their nose to their chest and don’t move.” Justin stresses the importance of keeping a horse moving to achieve softness through the body, not just the face. He uses his legs to ask for momentum when backing the same as when the horse is traveling forward and stops pulling on the reins when the horse responds. “When I teach them to back up, the most important thing—no different than going forward—is they move their feet first,” Justin said. “I want to make sure when I take the slack out of the reins, it means something to his feet. The horse might not back up a lot, it might just be one or two steps at first. When I pick up and he gives me that back, once I get movement backwards, I might bump him with my feet, but I’m not going to pull anymore now that he’s giving. I’m going to either squeeze or just make motion with my feet. I’ve got a gas pedal whether I’m going forward or backward or trying
to turn around.”
Follow the Nose and Softness in a Circle
Once a 2-year-old is moving forward in a straight line on a loose rein, slowing down and stopping with rider body cues and backing up, Justin and Jordon begin teaching the horse to follow its nose by walking and trotting circles while staying soft throughout its body. They use the same principle of allowing the horse to work on its own instead of controlling every stride with the reins. Jordon uses her hands as a guide for where she wants the horse to travel. “A lot of people when they do a circle, they are lifting the shoulder up and holding the horse in the circle,” Jordon said. “I want to guide them through the circle, and it makes them more relaxed in the neck instead of [lifting your hands] and getting them tense in the head. Show them where to go, relax their body and get them following their nose.” Forward momentum is key to keeping the hindquarters engaged and the shoulders up on a circle. “I’m constantly pushing a colt forward with my legs, keeping his hip and his shoulders going forward and following his nose,” Jordon said. Jordon tests her horses by dropping her hand and asking the horse to walk a circle rounded, relaxed and moving forward. The horse should travel true on the circle between your hands and legs without cutting corners and flattening or floating away. Justin and Jordon work on this daily with young horses. “[Relaxing your hands] tells on older horses big time, because if you’re always lifting that shoulder up and then you bring your hand down [and release rein pressure], they are either going to cut through the circle because you’re not holding their shoulder up anymore, or they get over-bendy and start floating out on you,” Jordon said.
Breaking at the Poll
Teaching a horse to carry itself correctly by rounding its back, driving off its hind end and breaking at the poll are all cornerstones the Briggses instill in young horses. Jordon says bending at the poll should be natural for a horse and cautions against asking for unnatural head carriage behind the vertical or ignoring softness at the poll altogether. “I think that is either a very over-done thing or a very under-done thing,” Jordon said. “You see people who constantly have the horse’s chin on its chest the entire time they warm up, or they have their head in the air and don’t even know what [proper carriage is]. I ask for maybe a couple strides, but that’s it. I just want [softening at the poll] to be the first instinct.” A barrel horse doesn’t make a run perfectly framed up, so the Briggses don’t require their horses to constantly travel bent at the poll. “They’re not going to run in frame—they have to learn how to travel naturally, which is where the loose rein comes in, but they need to know how to frame, so we teach them how to do it,” Justin said. “They have to know how to travel out … to slow down between barrels or slow down turning on a cow.” Suppling a colt at the poll transfers directly to the barrel pattern. Jordon asks for the same softness in the poll and face when she rates a barrel. “As long as I spread my hands apart and they tuck their nose a little bit, that’s all I want,” Jordon said. “I want that to be their first instinct in their warm-up, so when I run to a barrel and spread my hands apart and sit down, they soften to me instead of sticking their nose out.” Bending at the poll encourages collection and efficient use of the horse’s stride and hind end. Jordon says most colts push into pressure in the beginning. She keeps the horse driving forward with her legs and holds contact with her hands until the horse gives and supples, and then she releases rein pressure. You may only get a stride or two at first, but Jordon says not picking on your horse for too much will encourage a positive response in the future. “We spread our hands apart, and they are pushing and pushing on us, and we hold it and wait for them to get soft,” Jordon said. “The next time if I spread my hands apart and his first instinct is to bend at the poll, then I’m done. I want them to soften to my hands, and then they’re done—if you’re soft with me, I’m soft with you and I don’t over-do that.”
By the time the Briggs’ colts reach their 3-year-old year with these fundamentals, they are able to move and progress on the barrel pattern with ease. The Briggses agree keeping their training program simple and not over-doing the process is the most important aspect of training. “If it’s a really good 2-year-old and they’re riding around good in 60 days, then be done [for the year],” Jordon said. Once the colt responds correctly and performs the six basic steps of foundation training, the Briggses let their horses have a break before refining the horse’s training or advancing to the barrel pattern. “They are still developing, so there’s no need to hammer on them,” Justin said. “Four months of riding in a 12-month year, that’s plenty for a 2-year-old—and that doesn’t have to be four months in a row.”
This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Barrel Horse News.