By Will Clinging
When I started out with horses it was as a working cowboy. The horses I rode all belonged to the ranch I worked for and I thought because I made my living on the back of a horse that I was a good rider. The horses I rode were for the most part considered “broke.”
This did not mean that a horse wouldn’t buck you off, it just meant that he knew enough to do his job which was basically to go anywhere he was pointed without argument; be able to rope a cow and hold her; and to allow the rider to open and close a gate without dismounting. He would also load into a trailer and stand for his feet to be done.
There were obviously horses broke to different degrees. The better broke horses were used at prime times of the year like branding. Amidst the chaos of a branding corral the horses had to be very stable and capable of dealing with massive amounts of environmental stress from 200 cows and their calves bawling to find their respective pair, the roaring branding fire, and the ground crew moving around, almost underneath the horses at times. The horses had to be able to pull the calves that were roped over to the fire, hold the tension on the rope until the calf was branded and processed, and then do it a hundred times. The best horses were saved for the fall when the calves were weaned from their mothers. The sorting and cutting was when those well broke horses really showed their worth and made the job easier.
Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Schooled horses perform highly refined manoeuvers but may not be able to handle the environmental stress a ranch horse can.
Many of the horses had a bit of an edge but there were very few horses that were considered problems partly because the cowboys who rode them were horsemen with the natural ability and experience to deal with situations and partly out of necessity. The men I rode with taught me a great deal about working through whatever came up because you simply could not stop; there was a job to do. These ranch horses put on hundreds of miles in a month and quickly learned that those miles were going to be traveled whether they were well behaved or not. If they were difficult they just got more work, so they were mostly well behaved. A problem horse was “camped on” until he was too tired to fight.
Although considered broke the ranch horses did not have a great deal of finely tuned training. This varied greatly depending on which cowboy rode the horse but generally speaking there were not a lot of luxury options like lead changes, sliding stops, or extended movements.
These days I spend my time schooling horses. I don’t have a job for them and I do not have many miles to cover. The horses I ride learn the finer points of being well mannered, easy to mount, and responsive under saddle. I try to teach them to deal with different forms of environmental stress to make them reliable. They get lots of practice performing manoeuvers that are prepared in a protected environment.
Although schooled horses become very well tuned in terms of performance they often cannot deal with the same amount of environmental stress as a ranch horse. It all comes down to the type of experience a horse gets, which is based on the needs of the rider and their expectations. To quote the late Ray Hunt, “the horse lives what he learns and learns what he lives.”
Trail riders can have well exposed horses that, depending on how much they are ridden, learn to deal with whatever environment they are put into. They are often less spooky simply because of the exposure they get to the outside world. The behaviour of broke trail horses becomes generalized. They learn that in any environment they must behave the same. There is not the same level of expectation in terms of correct mechanics or refined movement as a schooled horse but they are often a more relaxed ride. A schooled horse is very specific in his training. He becomes a specialized athlete that excels at whatever discipline his rider trains him to perform.
These horses certainly work hard but there is a big difference between working hard and doing hard work. Most of us ride pleasure horses that work because we create things for them to do with no real practical goal. Working horses work because of the necessity to complete a task that has real life implications. I am not saying that one is more important than the other; I’m just pointing out the differences.
It is hard to have the best of both worlds. Balance is very difficult to find in terms of how much casual riding is needed to make a horse more relaxed in different environments and how much schooling is required to make him responsive to ride. I have ridden broke horses that knew very little but they were reliable to ride, and I have ridden very well schooled horses that were as close to being explosive as you can get. If you own or ride either a broke horse or a schooled horse why not try to spend some time working towards a horse that is both?
Main article photo: Broke horses are capable of dealing with massive amounts of environmental stress while working, but they may not have much finely tuned training.