Connecting With Cam, Part 3 - Purpose with Cam and a Steer
By Jonathan Field
I’m always looking for fun, different things to do with my horses. Each summer after my spring clinic tour is over, my family, my horses, and I head to our ranch, just west of Merritt, BC. With 600 acres on the home ranch and 10,000 acres of leased land ranging from steep, thick bush country and beautiful views to flat, open pasture with cattle roaming the range, James Creek Ranch is Mother Nature’s playground, and provides endless opportunities for having fun with horses.
So far in this Connecting with Cam series (see "Connecting with Cam, Part 1: Ground Skills and New Environmnents" and "Connecting with Cam, Part 2: Playing with Horses at Liberty"), I have described how using a variety of training programs gave my Andalusian stallion, Cam, and I a chance to connect, without Cam thinking about his past training. In order to really connect with him, I needed to ride Cam when he was completely present, open-minded, and ready to learn. Activities such as the ones offered by James Creek Ranch and its cattle provide the perfect opportunity for this and translate to better rides back in the arena.
Last summer I decided to have some fun with Cam in one of the big pastures by gathering a steer from the herd, getting control of it, and directing it. My ultimate goal was to have the steer rest beside a log and sniff or walk over it.
These yearling steers are pretty frisky and don’t easily come away from the herd and relax, so there were really two parts to my goal: an intense part involving cutting the steer and holding him away from the herd, and a more methodical part in which I would quietly build the control and communication with the steer necessary for Cam and I to be able to direct him to the log. I knew that the success of the second part depended on the steer being really relaxed; if the steer was in flight mode, I might be able to get him close to the log, but he wouldn’t stop beside it or sniff it.
For Cam and I, this type of exercise is valuable, not only because it’s a complete departure from his past training, but because it gives purpose to each request I make of him. Every time I ask him to turn or go faster, I’m doing it with a purpose in mind – follow the steer.
Purpose gives you a reason for the things you ask of your horse. If a horse and rider never have purpose, the horse may start thinking that everything is being done to him instead of with him, and begin to resent each request and become dull.
I was fortunate enough many years ago to be a full-time working cowboy on one of the most beautiful ranches in Canada, the Quilchena Ranch in BC. Coming from an English riding background, I couldn’t believe how different these ranch horses and cowboys were. The riders had amazing focus and the horses seemed to listen to every single aid the cowboys gave. Together, they could do amazing feats, such as galloping down a hill that was covered in brush, all the while keeping their focus on the cow they were after.
At that ranch, I witnessed some of the most amazing partnerships between horses and humans that I’ve ever seen. They depended on each other, and that relationship was built around working with purpose.
That’s why I take every opportunity I get, such as moving cattle, to give my horse a purpose. And sometimes, like on this day with Cam, I make up a purpose!
#1 Gather and get control
What you can’t see (because the camera couldn’t capture it) was the challenging task I had of getting the steer away from his herd. Here I’m getting closer to him and am able to start turning and directing him.
Look at how alert Cam is; he had really started to get into it by this point. Galloping around in a big pasture doing work like this is fun, but remember why I did this – to develop a connection with Cam using exercises that he wouldn’t associate with his past training. Every moment like this that we share brings us closer together.
#2 Back and forth
Cam and I had to go back and forth for a while, cutting the steer off at each turn as we tried to get him to realize that he wasn’t going to be able to run back to his herd.
This required a delicate balance of pressure and position. If we got too close to the steer and put too much pressure on him, he could easily out-position us and beat us back to the herd.
So, we kept our distance and focused on gaining control of where we could point this steer’s nose.
#3 Take a breather
We finally got him stopped! The steer was still looking back to his herd, but by this time Cam and I had control of his feet.
Now it was a matter of holding him at a distance and waiting for him to relax. I think Cam was happy to get the breather too.
#4 If at first you don’t succeed…
Now it was time to see if the steer would go sniff the log – not a chance! As he trotted by it, he didn’t even look at it; he was still thinking, “Get me out of here!”
So Cam and I leaped back into action. I remember thinking how good it was for Cam to have such a big job to do.
This task required good physical output, and was a great way for him to get out all his stallion energy. He rested well that night!
#5 Try, try again!
On the next pass we were closer but the steer was still too full of energy.
#6 Read the body language
Learning to be effective with horses — and cows — has so much to do with our ability to read body language. Here we are standing in front of the log, but the steer is not in a relaxed enough mindset to have a sniff or step over it. This took a bit more time.
Look at Cam; one ear is attentively on me and the other is paying close attention to the steer. This was what I was after but could not get in an arena.
#7 Almost there
We’re getting closer! Can you see the steer relaxing and starting to think about it?
We did it! Now that he’s sniffed the log, the steer can wander back to his herd, wondering what the heck that was all about.
This was a great day for Cam and me. Never underestimate the power of purpose. You don’t need to go round up a steer and get him to sniff a log, just ride with a sense of purpose and a strong focus on where you want to go and what you want to accomplish.
Your horse can tell whether you’re moseying along with no real plan or you’re aiming for the tree at the top of the hill. Use your imagination and remember to only try things that are safe and appropriate to your riding abilities, and that your horse is ready for.
This article was originally published in the September 2012 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Photos: Robin Duncan Photography