By Jonathan Field
There is nothing more fun and productive for me and my horses than when we have a real purpose. Whether it is gathering the cows, jumping a log, or climbing a mountain, it is an opportunity for us to do something together.
When I see riders and horses going around an arena with a grimace on their faces, looking as if they are on their way to a funeral, I know they are lacking purpose. Horsemanship needs to be fun! Interactive “conversations” with your horse should continuously change and grow.
In this article, I want to share some of the valuable lessons I gathered from my working ranch experience as a cowboy, ones that I still use today in every session with my horses. These clear purpose-driven exercises will allow you to discover how to mark your progress, have fun, and become better with each ride.
Riding with Purpose
Riding with purpose is to ride with a strong intent towards an objective that has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
A good example from my ranching experience revolves around a typical day moving cattle from one pasture to another. We start very early in the morning at cow camp, gather the cattle in the north meadow, and then finish at the gate by the big stump.
This description gives clear objectives, beginning, middle, and end. When the cows are through the gate by the stump, then the day is over. Even though everything may not have gone as planned, what’s done is done, and everyone heads back to camp. We never let the cows out for a “do over” to get it just perfect! What we can do is reflect on how to be better the next time.
The lesson here is so valuable. With this level of clarity in a session with a horse you don’t get lost in some menial task or agenda that can easily be turned into picking on the horse. The last move you just did is over. All you can do now is set up the next time better for a different outcome. The predatory nature in us humans causes us to have a hard time letting go and consequently we struggle with events that are over and that we can’t change.
The Importance of Purpose
I want to share with you a bit of my history to help you understand how I came to realize the importance of bringing purpose into my training sessions.
From an early age, I was lucky to be part the local 4-H club, where I rode both English and Western. Going to shows with my family and horse, Wee Mite Buck, kept weekends busy with grooming, preparing, and competing. It was a wonderful experience for a kid, but my idea of fun changed quickly with one trip to the mountains and the ranching country of the Nicola Valley in Merritt, BC, where my family was invited to take part in some cattle drives on the historic Quilchena Ranch.
The Quilchena Ranch, established in the late 1800s, is still one of the largest working ranches in Canada today.
It took just one day out on the range with the cowboys, cattle, working dogs, and amazing scenery. I had made up my mind: I was done with jodhpurs and top hat — I wanted to be a real cowboy! I loved the idea of life out on the range with horses, doing a job that couldn’t be done without them. There were no quads or helicopters. It was a step back in time, moving cattle like it was done a hundred years ago. I thought I was in a Louis L’Amour book!
Year after year, I returned to the Quilchena ranch, and eventually did work my way up to being a real cowboy, completing all the daily tasks and living in a cow camp. This period in my life shaped my way of thinking far beyond what I could ever have expected or imagined.
After my ranching experience, I really disliked riding in an arena. I found it pointless and monotonous. I faced challenges with my horses in the arena that I never would have had out on the range gathering cattle. It wasn’t until I understood how to bring the lesson of purpose into the arena that my opinion changed and my horses and I really started to enjoy it.
Here are some common themes that many people face with their horses that just are not common on the ranch:
So many of the horses I see can be described as “arena sour.” In the arena, they are unhappy, unwilling, lethargic, or uneasy. They can’t wait until it is over so they can go back to their pen.
On the ranch, when riding out at first light, it never felt or looked like that. Riders had focus and horses moved forward easily with ears up and life in their stride. They were going somewhere and there was something to get done!
When riding in the arena imagine you are riding out to find the cattle. Use this feeling to take your horse for a ride; don’t just be taken for a ride. This energetic intent coming up in you will give a sense of purpose, and your horse will automatically think “this person has a plan and I need to tune in.”
Another pattern I noticed outside of ranching life was incessant spooking in the arena and on the trail. It’s not that ranch horses don’t spook, but it is infrequent. Since the cowboy is always on his way somewhere, anything the ranch horse could spook at never gets validated by stopping to sniff it.
When my horse spooks at something, I stay strongly focused on where I was going and the speed in which I was traveling. This is another example of when it is important to ride with a strong sense of purpose. It will bring your horse’s attention back to you and away from all outside stimuli like scary rocks or black stumps.
Only on rare occasions in an arena, when my horse persists with something that is bothersome, will I make a point of resting him beside the object and allowing him to sniff it. I will only do this after I am done what I was doing. The reason that I wait until I am done is because I don’t want to allow the spook to get me off track! Horses can figure out pretty quickly that spooking is a way of avoiding something else you may have been asking them to do.
The final observation I have is the number of pointless fights that can go on too long over nothing. What may have started out as a miscommunication, a spook, or a question of control, can quickly be escalated into something more by the rider.
I don’t want to say there aren’t struggles between cowboys and their horses now and again, but if there is a struggle, it rarely self-perpetuates as the job of looking after the herd is more important. Besides that, repeatedly “tuning up their horse” was not respected. The boss would say “leave that horse alone and get back to your job.”
When a struggle between you and your horse arises, don’t let it escalate and get you off track. Try imagining the cow boss yelling at you, like he did at me so many times, to get back to what you were doing and leave that horse alone! You will find that if you don’t add fuel to each struggle, they will diminish. This doesn’t mean there aren’t occasions where you need to deal directly with an issue for safety or training, but generally speaking, stopping all the time to “train the horse” is overdone and a loss of focus.
Here are some ideas to bring purpose to your arena or trail ride. Give each one of these suggestions a try and then use your imagination to create more exercises that build a sense of purpose in you and your horse.
Exercise #1: A Timed Event
A timed event
This is a fun exercise I do on a regular basis to see how short or long I can get my horse to travel. I first mark out a path close to the arena rail. Then I use a stopwatch to time how slow and how fast I can ride my horse around this path. I record the times for the slow and fast walk, trot, and canter.
I mark down my slow and fast times and try to improve by increasing the spread time, the time difference between the slowest slow and fastest fast times measured in seconds.
You want the biggest spread time possible.
The value in this exercise is huge because the lengthening and shortening of a horse’s stride is used so much when training to higher goals. You will be able to find that really comfy trot or canter and build towards engagement and collection in your horse.
Here is an example from my young horse Tessa:
Slow trot 41
Fast trot - 25
Spread 16 seconds
Slow canter 32
Fast canter - 15
Spread 17 seconds
Post your results for your future reference and get a competition going in your barn to see who can have the most spread in time between fast and slow.
This works with horses of all shapes and sizes. Some will find it more challenging going fast while others will find it more difficult going slow. I love this exercise because it is one of the few objective tests we can use to mark the improvement of our horses from month to month. We also do this at our ranch with a mowed pathway in a pasture or through a trail loop.
Exercise #2: Obstacle Course
Obstacle course to a “neutral sweet spot”
Make a course incorporating components that you’ve been playing with and have clearly marked places to go. The key here is to have the start and the finish be a place of relaxation that I call the “neutral sweet spot.”
In the middle of the course, you can add a jump, a half pass, a lead change, a change of speed, a squeeze between two barrels, or a walk over a tarp, but then you must finish at the neutral sweet spot and wait for relaxation. Often I will put the end resting spot in the place that my horse likes the least in order for him to like it more!
Go through the course you designed with a sense of urgency, as if you were saving the day and turning the herd. Make this as simple or as complicated as you like, keeping in mind the appropriate level of challenge for you and the horse you are with.
A safety note: I won’t ask a horse over a tarp if they have shoes on. The tarp could easily get caught on a shoe, potentially causing a dangerous situation as the tarp chases you across the arena attached to your horse’s foot!
The chance to move cattle on a working ranch can be one of the most amazing experiences of your life. A piece of advice here: if you take a trip to a working ranch, make sure you are well matched with the right horse for that environment so you can enjoy yourself.
In the meantime, take these lessons and exercises that I learned from the ranch and use them to incorporate purpose into every aspect of life with your horse. The results will astonish you!
And remember stay “Inspired by Horses.”
Daily ways to add purpose:
- Open a gate
- Jingle the horses in
- Drag a log
- Move cattle
- Sit on your horse while you observe a show or a lesson
- Pick up the mail
- Harrow the arena
- Pack salt blocks to the fields
- Check the fence line
- Trot to the neighbour’s for a visit
Photos: Robin Duncan Photography
This article was originally published in the September/October 2009 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.