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The Early Stages of Training, by Chris Cox



chriscox_ridingWhether I’m starting a horse for roping, cutting or any other discipline, I use the same methods. Bottom line, I always want to build a solid foundation on the horse before I ever introduce anything specific to a discipline. If the basics aren’t in place, the horse is going to be in trouble down the road.
While many Futurity horses are started under saddle in the fall of their yearling year, I prefer to wait until my horses are actually two years old. Some bloodlines mature earlier than others, but I think those few extra months help them mature physically and mentally.
A lot of people underestimate the stress involved in training ““ even when everything is done right. These horses are still babies at two years of age, so you need to progress step-by-step so the horse learns gradually and doesn’t get confused or exhausted.
I don’t like to put extensive physical pressure on a young horse, but I can build a very solid foundation and teach the horse a great deal without stressing his joints and bones by asking for too much too soon.
Teach in Steps
Any time you’re starting a horse, you must give him time to think and “soak” so he can learn. This is especially vital in the early stages of training. You can’t continue to push new things at him without building his skills in steps and giving him time to accept instruction. If you push him too hard too fast, you lose ground, rather than gain it. I never step up on a colt until I’ve prepared him thoroughly with groundwork. I want him to be focused on me and yielding his hindquarters easily in both directions. If he’s resistant on the ground, he’ll be the same with me on his back. I use a lot of repetition because this reassures the horse and lets him know there’s a beginning and an end to everything I do.
For example, in the beginning I’ll put on the saddle and pad and then pull them off several times before I ever tighten the girth. I’ll also step up in the stirrup and then get down numerous times before I actually swing a leg over the horse’s back. My training methods are designed to continually give the horse relief and to build progressively on steps he’s already learned. This keeps the horse from fretting because I constantly come back to something he’s comfortable with, something he understands, and there always is a release of pressure. Relief from pressure is absolutely critical to a horse’s ability to learn and gain confidence. Once he understands that relief comes from you, he will always look to you for relief.
For the first few rides, I only have the horse in a halter and lead. Once I have softness and lateral control, I will put the horse in a snaffle bit. I used a fixed D-ring snaffle with a contoured copper-inlaid mouthpiece I’ve designed myself.
Introducing Cattle & Roping
Whether a horse is destined to be a working ranch horse or competition horse, I like to have about three to four months of riding on him before introducing cattle. He should be soft, responsive and give laterally through his whole body. I want to have good control and handle on him before bringing something else into the picture. Whether I’m starting a rope horse or a cutting horse, I work them in a similar fashion in the early stages with cattle. I’ll start the horse on the same mechanical cow I use with a cutting horse so he learns to rate. I want him to learn to track, stop and turn, and stay parallel to the cow in these early stages. Then I move on to tracking and following live cattle and make sure he knows how to stop, back, turn and really read the cattle. The odds are definitely against you if you start trying to rope a steer before the horse has learned to rate and read cattle. It’s important for a rope horse to learn about cattle, as well as to get on his hocks with his hind end underneath him. Whether you’re going to head or heel, your horse needs to know about cattle, how to use his body to stop and turn around, and what leads to use when. This doesn’t mean he needs to be a cutting horse, but he should be a working horse that understands cattle, not just an arena horse. I believe a rope horse needs to be able to go do a job first before going into the arena. He needs to have that foundation before he ever has the pressure of the roping box. For the first roping lessons, I will use a roping mechanical cow to teach the horse how to get in correct position, use his body, and be able to pick his shoulders and his ribcage up. Before I ever actually rope out of the box, I will work the horse in the roping box. I want him to realize I have control of him at all times in the box. I get him to where he can turn around, roll back and back up in the box; I want him to realize I can put his body in any position I want to in the box. A common mistake I see with roping horses is that they go to that roping box way too quick before the rider really has good control and handle on them.
The horse needs to be more mature minded before he gets into the box and has that pressure on him. I’m a believer that people often take the horse to the roping arena without preparing him and giving him experience. That early foundation work is crucial. You want to be able to control the horse thoroughly and have him reading and rating cattle before you ever go to rope off him. He must be steering and guiding well; that means he should understand and be responsive to neck reining because you’re going to have a rope in one hand and your reins in the other. The horse has to be able to follow his nose when you put that outside rein on his neck. You use your legs, hands and seat to teach the horse to lead with his nose.
I may use my outside leg to help bring him through a turn, if necessary, but I’ll never move on to roping until this steering/guiding lesson is fully learned.
I introduce the rope itself in small increments after the first two or three months of riding, and only after the horse is soft and responsive. I also teach a horse how to accept the rope around his legs, under his tail, and around his rump very early in training. You’ll often see a horse become “over active” in the roping arena when a rope gets under his tail or around his hindquarters. I like to introduce this early on so the horse learns to relax rather than overreact.
I don’t move the horse up from a snaffle to a short-shanked broken curb bit until all the foundation lessons are in place. He must be completely soft through his poll and rib cage. Just putting a horse in a stronger bit won’t make him give if he isn’t already supple and yielding in a milder bit.
Any time you’re working with a horse, make sure to end the training session on a good note. Finish when the horse responds positively and does something he knows, and then call it a day.
Drilling and drilling on a horse is not the answer. My goal is always to gain the horse’s respect without taking away his dignity; I want the horse to keep his confidence and pride. I give him choices and create situations so that being with me and working with me become his choice. This helps keep a horse fresh and keeps him thinking. I set up everything so the horse wants to try his best to please me.

Up Close with Chris Cox Born in Florida and ranch-raised in Australia, Chris returned to the United States in 1986 to make a career of working with horses. Years of working horseback on the ranch near Queensland gave Chris a healthy respect for the horse’s ability and intelligence, and helped him develop his own methods of individualized training. Active in the cutting horse world as both a trainer and competitor, Chris has trained a variety of breeds for different disciplines. He also loves to rope, having been into calf roping in the past, and in more recent years, team roping. He participates in the Reno Invitational each year, and beginning in 2009, plans to host an annual invitational roping at his own ranch. He will also be holding horsemanship clinics for team ropers designed to prevent and solve problems with rope horses and to help riders better maintain the competition rope horse. Chris travels the United States, Canada, South America and Australia appearing at expos, conducting clinics and horsemanship demonstrations. His “Come Ride the Journey’ tour takes him to cities across the U.S. each year. In 2008, Western Horseman released Ride the Journey, by Chris Cox with Cynthia McFarland, a 225-page, full color book that details Chris’ practical methods and training techniques. Packed with step-by-step exercises and color photos, the book will help you improve your horsemanship skills, no matter what discipline or breed you ride. Visit or call Chris Cox Horsemanship Company at 1-888-81-HORSE for information about the Ride the Journey book, upcoming course dates and appearances, equipment and training DVDs.

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