Ride Bet­ter Right Now

Ten key in­sights from Don Mur­phy, one of the most ef­fec­tive rid­ing coaches in the in­dus­try.

Horse & Rider - - News - By Jen­nifer Fors­berg Meyer

Ten key in­sights from Don Mur­phy, one of the most ef­fec­tive rid­ing coaches in the in­dus­try.

He’s a trainer of train­ers and a sought-af­ter coach. His clin­ics and pri­vate lessons have helped count­less am­a­teurs, youths, and ris­ing pros achieve suc­cess in rein­ing and cow horse events. And when top train­ers in other per­for­mance dis­ci­plines want to com­pete on a cow horse, it’s Don Mur­phy they turn to for guid­ance.

Here, we share some of the iconic horse­man’s best advice, use­ful no mat­ter what kind of rid­ing you do. And, whether you’re a rookie or well ad­vanced in your horse­man­ship, th­ese con­cepts from a Na­tional Reined Cow Horse As­so­ci­a­tion Hall of Famer will en­able you to be­come a bet­ter rider—plus wind up with a bet­ter-broke horse.

Here are 10 key in­sights Don Mur­phy shared with us.

1. On pre­par­ing your horse’s mind for work.

Al­ways get your horse ready to ac­cept train­ing be­fore you start train­ing on him. That means plenty of jog­ging and lop­ing. Some horses need more than oth­ers. Work to de­velop a feel for what your horse needs.

Clues that he’s ready to set­tle in and work? When you put your leg on him and he’s re­spon­sive but his body doesn’t tighten up. He stays re­laxed. You pick up the rein and he soft­ens and re­mains quiet. He’s not look­ing out to the pas- ture at what­ever’s go­ing on. He’s think­ing about what you want to do.

De­pend­ing on the horse, you may have to get him a lit­tle tired to achieve this, even to the point of notic­ing his breath­ing. You might have to jog and lope for some 30 min­utes or so, un­til he lets down and truly re­laxes.

Then, too, some­times the best train­ing pro­gram for the day is to go out and jog/ lope around, and noth­ing more. Just let your horse work the kinks out. You have to learn to rec­og­nize what he needs on any given day.

2. On al­low­ing time to re­spond.

Rid­ers of­ten don’t give their horses enough time to re­spond to the cue they’ve just given. Have you ever seen some­one push­ing an el­e­va­tor call but­ton re­peat­edly, as if this will bring the el­e­va­tor faster? It hap­pens on horses, too. I see rid­ers pulling the reins or spurring re­peat­edly, even be­fore the horse has had a chance to re­act to the first cue.

When you do this, you’re just teach­ing your horse to brace for a pun­ish­ment when he feels a cue. This, in turn, can cause him to panic. In­stead, fol­low this sequence: Cue your horse, give him a chance to re­spond, and only then de­cide what your next ac­tion is. You’ll have a much hap­pier horse. →

3. On prac­tic­ing pa­tience.

We live in a world of in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, but with horses, small steps lead to big re­sults over time. It’s easy to get frus­trated be­cause it feels as if your horse isn’t im­prov­ing fast enough. Be pa­tient! Ex­pect­ing too much just cre­ates ad­di­tional is­sues you’ll have to fix on down the line.

When I start to feel frus­trated, I go back to some­thing I heard when I was young: “If you im­prove your horse 1 per­cent a day, then in 100 days you’ll have a 100-per­cent bet­ter horse.”

4. On ‘cap­tur­ing’ his poll.

Horses can push on the bit us­ing their strong neck mus­cles. You pre­vent this by “cap­tur­ing” your horse’s poll. His poll must be­come “soft,” meaning he flexes ver­ti­cally at the throat­latch when you pick up on the reins, and from side to side when you ask with each rein.

You should also be able to move all parts of him—in­clud­ing his hips, his shoul­ders—with­out hav­ing his head move around. Same with ma­neu­vers such as a side­pass—you should be able to guide your horse in any direction while his neck stays straight and his poll softly flexed. (This isn’t easy to ac­com­plish. Ex­pert guid­ance helps.)

You don’t want your horse over- flexed, how­ever. When you pick up the reins, he should soften through his poll but not get rub­bery, with his nose draw­ing in all the way to his chest. Ev­ery horse must be able to carry him­self in a com­fort­able po­si­tion that sat­is­fies him as well as his rider. If he’s un­com­fort­able, he won’t work for you. So take the time it takes to train his mus­cles to en­able a proper ver­ti­cal flex­ion.

Ul­ti­mately, the con­nec­tion you’re seek­ing is from the reins to his feet. That means that when you pick up on the reins and he soft­ens at the poll, his feet come, too. The left rein is con­nected to the left hind foot, and the right rein to the right hind foot.

5. On work­ing the horse you have.

If God made your horse a 68 and you try to make him a 74, you’ll wind up with a 62. You’ve got to work the horse you have. Your job is to get that max­i­mum out of him, not to try to drive him to a level that’s out of his reach. I won more classes by show­ing what my horse could do, rather than try­ing to beat some­one else’s score.

Re­mem­ber, too, there’s a place for ev­ery horse in the world. If it turns out the “horse you have” doesn’t fit your pro­gram or per­son­al­ity, let him go some­place where he will fit. Some­times it’s a good horse and a de­cent rider, but they just don’t match, and nei­ther is to blame.

6. On us­ing feel with your reins.

Your hands can teach your horse to be heavy or light. Don’t over-pull. En­cour­age your horse to come off a softer pull by al­ways us­ing that softer pull first. Your legs can speed your horse up, but your hands can’t and shouldn’t even try. Your hands should never be faster than your horse’s feet can move.

7. On keep­ing him guess­ing.

A horse that an­tic­i­pates isn’t re­ally cheat­ing. He’s just try­ing to please you (and avoid get­ting pulled on) by beat­ing you to what he thinks you want next. This comes from hav­ing done some­thing the ex­act same way too many times. It’s vari­a­tion in the sequence of things that keeps your horse from learn­ing to an­tic­i­pate.

For ex­am­ple, in­stead of over-prac­tic­ing your stop, prac­tice the run­down by it­self more of­ten. In other words, run down the cen­ter of the arena and turn at the fence in­stead of stop­ping. Vary which way you turn, and the speed at which you run. That way, your horse

never knows for sure if you’ll be ask­ing for a stop or a turn, so he has to lis­ten for your cues.

Use this same strat­egy with all your school­ing, to keep your horse guess­ing and there­fore wait­ing for your cues.

8. On backing up—a lot.

Backing up isn’t nat­u­ral for horses. You rarely see them do­ing it on their own, in na­ture. To com­pen­sate for this, I of­ten back my colts around the ranch in­stead of lead­ing them for­ward. That teaches them early how to re­lease their feet back­ward. Dif­fer­ent mus­cles are used for this, and plenty of prac­tice helps de­velop the mus­cu­la­ture needed.

So back your horse a lot, start­ing on the ground and con­tin­u­ing on a reg­u­lar ba­sis from the sad­dle.

9. On work­ing his tougher side.

You need both sides of your horse to be even. Horses tend to be left-sided. We make them this way by al­ways han­dling them from the left. We hal­ter and sad­dle them from the left, and pull them around from the left when lead­ing them.

I coun­ter­act this by work­ing from the right a lot. I cinch colts from both sides, for ex­am­ple, and in the round pen, I al­ways di­rect a horse to the right first.

Be sure, also, not to fall into the trap of al­ways work­ing your horse on his “good side”—meaning the side he’s most flex­i­ble on, usu­ally his left. Things go eas­ier that way, so we tend to want to go in that direction, which just makes the horse more un­even. You’ve got to have bal­ance in ev­ery part of your train­ing pro­gram.

10. On push­ing— just enough.

Know­ing how much to push a horse is a learn­ing process. All young train­ers at times ap­ply too much pres­sure be­fore they learn how to truly read a horse. Push­ing too hard cre­ates re­sent­ment. The horse switches his tail, or flips his head in the air. Of­ten it means the horse is miss­ing some­thing in his foun­da­tion. He’ll start “col­laps­ing,” just as a build­ing col­lapses if it’s miss­ing a key part of its foun­da­tion. →

The so­lu­tion is to go back and fill in or strengthen the weak or miss­ing parts. Just con­tin­u­ing to push, by con­trast, can ruin a horse.

It’s true that horses to­day are bred to take a lit­tle more pres­sure, but you have to be smart in how you ap­ply it (once the foun­da­tion is se­cure). If your horse knows how to give his face, for ex­am­ple, then when you ask for it, he must re­spond (and then you give that in­stant rein re­lease as a re­ward).

A timid rider might need to learn to be a bit more as­sertive, or the horse may never fully re­spond. A bolder rider might have to learn how to be more sen­si­tive to prop­erly cal­i­brate the push­ing. Ul­ti­mately, you only need a lit­tle bit from your horse ev­ery day, but you do need that lit­tle bit and it’s OK to ask for it. Horse­andRider.com Watch Don Mur­phy ex­plain the his­tory of reined work— in both cow horse and rein­ing com­pe­ti­tion—at the Web site.

LEFT: Pre­pare your horse for train­ing by jog­ging and lop­ing him be­fore school­ing. Keep go­ing un­til you feel him let down and re­lax, which means both his mind and body are ready to go. RIGHT: Your horse’s poll be­comes “soft”— or “cap­tured”—when he flexes will­ingly through his throat­latch when you pick up the reins. Get him sup­ple, as this horse is, but not over-flexed with his nose to his chest.

A horse’s con­for­ma­tion will af­fect how well he can flex at the poll. Note that this horse’s thicker neck means he can’t flex as much as the sor­rel horse can. Your horse must be com­fort­able with his head car­riage in or­der to be happy and work his best for you.

Plenty of backing up from the ground pre­pares your horse to back well un­der sad­dle. When ask­ing for a back- up, di­rect your horse from the off side, us­ing ei­ther of the op­tions shown here. This helps off­set all the tra­di­tional near-side han­dling that can make him un­even.

Sad­dling your horse some­times from the off side is another way to help even out the left-sid­ed­ness that can other­wise de­velop.

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