Sometimes a little ingenuity goes a long way in training horses.
Out here in the Great Basin of Nevada, we?ve got a lot of steep hills, and we?ve sure got a lot of sagebrush. The trick is to use these things to our advantage.
My family and I show in AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse competitions, and we work a lot of cattle on horseback, so we want all of our horses to be well trained. And they?ve got to get that way without being worked in an arena. After our horses are started, just about all their riding is done outside. It's more enjoyable for them, and we can use the natural features in our landscape to really get some things accomplished.
For example, I like to send my horses down steep hills so they can learn to get their hind ends under them. There will be spots on the descent where the horse is actually sliding with his hind end and easing down the hill with his front end, and that's exactly the same frame he'll be in for a sliding stop. He learns how to use himself better.
Even simpler things, like neck reining, can be taught as a horse follows a cow trail through the sagebrush. I'll give him the cues just as he is naturally turning a curve, and he'll start to connect those things in his mind. To teach a turnaround, I'll find a spot of bare ground ? maybe an anthill ? that is surrounded by sagebrush. I'll use my legs to move his front end around, and the brush will hold him in place.
To teach flying lead changes, I know some trainers who lay a log in the arena and cue for the change as the horse hops over the log. Well, for us, we'll lope our horses through some low sagebrush, and that in itself puts a little more jump in their lope. If we're loping to the right and then start circling to the left, the horse may not change leads right there, but as soon as he has to jump a little brush, he will. Again, you can apply your cues just as the horse is about to change leads on his own.
You can do problem-solving outside, too. If you?ve got a horse that doesn't like to take a certain lead, that's easy to fix. Find a mountain or hillside with a pretty good slope at its base. Then lope your horse around it. The horse will always take the lead closest to the hillside. If he doesn't, at least in his mind, he'll fall down the hill.
You can strengthen a horse and help him become a better mover by loping down hills. A horse that has a rough lope is probably stretched out behind and is not collected. By loping down a hill, he'll have to use his hind end ? similar to what he did on the steeper slope to learn a sliding stop ? and he'll become stronger and more collected. That will carry over when you lope him on the flat.
I like to head out on a hilly dirt road, so that I'm not simply going up and down the same slope, but people can modify these techniques according to what kind of land they?ve got access to.
All these things help us compete against the guys who drill their horses in an arena. But really, working outdoors is more fun ? for us and the horses. And it can be more effective, because you're setting up a situation ? using natural elements ? that makes the horse find his own boundaries and figure out the best way to use himself. In effect, he's teaching himself.