Learn how to match up horses and humans for the most successful horseback-riding combination.
Two feet plus four hooves do not always equal six winning legs. Finding a horse that suits a particular amateur rider can present a challenge for trainers. It takes experience, perseverance and a little luck to make sure any horse-and-rider combination will click successfully in the show pen.
There are different ideals that must be correlated, including physical size, personality types and suitability for use intended. Those considerations can also vary depending on the discipline.
Choosing a new horse ain’t easy.
Les Oswald specializes in rope horses and also branches into the four-event and working cow horse genres. From Oakdale, California, Les manages AQHA competitive rope horses differently than his cow horses. Often, the amount of money an owner can invest in a horse post-purchase dictates what caliber of horse is needed.
“Whether the horse is staying in training or going home with an amateur plays a factor, and you’re talking two different worlds between roping and cow horse,” Les says. “A rope horse needs to stay in training as much as possible so he stays tuned. An amateur cow horse can work cattle twice a week to keep his timing up.
“The amateur roper (not taking advantage of full training) needs to have a horse near a trainer or someplace where he can go rope at least three or four times a week. People get more bang for the buck when the horse stays in training until he gets to a certain age. An 8-, 9- or 10-year-old rope horse is pretty much seasoned and less likely to come untrained.”
Even though Les has multiple AQHA roping world championships on his résumé, it isn’t always easy to find the perfect horse for that amateur rider right out of the box. As hard as they try, few, if any, trainers have a flawless record when it comes to successfully getting their customers on the right horse.
Les likes to purchase horses he has watched at shows or is at least familiar with their provenance. It is generally not important to him if they have been shown.
“We’ve all made mistakes and bought the wrong horse for somebody, but I’ve also felt like I’ve found the perfect horse for people,” Les says. “I just matched an amateur with a rope horse that he’d ridden four times and gets along with as good as you could ask; it just worked. The 6-year-old came out of a structured cow horse program from snaffle bit to the bridle and had about three months of roping when I got him. I’ve known the horse since he was 2. The owner allowed me to ride him all summer before he started on him the end of the year.”
When a purchase doesn’t suit the new owner, Les tries to give the partnership time to adjust - at least six months. He recommends the horse be put into training to see whether the trainer can’t broker a deal between horse and rider. After a half year of negative results, however, he thinks it is time to find a different horse.
“You’ve got to spend enough time to find the ins and outs and learn the horse’s personality,” Les says. “I recommend to someone taking a new horse home to ride the horse every day of the week, whether you rope on it or not, just ride the horse.
“Give the horse an honest chance and get to know him at your place before you take him out anywhere to rope or show. Until you get familiar with the horse, you don’t know how to get the horse prepared to win. You might have a rope horse that needs to be loped for an extra 20 minutes or one that just needs to be walked around to look things over. You must understand your horse so he performs at the top of his level right from the beginning.”
Cow Horse Coupling
Ted Robinson has set or broken nearly every major record in the National Reined Cow Horse Association, including an unprecedented seven open Snaffle Bit Futurity championships, $2 million rider status and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles.
Yet even with all his cow horse expertise, the Oak View, California, trainer is well aware of the difficulties in correlating a horse and rider team.
When Ted looks for a non-pro bridle horse, he prefers not to have to put the horse into training. He hates to set up anyone just getting started with a monthly bill. He also likes to buy non-pro horses that have been ridden and shown by non-pros.
“I’m OK with putting them into training if that is the customer’s thing,” Ted says of seasoned bridle horses. “But I think they get to know the horse better at home. I want them knowing the horse, and then I show them how to fix him. If I fix the horse, it can discourage the rider, but it builds their confidence to fix the problem themselves.”
He adds, “Futurity horses are a different game. Those 2- and 3-year-olds have to be in my program unless you are one of the top non-pros like Jody Gearhart (multiple NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity non-pro champion); you don’t have to help Jody, you just give her pointers.
“I think non-pros match themselves with Futurity horses and have a bond. I’m not going to buy the horse I want, I’m going to let you buy the horse you want. Then we put the program together.”
Because most horses work well in a familiar environment at home, Ted likes to try the horse during a horse show situation, if possible. Also, cow horses in boxing classes are scrutinized differently than those being asked to run down the fence.
“I’m always looking for a horse that will save the non-pro,” Ted says. “The boxing class is real easy, and we can get away with a lot of things there on a lot of different kinds of horses. When you start down that fence, I want a horse that’s going to protect a rider, even for myself. I want a horse that is protecting himself, because then he’s protecting me.
“I have no use for these horses that will run over a cow. I can’t train that type of horse to be good because he has no self-preservation.”
Templeton, California, cutting horse trainer Morgan Cromer doesn’t get in a hurry when shopping for a cutter suitable for one of her amateur customers. The main attributes Morgan relishes in horses are being cowy; having lots of heart and try; the way they move; and how they are broke. Fitting the new horse to her amateurs creates an added challenge.
“We have our strengths and weaknesses, and so do the horses,” Morgan says. “I think the biggest thing is making sure you find the appropriate level of horse for the level of rider. Horses and riders who are already in my barn are easier to match because I know them well. But sometimes, it takes months to find the right horse, and it can be very frustrating when you want to get someone mounted.”
According to Morgan, cutting horses with a prowess for smooth stops and turns are an important asset for the green rider. Those streamlined, fluid-moving horses allow competitors to relax and think about the basics of their run, rather than worrying about being jarred around. Instead of riding in survival mode, riders can concentrate on showmanship.
“A nervous rider on a nervous horse is not a great combination, but finding the right match can be tough,” Morgan says. “I have a guy who gets nervous about showing, so you think you need to find him a pretty calm horse. But if the horse is too calm, he gets nervous that it is too calm! He needs a horse that is going to spark up some for him before he can relax.
“One horse I bought him was too calm, and (the rider) got a little impatient and got to leaning his body around to get the horse started. I’m looking for a new horse for him now and have a better idea of what he needs.
“It is all about personalities, so fitting somebody to a horse that you don’t know is tough. It’s hard enough for me to try to buy a horse that fits me, let alone one that fits other people.”
Back in the day, sellers often allowed buyers to take horses home and test-drive them for a couple of weeks or take them to a horse show. With the escalation of equine prices, that is seldom an option, making the picking and choosing even more onerous.
“I think there are times when trying a horse might fit, but on the more expensive horses, (owners) are really not into doing that,” Morgan says. “A lot of times, it is an amateur, and nobody really wants someone new climbing on their best horse in the barn to try it … especially two or three times.”
Tanya Jenkins of Lexington, Oklahoma, prefers to match the horse to the rider rather than vice versa. Like Morgan, this reining trainer prefers to know clients and have knowledge of their drawbacks to be able to find a horse with the features to compensate.
“If my non-pro is an ultimately weak rider, I have to find a horse that can make up for that,” Tanya says. “In that case, I cannot have a horse that won’t lope correctly without the rider constantly pushing him with his or her legs. I need a horse that will pack the rider with ease.”
Tanya, who trained and successfully showed Spooks Gotta Whiz (Spooks Gotta Gun-Prettywhizprettydoes by Topsail Whiz) until he left her barn just days prior to winning the 2010 National Reining Horse Association Open Futurity, also prefers to mount her greener non-pros on horses that are slower thinkers mentally. She wants a horse that is willing to wait for a rider’s signals and not anticipate the next maneuver.
“Don’t get me wrong, I do want the horse to react fairly quickly to the rider’s cue, but I do not want them to over-think what the rider is thinking,” Tanya says. “These horses must be forgiving at all levels. My non-pros will make mistakes, and I need the horse to have the brain to (overlook the errors). If the horse is overly sensitive to a rider’s mistakes, it’s not going to work.”
Because reining is one of the more visual disciplines, Tanya believes mounting her customers on a proportionately sized horse is important.
“If I have a rider who is 6 foot 6 inches, I really don’t want a horse that is 13.3 hands,” she says with a chuckle. “I do try to find a somewhat relevant size for the ultimate match. I have to remember that this will be that rider’s horse for quite a while. Although riders can and do ride horses of all sizes, consideration is also given that smaller horses may have a little shorter stride, making them a bit more rough to ride.”
Fitting the Bill
There are so many trainers, professional and amateur riders, horses and oh so many variables within the assortment of disciplines. No wonder putting together those six-legged partnerships can look like a jigsaw puzzle.
And if you thought the basic matchups were tough to fit together, the individual considerations just add to the challenge.
“When I choose a horse for a top non-pro vs. a greener reiner, I have a lot more options to work with,” Tanya says. “I can look for a younger, greener horse like a 3-year-old.”
Trainer Les Oswald of Oakdale, California says that the horses he sells to amateurs or lower-numbered team ropers are horses he has had on his place for at least three months.
“We kind of know them inside out because we don’t want any surprises,” he says.
Finding the right horse for a customer is a really tough part of her business, Morgan adds.
“But it is a really important part because the amateurs and non-pros are what make our business roll,” she says.