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The Great Basin Tradition Comes South with Martin Black


Sitting on the saddle and focused on Martin.

Autumn Watson and Lisa Sparks with Martin Black.

By Lisa Sparks

During the six-hour drive to Nashville, Arkansas to participate in Martin Black’s four-day horsemanship clinic, I wondered what made this man different from the other vaquero style riders.  Zach Johnson, the bridled horseman in my area, worked for him on the TS Ranch in Nevada. The Black Ranch has a history reaching back to the pioneers up to World War II.  Here the vaqueros and buckaroos rode the peak of the cattle boom in the 1870s and 1880s.  Zach stated that he learned techniques about starting a large number of colts that he still uses today.  Learning when to push them and when to quit is important in preparing them mentally.  I knew that during this clinic time at Jason Reed’s new state-of-the-art covered arena I would experience something unique from the Great Basin tradition of Martin Black.

Steve Green organized this clinic of 24 riders for this lifetime horseman from Idaho because of what he experienced when Martin assisted one of the local cutting horse ranches. “I was team roping and with Martin’s advice, I started winning!”  Steve declared. “And I wanted others to benefit.” Riders came from trail riding, team roping, colt starting, and rodeo interests, varying in age from 14 – 70.

For January weather, the chilly, damp environment of the clinic was acceptable for the morning and afternoon classes.  Each morning and afternoon the auditors and 12 riders of that group would meet in the café to talk with Martin about riding problems and goals.  It was here that we really learned about the essentials of connecting with the horse’s feet.  He was methodical in his approach, reminding us that you don’t throw away what you learned in preparation for “high school.”  Higher-level performance reveals the flaws in the foundation.  The horse moves his feet with precision to keep himself balanced.  By connecting the rein to the feet as we ask things of the horse, we will develop that willing partner.  Martin has observed over the years the value of group discussion without the distraction of the horses.

The first day in the arena we learned about what keeps the horse in a better frame of mind.  “It’s all about connecting your requests with the movement of each foot, or what you are asking means nothing,” he emphasized repeatedly.  As we rode our horses at the walk, we observed how our saddle moved with the horse’s feet. When does it hit your leg? Now put your hand on your horse’s hip and notice when your hand rises and falls.  When does your hip go up or down with the horse at the walk? Note when the front foot hits the ground and when it leaves the ground.  Now do the same with the hind foot. Where is the foot when it leaves the ground in relation to your saddle movement?

He was amused when some of us held on to the saddle horn during upper transitions.  He stated, “It is more effective to push against the horn so that you sit deeper and stay seated.” This revelation improved several riders, boosting their confidence.

Twice he lectured on over-feeding horses. “Fat horses are unhealthy, and it’s a form of abuse if they are not given a job to keep them in shape.” He spoke of working cows on a 30,000-acre ranch, leaving another 30,000 acres after going through the neighbor’s gate. He valued what he would get done riding the horse outside once it did what you asked in the round pen or arena. “The outside offers a learning environment of natural obstacles with different targets, like brush and sloping areas that keep the horse’s attention. A sticker bush can be used like a roll back maneuver on a fence.”

Day two we spent using the effectiveness of the pivoting inside front foot to stop the horse, to ask the horse to move forward, and to back the horse.  Now that we were aware of influencing feet as they leave the ground, we can do this with the back feet if we prepare the horse. They are more than happy to give their feet if it is the right time to balance themselves.  If the horse was confused, we stopped and started over. When I thought about it, separating the hindquarters and front quarter gave the horse a sense of rebooting his computer. Also, getting the hindquarters stepped over first allows the front quarter to step over because the horse’s weight is shifted back. 

Overbending of the neck was discouraged. A 45-degree angle was enough to bring the nose in to move the hindquarters.  When the hindquarters moved out too much, the horse was unbalanced.  By cueing the inside hind foot with the rein when the outside front foot leaves the ground, the horse will be balanced and less worried. Eventually the horse will understand to pivot on the inside foot and follow around with the other three as he moves forward. Now the horse will be softer and mentally relaxed. Martin stressed the importance of waiting for the “licking and chewing” that signals its release. 

After working each foot separately, we practiced side passing – a useful tool for advanced maneuvers. Control of each foot in every direction required different combinations of exercises. What you did with the front-end changes to the hind end. There were times that we coached each other to make sure we were feeling the correct foot.

The evening sessions were exciting for my partner, Autumn Watson, and me because this was our free time with the locals.  Smarty, the mechanical cow, was the most exciting thing my horse has ever seen. GiGi, being a notoriously “sticky” horse with her feet in the arena, was now stretching out in pursuit of the four-wheeler driven moving cow.  My favorite session was team penning. There was no time for bad behavior while sorting cows with the cowboys at Muddy Fork Road! During these sessions, Martin was available to help with spade bits, colt training, and team roping issues.
The next two days we applied our knowledge of the feet to cut cows out of a herd.  I enjoyed dividing the herd of eleven cows into groups of five and six or seven and four or nine and two. The most interesting challenge was to use our horse’s hindquarters to move or stop the cow. The tendency to chase the cow decreased as we learned the quiet strategies that kept our horses calm and focused.  Martin pointed out that using these techniques would result in a fatter cow.

Before leaving the clinic, I purchased a couple of videos Martin suggested that included everything we did in the clinic.   He emphasized that I needed to keep exposing my horse to these same fundamental maneuvers. GiGi needs to be confident in the muscle memory that is produced during the moves at the walk and trot. “This reactive instinct of stopping or just being quiet during a troubled time becomes your safety.”

When I returned home I rode both of the horses we took to the clinic, observing their response to my cues.   Understanding that pivot move with the inside front foot while walking forward is now paramount to my knowledge of their feet. I noticed their ears were forward, licking and chewing was happening as I felt a relaxation in my hands. This is the softness that my horse offers from her foundation.

The approach Martin Black uses is methodical and precise, yet basic enough to build a foundation for any discipline of riding.  Over the years he has learned from others, like Roland Hill, Ray Hunt and his family members.  His time with Tom Dorrance changed the way he viewed horses. His precision comes from how he puts everything together with his body and hands as he rides the horse’s footfall.  The sacred order of the feet keeps horses quiet in their mind, so they can focus on what is asked of them. I noticed that he does not rely on leg pressure to push the horse, but to guide them instead.  Over time, the precision with the rein as it connects with the feet becomes the quiet leading force.

My conclusion of what makes Martin Black different from the others is that he is able to understand what I need to make my horse quiet and how to communicate that information to me. If a horse leads well, they will ride well as they follow the rope that connects to their feet. Martin Black knows this and holds fast to this timeless truth.

Find more information about Martin Black at:

Editor’s Note: Martin Black is co-author with Dr. Stephen Peters of Evidence Based Horsemanship.
Martin Black quotes:
“If we can position the feet, we can direct the horse. Positioning of the head alone may not be the right answer.” -Martin Black

“Every horse would like to have better communication with his human; all they look for is comfort.” -Martin Black

“The position of your hands influences the position of their head, their head influences their body, their body influences their feet. Adjusting the position of our hands can mean everything to the positioning of the feet!”- Martin Black

“The symptom is the horses head elevated or the mouth open. The popular solution is generally a tie down, martingale, draw reins, more leverage, etc. The problem from our perspective is our horses head is up and the mouth is open. The problem from the horse’s perspective is our hands and/or our weight, compounded by possible dental issues. When we can take responsibility for causing the problem and eliminate the cause, the problem can go away without all the gimmicks.” - Martin Black

“They can't learn to pull on you if you don't pull on them.” - Martin Black

 “Speed without accuracy gets you to the wrong place quicker.” - Martin Black

“Horses remember the past, live in the present, and make no plans for the future past bringing comfort to a current situation.” -Martin Black

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