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Training The Field Trial Horse


by Larry Whitesell

As a horse trainer, once I put a handle on a young horse and have it “green broke,” then I need to take the horse out of the arena and expose it to real situations. My customers want safe horses.  I like to load up two or three horses and go for the weekend to a field trial.

I will ride each horse in a couple braces each day.  I don't want to ride too many braces as they are young and their muscles are not developed yet.  The terrain of the field trial, dogs running around, the commotion of riding in the gallery, gun shots – all are teaching the horse to listen to me for help.  Riding in the braces helps the horse become forward while staying light in the bridle. If a horse becomes heavy in the bridle when you add speed, then he is not truly forward, he is just running away.

I can enjoy watching the dogs work and I find the people I meet at field trials very nice.  It makes riding my horse not as intense since I am enjoying myself. This positively affects the horse in what, to him, is a stressful situation.  As a horse trainer, it does bother me the way many of the horses are ridden by well meaning people. I understand that we are there for the dogs and the horses are just a means of transportation, but they are living creatures and deserve our kindest consideration.

Since my horses are very young in their training, I ride them in snaffle bits.  Other riders have asked me why I ride in a snaffle, commenting that they wouldn't be able to control or stop their horses in a snaffle.  I explained that I want to teach my horses to respond promptly and efficiently to my cues, rather than have to use harsh equipment and/or brute force to get a response and slow or stop as needed. So if a rider believes that his/her horse needs a big shank bit and two acres to stop, then that horse could eventually pose a problem for others in the gallery. Riding in a large group over varied, and sometimes treacherous terrain, means that a horse must be responsive to the rider’s cues, controllable and well-mannered. A harsh bit used too early in the horse’s training, or too often, will damage the horse’s mouth and leave him mentally fearful or protective of his mouth – eventually unable to respond to a soft touch.

Spending more time building a proper training foundation for field trial horses can actually benefit the competitors and make the ride more pleasant for riders in the gallery.  A well-balanced horse in a round posture and softer in the bridle will not wear out as fast.  That horse will be more able to go all day without getting sore and fatigued, so that he is ready to go again the next day.  A horse that is responsive to a light touch of the rider’s cues allows the rider to give more attention to the dog action, rather than having to hassle with an unresponsive horse. Plus, a horse that is ridden with a lot of contact will be sore and tire more quickly. 

A lighter, softer horse will have better balance, making him more athletic and able to move in rough terrain easily.  No matter how fast I go I want my horse to remain light and responsive.  If contact increases when you ask for more speed, or turning or stopping, then the horse will tense his back and hind end joints.  He then doesn't move efficiently, causing him to wear out faster.

If you spur a horse to send him forward, or even kick with your heels, the horse will learn to respond only to a harsh cue. In addition, the horse will tense up and lean on the forehand, making him heavier in the bridle. A horse should learn to move forward with energy (impulsion) from a light touch of the calf.  If the horse doesn't respond to the light calf, then teach him how to respond, rather than punishing him with the spur. Taking more time to prepare the horse to do the job will make him a far better field trial horse.

Most field trial riders have more than one horse.  If every year, one of the horses is brought along by just riding in the gallery on braces, when they aren't running the dog, the horse can become very confident. A horse exposed to a field trial season, paying attention to lightness with correct riding, could be worth upwards of $7500-$10,000 to another field trailer or a trail rider.  I have customers who would pay that much for a good, safe horse. 

People want horses that are broke and trained – but there is a difference between broke and trained.  Most field trial horses are just broke.  Most show horses are trained, but they don't do as well doing a job in the real world.  A broke horse usually won't spook; isn't buddy sour; doesn't run away; and you can mostly count on them to be safe.  Broke horses can often go “inside themselves” and become dull because they are often trained with domination.  Trained horses are more responsive and have a better understanding of the aids and what the rider wants.  They can sometimes be reactive, which can make some riders uncomfortable.  A broke and trained horse is safe without being dull, and responsive without being reactive.  That is a rare horse in today's horse world and worth a lot!

Because a field trial horse has a job that keeps him focused, and if ridden with more attention to his education, then he will become a really good horse – ultimately becoming the ideal field trial horse.  If I were a bird dog trainer, I would produce one horse every year to sell and cover my expenses.  I could do that just by "correctly" riding a horse to do my primary job of dog training.  The dog usually runs one brace a day, while the horse often goes many times. The horse that provides safe, responsive, reliable transportation for us deserves to be ridden with respect.

Larry Whitesell

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