By a quarter past two, eight colts and eight riders are in the North Dakota State University Equine Center indoor arena warming up for Friday's class. Some riders are mounted and walking their horses around and near obstacles like barrels and cones, while others are on foot lunging their colts, exercising the horses in a circle with a long lead rope. A stocky little bay tries to stop trotting. He is given encouragement to keep moving with a tap on the rump from a Plexiglas stock stick. When the rider decides it's time to end the exercise, he cues the bay with a verbal "whoa" before pulling the lead rope and making the horse stand and face.
The rider then rubs his horse down. This is called sacking out. The goal is to have the bay stand still while being handled. He touches the horse's neck, back, legs, chest, head and rump with his hands and a stock stick with a plastic bag tied to the end. He waves his hat and arms, pulls and slaps his stirrup leathers and saddle. This commotion teaches the horse not to spook. It also takes the edge off the young pony. After all, the objective is to ride these colts without them bucking or otherwise throwing a fit.
It's good watching, and five or six people are in the stands observing the array of horses moving in the arena. There are bays and sorrels, roans, a paint, one that's maybe got a little appaloosa in it, and a fancy looking tiger-striped dun. Most are Quarter horses, some are larger three-year-olds, and others are slighter, shorter two-year-olds. Some have been worked a lot. A few seem pretty green. This is also true of the student riders. Some are accomplished hands, while others appear to be learning along with their horses.
This is Colts in Training, Animal Range Science 396, a two-credit, three-day-a-week class restricted to students who have a two- or three-year-old horse. The student riders also must have completed Basic and Intermediate Riding, part of the series of courses offered in the Equine Studies program.
In all this commotion one horse stands out. He's the only one not saddled, and his coat looks pure white, an unusual color. He's well built for a two-year-old and moves cat-quick on the lunge line. This is Cajun.
Catty is a term often used for a lively horse. Waspy is another word that comes to mind watching this colt move. A waspy horse is fast, but somewhat erratic. Something else sets Cajun apart, he's never been ridden. A first ride reveals to a trainer what kind of work lies ahead. Theoretically, any horse can be trained, some just take longer than others. Today, fourth-year equine studies student Abra Grosz plans on putting Cajun to the test.
Grosz moves with the sure grace of an experienced horse person. Raised on a dairy and horse ranch near Hazen, N.D., she's trained five or six horses back home. When she bought Cajun three weeks before this class began, he hadn't been halter broke or gelded, now he is both. A palomino, he will probably darken to a cream color as he gets older. With the performance bloodlines of Frenchman's Guy on the top side and Three Bars on the maternal, Cajun's breeding means he should have the power and speed to excel in a rodeo event such as barrel racing, which is Grosz's plan. "He's bred to the nines as a barrel racing horse," she says, her fair complexion already flushed with the groundwork of the day's class. She is excited about his potential and eager to start riding him, to see how much Cajun has learned in the last three months.
While Cajun is being saddled, Tate Eck demonstrates how to make a horse walk in a straight line. Eck, a former member of the university's rodeo team, rides one of the colts along the arena's fence. When the horse tries to turn away, the 35-year-old rodeo cowboy turns the colt back into the fence, cues with a verbal cluck of the tongue, and makes the horse walk forward. Eck, lean and tall for a bronc rider, slouches in the saddle. He wears a black cowboy hat above a headset with a microphone. His voice projects over the arena's sound system:
"Keep your left hand on the top of the rail [of the fence]. Keep a loose rein," he instructs, his eyes focused on the horse's head. "When they want to turn away, pick up on your reins and turn them back to the fence. They'll get good at doing this at a walk and then at a trot and then at a lope. When they get good at that, pick a spot across the arena and make them go straight to that spot."
Meanwhile, Grosz has saddled Cajun and is back in the arena. She has shed her jacket for a duck-canvas vest and tied her light brown hair up in a ponytail. It's time for Cajun's training to move into the round pen, a necessary element in any horse classroom. As the name suggests, a round pen is a small enclosure; this one's made of nine ten-foot fence panels and a five-foot gate. Once inside, Cajun cannot run away. This isn't the first time he's had lessons there. He's already learned to give and bend or flex his neck to pressure from a halter rope and reins, to wear a saddle, to move out with verbal cues and pressure from the trainer, and to stop and stand when asked. But is he ready to be ridden?
Grosz, frowning in concentration, smoothly switches Cajun's halter for a snaffle bit with split reins and tightens the front cinch on her saddle. By now Eck has joined Grosz and Cajun in the round pen and stands to the front and left of the horse and rider. Grosz makes Cajun turn his head a little to the left, puts her left foot in the stirrup, and ever so gently stands in her stirrup until all of her weight is on Cajun's left side and she is standing upright. Although they both are still, the stiffness of Cajun's stance and Grosz's back shows the tension. When Cajun doesn't bolt, Grosz decides to commit herself to the ride. It is a delicate maneuver. Once a rider swings a leg over a horse, there is no going back. Grosz slowly forks her leg over her saddle and sits down, finding her off stirrup with her right foot. Again, Grosz pulls on each rein in succession, making Cajun turn his neck around in each direction.
Teaching a horse to give to pressure, to turn by flexing the neck, is an important part of training as it will help a horse move naturally. Eck also preaches flexion as a safety measure. A horse that will flex will also one-rein stop, that is stop all forward movement and give to a rein pulled to one side or the other.
"Ok, he's seen enough," says Eck, deliberately speaking into the microphone so the whole class can hear his instructions. "Let's move him out. Bring his nose around, ok, hindquarter, front quarter." Eck conducts Cajun's movement with the five-foot stock stick, waving it toward the horse's rump to get the hind legs moving first. As Cajun's neck is already turned to the left, the horse has no choice but to move his front legs to complete an equine pirouette. "Make him move his hindquarter, then his front quarter. Cue him with your foot," Eck instructs. "Nice turn, he's athletic with his front feet. Nice turn, now hold him."
After making Cajun stand for a minute, Grosz and Eck ask the colt to do the same turns in the opposite direction. They want him to move on cue, to flex and turn with his neck and hindquarters. Grosz praises the colt, bending forward in her saddle and speaking into his ears, rubbing mane and withers. They switch direction again, making Cajun go the other way. The next step is to get him to move forward out of the turn; the physical cue will be a squeeze with both heels.
"Now let's get him to move out. Move the hindquarter, ok keep him going in that direction. Now squeeze him into it. Oh, he's got it," Eck exclaims, watching from the center of the pen. "Speed won't be a problem with him. What we're teaching him is gas pedal. Keep a loose rein. Squeeze him into a canter. If he's going to try anything, it'll be now. Let him go. He's going to get tired of loping around in here. Let him get that energy out. Ok, now he's slowing down ... keep him moving ... ok, now stop ... nice."
Again they have the horse stand for a minute and repeat the same exercise in the opposite direction. This time, when Cajun canters, it isn't as fast and Eck asks Grosz to keep him going. They want Cajun to move on cue, to give to pressure from foot or rein, to work collectedly, fluidly and not spastically.
"Squeeze him. He's not willing to go 100 miles an hour now. 'This is work,' he's saying. Squeeze, cluck, spank. Remember always in that order."
Four or five laps to the right and Grosz stops Cajun, lets him stand another minute, and they repeat everything to the left. This time Cajun moves out nicely and then as Grosz squeezes and clucks, asking for the trot, he ducks and tries to turn back. Grosz, who has been waiting for such a move, spanks Cajun on the rump with the end of her reins driving him forward.
"Watch him," Eck says. "Keep him moving. Oh, he's a catty sucker ... keep him moving. Ok, stop him. That was an excellent first ride. Good job, Cajun."
Grosz, relaxed now and smiling broadly, dismounts and leads Cajun from the round pen. "See, I told you I wasn't going to get bucked off," she tells one of her classmates.
Lunge: Exercising a horse in a circle from the ground.
Lunge line: A long rope used for exercising a horse by someone on foot.
Ring snaffle (snaffle bit): A training bit designed to exert less pressure on a horse's mouth.
Split reins: Reins consisting of separate lengths of leather strips.
Withers: The high point of a horse's back, located at the base of the neck and between the shoulder blades.
Bogging: Said of a horse bucking with its head between his forelegs.
Halter broke: A horse that is gentled and trained to lead from the ground.
Top side: The sire's side in horse breeding pedigree.
Frenchman's Guy: A Palomino stallion born in 1987, he was the nation's No. 1 Barrel Racing Futurity Stallion in 2001. A proven competitor with proven pedigree, his Web site is www.frenchmansguy.com
Three Bars: A famous pedigree for Quarter horses, it is claimed that Three Bars has had the greatest impact on the Quarter Horse breed of any horse in history. Three Bars left his mark in racing, halter, cutting and other arena performance events. Web site: www.foundationhorses.com/threebarsped.htm
Off side: The right side of a horse, a rider typically mounts and dismounts on the left side.
Tiger-striped dun: A tan-colored horse with stripes on lower legs and a dark dorsal stripe from mane to tail.
Cajun's first ride went so well on Friday that Grosz repeats the lessons on Saturday. Again, Cajun works fine, perhaps even better than the day before.
For the third ride on Sunday Grosz does everything the same, puts Cajun through the paces: lunges him, sacks him out, saddles him, puts him in the round pen, lunges and sacks out again, and tries to step aboard. Cajun waits until Grosz is at her most vulnerable. With his rider standing in her left stirrup, just starting to swing her right leg over the saddle, Cajun comes uncorked, driving Grosz face first into the arena dirt.
Like all good cowgirls, Grosz thinks she wants to get right back on, but after three hours, her nose is still bleeding. A visit to the emergency room reveals the damage - a broken nose and dislocated jaw. Not much can be done for a broken nose. With her jaw realigned, she is advised not to ride for a few weeks and given a prescription for pain medication. It's advice Grosz doubts she can follow. Two weeks is a long time for her colt to go unridden.
Although he was worked from the ground, no one rides Cajun in Monday's class. On Wednesday Eck takes his microphone headset off and rides Cajun in the round pen. "I can ride those two-year-olds no problem, but he tried me," he recounts. "I went to fling my leg over him, and he went to it. He's athletic; he really tried to buck me off."
By the following Friday's class, Grosz, whose pretty face is still a bit puffy, is determined to ride Cajun again. A few onlookers sit in the stands near the round pen. One woman has a recorder ready to videotape the class.
"Is everybody expecting a rodeo?" Grosz asks wryly as she leads Cajun by the fence and into the arena and the round pen. Despite the joke, her determination shows in her expression and the assured way she handles Cajun. She is serious about the training, and she wants to get it right.
Once in the round pen, Eck demonstrates from the ground how he wants Grosz to make Cajun flex his neck completely around to the left while mounting. So if he bucks, he can only go in a tight circle -- unless he pulls the reins from her hands.
"How does he feel?" Eck asks. "Tight? No? Ok. Feel him. If you feel that hump in his back, you know he's getting ready."
On this, his fifth ride, Cajun works nicely. He walks, trots, lopes in each direction, stops, flexes his neck fluidly to the left and right. After twenty minutes, Grosz steps off and leads Cajun from the round pen. She spends a few minutes praising her colt quietly while patting him on the neck.
Eck, who has been instructing from horseback, rides over to the pair. He covers his mike and leans from his horse, talking.
Later, Eck says he told Grosz that Cajun looked wound up, stiff. He advised her to keep Cajun moving in the arena, not to try too much. "You know how a horse will twitch his hide to get rid of flies? Well, his back was doing that but there weren't flies. He was nervous."
Outside the round pen in the big arena, Grosz makes Cajun flex his head almost all the way to his left shoulder. She gathers her reins and steps up on him. She hesitates a bit in the left stirrup before swinging her right leg over the saddle. Cajun tries to move forward and is only able to crab around in a tight circle. Grosz steadies then asks him to move out.
As she rides past the stands, she calls out to the woman videotaping the session. "Hey, Mom, I didn't break my face today."
While Grosz rides Cajun, Eck keeps instructing the rest of the class on lateral movement, making their horses step sideways. "Don't cheat your horse, tell 'em you're a better horseperson than you are. They won't know the difference. We're working on their transmission. We're trying to get that gear box going."
Suddenly, Cajun, who has been asked to move from the trot to the lope, comes unglued. He takes large frog hops, bogging his head, and hitting the ground hard. Three jumps and he's almost to the middle of the arena, the other horses scatter. Grosz, ponytail whipping, being flung impossibly forward with every jump, tries to stay aboard by leaning back and pulling Cajun's head up.
Over the sound system, Eck's voice booms, "One rein stop! One rein stop!"
Grosz pulls hard on the right set of her split reins. Cajun's head comes around, and he stops bucking. Standing, head bent around so his nose is almost touching Grosz's right foot, he looks like a coiled spring. Later Grosz will joke with a classmate about becoming a bronc rider, but it doesn't appear that she really enjoyed the ride.
"One rein stop," continues Eck, his voice calmer now. "That's why we've been working on that so hard. You've taught him one rein stop. That's your safety. He gets going a speed you don't want, one rein stop."
"Now that you've lost that left rein," Eck tells Grosz, who in the excitement had dropped it completely, "go ahead and step off on the right. Now check your saddle. You might want to move it back, tighten it up. And like all good horse people, get right back on."
Grosz does just that; she climbs back on. It looks like it's going to be a long semester in and out of the classroom for her and Cajun, a lot of work and pain for a two-credit class.
After Cajun's bucking exhibition, Grosz opts for discretion and decides her horse needs to go back to ground school. For the next couple of weeks she stops riding Cajun altogether and continues the class on foot. They worked and worked and Cajun came around.
Now, three weeks later, Grosz is back riding Cajun, who appears to have lost much of his nervous, waspy energy. He's more controlled, collected, working for his rider and not against. Maybe he's a little behind the rest of the class, but he'll catch up. As for Grosz, she's having fun working with her colt again.
"She put the time in and that's what it took," Eck says. "It's like night and day. All horses are different. For him it took another couple weeks of work on the ground to get those fly wrinkles out."
-- Shadd Piehl