Starting a horse in the box
for Tri-State Livestock News
Tavis Walters has trained with some of the industry’s top trainers (JD Yates, Jody Reimer and Robbie Schroeder) and is a four time AQHYA World Champion in heading, heeling, and tie down shares his thoughts on how to properly start a rope horse in the box. Tavis believes the foundation of a good rope horse is how he’s started in the box. A run begins with how well the horse scores and if a horse doesn’t score well then it’s more difficult to succeed. Scoring refers to how a horse waits or stands in the box until the rider cues his horse forward. A lot of trainers and ropers will score several steers on their horses when they are practicing, meaning they will make their horse wait in the box even though the steer has been released through the gate. This helps teach the horse to listen to its rider about when to go and not automatically run forward every time a steer goes out the gate. Most good rope horses according to Walters need to be “broke” before they ever enter the box.
He prefers to first track a steer or calf loose in the arena. This allows the horse to learn how to track and stop. Tavis said, “First off try not to make being in the box a pressure situation and remain calm. Don’t expect perfection from the beginning.” Another suggestion: “There are several ways to score horses and use what works best for you and your horse.” Also, consider the box as a place the horse can rest especially if a horse is antsy in the box, try loping him in circles in front of the box and then take him back into the box as a stopping point or a safe spot. Walters reiterates, “The longer you can go slow and remain calm the less problems you will have in the box.” According to Tavis neither young nor old rope horses need to rope every steer! The rider should devote some time to score the horse in order to increase their responsiveness. “The more steers you can score the further ahead you will be,” says Tavis. Ideally, you want your horse listening to you and not the surrounding noise and commotion. So, when starting your horse in the box make sure he’s broke and ready to be in the box. Try tracking steers or calves in the open, teach him to properly stop and use the box as a safe spot or reward.
Clint Doll has observed and worked with veterans like his dad Doug Doll, past Central Wyoming College (Riverton, WY) assistant rodeo coach Randy Suhn and South Dakota breeder Brian Fulton as they start, train and finish timed-event horses. Box work is a crucial element to preparing a young horse to perform in the arena, says the young rancher from Prairie City, SD.
“To begin with, I just make sure they are comfortable in the box – I don’t apply any pressure to them at first but I gradually work into that. I ride the horse in and out of the box, then I might start roping on them to give them a job but I start with slower cattle so I don’t have to ask them to run as hard as they can right away,” Doll said. He said it is always best to start slow and to keep as much of a controlled environment as possible until the horse gets more confidence in what is being asked of him. “I try to stay calm and confident myself and that transfers from the seat of your pants into your horse,” he added.
“It may seem odd to us that the horse doesn’t pick up on the training right away but just because we know what we want the horse to do doesn’t mean he has a clue what you are asking for … so you have to reward him for the smallest correct action so he can get on the same page as you that much faster.” Doll said that if the horse takes a step in the right direction, the rider should reward him. “And next time you’ll get two steps in the right direction.” The reward to the horse is to release whatever pressure is being placed on him.
Starting to teach a horse to breakaway rope is often the first step Doll would take when teaching him to be comfortable in the box and then to score and leave the box. “Leaving the box and following the steer – that is what is familiar to them so that is a good way to build confidence in the box because they can understand tracking a steer,” Doll explained. He added that once the horse gains confidence in the box and understands that he needs to find the steer and go to him after leaving the box, then the trainer can assess the horse’s strengths and weaknesses and determine the event in which the horse is likely to excel and enjoy
Doll has started both green horses and broke horses in the box. He likes to give green horses plenty of pasture time, to get them comfortable around cattle and to teach them some of the basics. “When I’m starting to work with a young green horse I might spend a day in the arena and then spend the next few days cowboying out in the pasture, that will do his mind a lot of good.” He adds that a well-broke horse might progress a little faster with box work.
When working with a horse who may have been soured in the box, Doll said consistency is key. “Use repetition so the horse gains confidence in understanding what you’re asking of him. Do things the same every time and when he responds how you want him to and does something you’ve asked – even if it’s really small – be sure to reward him. It’s crucial for that kind of horse to gain trust in what you’re asking.”
Doll suggests that for a newbie to the training world, riding an experienced, responsive horse will help to gain an understanding of how a horse should feel.
When training a bulldogging horse, he likes the horse to be aggressive, run fast and to drop down and move out as opposed to a horse who travels higher. “When they run, they should lower their center of gravity and accelerate into it . They should push off when leaving the box, rather than jumping ahead.”
A big part of the horse leaving the box low and digging aggressively with all four feet is scoring. “When scoring I keep slight pressure on the reins and want the horse to be alert and watching the steer but not to leave the corner of the box until he feels me release the pressure on the reins,” said Doll. One way to teach this is to use a tie down, which gives the horse something to push against. “The tie down will aide you down the road when you are competing and trying to score cattle, it gives the horse something to push against and hold the pressure.” In the pasture, Doll forgoes the tie down. He adds that he usually uses a ring snaffle for early training and then will work into a broken mouthpiece with a short shank.