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Colt Starting Will James Style

Continuing from last week's, March 3rds article…

Read part one here.

The next morning, Steve and I caught up the saddle horses that we had kept in the corrals and went out to gather the colts in from the jingle pasture. There was an alley shaped like a V that lead into the sorting pen so it was a pretty easy gather. Once in the pen, we let them settle for a little while as we put up our saddle horses and got ourselves organized.

If my memory serves me correctly, we had, I think, twelve-head to start in this group. They were all leggy three-year-old thoroughbred colts and fillies. Colt is a rather generic term for a young horse, often used interchangeably for both male and female horses. The proper term is a colt for a male horse and filly for a young female horse. I often refer to any young horse in the terms of colt, and as a "he" when I don’t remember the gender clearly. None of this matters to the horse.

I will briefly go through the procedure we used to get these youngsters started. We would sort off a colt from the herd and drive him into the smaller of the two round pens. Once in the round pen, we would rope and halter him. They were a little halter broken by the time we got our hands on them. Not halter broke in a true broke-to-lead sense, more so broke-to-drag, I might say. Once the halter was on them, the next piece of equipment we put on was a set of hobbles on the front feet.

A photo of myself roping some of the horses we used that summer.

After the hobbles were on (I teach how to properly hobble and its importance in the colt-starting process in The Fundamental Horsemanship Course) we let them move around on the end of a long lead rope, bending them left and right while they were learning that their movement was restricted. Having the long lead on the halter helped us keep them out of trouble by redirecting the direction of their movement until they realized they couldn’t really go anywhere, and they decided to just stand still. When they stood still, we started what I would now call the de-sensitizing process or what we called it back then the “chapping them out” process.

Chapping, pronounced shapping, was done with a tarp or a slicker, which is a long, durable, typically yellow raincoat that all of us cowboys have. Depending on the horse, this process of learning to stand quietly might take a short time or a long time. We’d continue to toss the slicker over their back, across their butt, and around their legs until they felt safe to stand still quietly. The colts that were real sensitive took much longer to find peace and stand still than the more mellow colts. This process right here gives you a good indication of the kind of horse mentally that you have on your hands, and leads me to share this piece of wisdom with you. Use your colt starting process to not only teach your horse a thing or two about being a saddle horse, but also let them teach you a thing or two about their mindset and personality. This data will come in handy later and help you to tailor your process to them as an individual.

The chapping out process in action.

After we were satisfied that they had settled down enough to be saddled we saddled them up, being mindful not to get kicked while we pulled the cinch up for the first time ever. Once the saddle was secured, we removed the hobbles, and let them move around the round pen, allowing them time to get used to this new experience that they had never felt before. We moved them around the pen both ways, getting them to move out well. Some bucked, some didn't. After a few trips around the small round pen, they were turned out into the big pen so they could move a little more.

Now, If they were bucking this was where it usually came out, as they ran around the big pen. While the colt was figuring out that the bucking wasn't doing him any good because the saddle remained intact, we would go and get another student from the sorting pen and start the procedure over again. We went through as many as we had saddles for in this manner until we ran out of saddles, when this happened we would catch one at a time and hobble them again and unsaddle them and turn them out. Going through them in this manner we got them all sacked and saddled by early afternoon. Some taking a little longer than others.

The next day we repeated the process with just one addition, and that was once they were sacked out and saddled and moved around the small round pen, I’d get on. After I was on, Steve sitting on a saddle horse with a flag in hand, would move around the pen in both directions at a walk, trot and lope. In short order, Steve would open the gate and out into the big pen we would both go. Steve on a saddle horse, myself on a colt, at varying rates of speed.

Out in the big pen, we moved them around in both directions at all gates. With Steve's help, I would be directing them in a snaffle bit. The more we worked with them, the less I relied on Steve's help to get them to move out, and the more I was able to direct their speed and direction myself.

Looking back, I think we only had one buck in the big round pen with me on. After the first week or so, it was just me there, as Steve had other business to attend to. Now, I’ll note I would certainly not recommend colt starting by yourself.

Once it was just my herd of colts and me, my daily routine was pretty much the same every day. When I’d arrive at the ranch, I would jingle them into the sorting pen, rope one and get my saddle on. Step on in the small round pen, move them around a bit and then out into the big pen we’d go.

I teach you all of my essential tools for colt-starting and horsemanship in The Fundamental Horsemanship Course.

My students graduated from pen to pasture pretty quickly, and it wasn’t long before we were out of the big pen and into the jingle pasture! It didn't take very long for the jingle pasture to get pretty small, and then it was out the gate and into miles and miles of big hills and open grasslands. I spent one of the best summers ever, putting miles on those colts and refining what would become my colt-starting process. Building my confidence in colt starting while I built there’s in me. My only job being to get them started and ready to be upstanding members of polo society.

I teach you all of my essential tools for colt-starting and horsemanship in The Fundamental Horsemanship Course. In that course, I've compiled 25 lessons that are absolutely necessary to create a solid horsemanship foundation for both you and your horse.

Another cool memory I'll share of that summer is when old Scotty Horn would ride over to see how I was making out with the colts. Scotty, an old-time cowboy, had plied his trade not only in the US and Canada but also had worked on a big outfit or “station,” as they call it, on the Cooper River in Australia. Scotty was then working for John Scott and was camped at the Crowe place, looking after the cattle up there and rebuilding the corrals. When he needed a change of scenery, he would cross the Highwood River and ride down for a visit. I would be working a colt in the round pen, and Scotty would ride in and step off of his saddle horse. This was my cue to tie up my colt and come over for a visit, giving both myself and the colt a brain break. Scotty would always pull out his tobacco, roll a smoke, and start in on a vivid tale from his past.

So anytime I hear Ian Tyson's song Will James, it takes me back to that summer many years ago, up on the Highwood starting colts and listening to cowboy tales.

Good memories of cowboyin’ in a simpler time.


You can enroll in Keith's The Fundamental Horsemanship Course here -->



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