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Steering With a Horses Tail | What Martin Black Taught Me About Colt-Starting

I was visiting with you all, a while back in an article, about pressure and release and how it relates to when working with horses. Horses operate on feel and are constantly looking for a release from pressure. Pressure can come from a variety of sources, but most often, when we are riding, it comes from our hands and our feet.


Now, if that's all you are using to communicate with your horse, then you're leaving so many other options on the table. Today I want to share a story that may help you understand what I mean. About 15 years ago, I was down in Texas visiting my brother and his family in Lipan, Texas, when my wife Denice and I decided to take a drive to Sanger to visit Martin & Jennifer Black. Back then, the Blacks leased a beautiful place for the winter in Sanger to get out of the snow and cold in Idaho. They found the climate in North Texas not much better than Idaho and, after a few winters, decided Florida would make a better winter camp.


But I digress. Upon arriving at their Sanger winter retreat, Jennifer told us that Martin was in the covered arena working with a colt and for us to go in and say howdy. We headed in and observed Martin and a young cowboy saddling a colt. Martin being horseback with the colt dallied up to his horse and his assistant getting the saddle on. Martin looked up, said hi and invited us to go take a seat with Jack. Well, to my happy surprise, Jack turned out to be Jack Brainard! Now to folks in the western and horse worlds, Jack Brainard is a legend. He has done everything from running a rodeo company many years to training outstanding reining and cutting horses, as well as authoring many well-researched books on the topics of horses, ranching and the west.


Jack Brainard, photo credit to The Western Horseman magazine


My first introduction to Jack was when I was a kid devouring the latest issue of The Western Horseman magazine. I remember this great picture of a bronc rider on a huge saddle bronc named Major Reno and the caption said the bronc was owned by Jack Brainard. This memory has stayed with me all of those years, so it was a thrill to meet Jack in person.


So Denice and I sat down and visited with him as Martin and his assistant worked with the colt. The colt turned out to be a 2-year-old owned by Jack, that he thought he could use a little help in getting going. Jack is 102 years old now, so so he was well up in his eighties, maybe early nineties, the day we met. He told me he had brought the horse over the day before and that this would be the second ride on the horse.


Once the saddle was on Martin exchanged his catch rope for a halter and worked the young horse around with a flag from the back of his saddle horse. After Martin was satisfied that the colt was ready, he had his helper climb aboard and handed him the lead shank to the halter. With the help of Martin using his flag, the rider moved the colt around the pen, getting him to move out in both directions and stopping him using a one-rein stop. Now, this is where it gets interesting. After a short time, Martin said they were going to change their aids up a little bit. They were going to use the horse's tail as the pedal and the rider's weight as the steering wheel! The young fellow, I believe his name was Craig from Colorado, was asked to hand the lead shank to Martin. He was then told to reach back and pick up the colt's tail with his right hand. The colt's tail was pretty long as were Craig's arms. Martin said, “don’t pull on his tale. Just hold it.” This being accomplished, Martin took the halter off the colt's head, leaving Craig sitting on the colt with its tail in his right hand and nothing on its head. Martin now explained what he wanted to be done. Craig was to bump on the horses tail until he got the colt to move forward. Once this was done, he was to shift his weight in the saddle and stirrup to the outside of the direction he wanted the colt to go. Shift your weight to the left, and the colt moves to the right, and so forth.


Craig started bumping on the horse's tail. Bump, bump, bump until the horse moves forward. Craig stopped bumping on the horse's tail and used the life in his body to maintain the forward motion. (I teach about the positions of riding in your saddle as they pertain to the life in your body in Course #1.) To start with, Martin would help a little with his flag to get that forward motion. Pretty soon, the flag wasn't needed as often. Just a few bumps of encouragement and the colt would move out. Once the forward motion was achieved, then Martin asked Craig to shift his weight in the saddle in the opposite direction to where he wanted the horse to go. It wasn't very long before Craig had the colt moving forward around the pen at a walk, trot and lope, using his weight and the horse's tail to guide him.


Martin Black, photo credit to The Western Horseman magazine


Watching this little demonstration just reinforced to me how the horse responds to pressure and release. The pressure put on the house by the bumping of the tail gave forward momentum, the release coming as the horse moved out. The direction change came as the horse moved away from the weight shift in the saddle and the release came as the rider returned to sitting balanced in the middle of the saddle once the horse changed directions.


We, as humans, get caught up in tools, bridles, saddles, bits, spurs, and so on. But it all just boils down to pressure and releases. Feel is the hardest thing to explain to people, but it is everything to the horse. How you apply it to the horse is so important, and the results will amaze you. I often think back to that day when Martin demonstrated the most important rudimentary way of communicating with your horse. Plus, it was pretty cool meeting Jack Brainard. What a day!


If you’re interested in learning more about feel, directing your horse with the energy of your body and natural horsemanship. Join me in Course #1 - Introduction To Keith Stewart Horsemanship, where I teach you the fundamentals of horsemanship, so you have a rock-solid foundation to build from! Check that out here → CowboyCampusUniversity.com


Happy trails!


– KJS


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