The same exercises that turn a horse into a great team penner can give your horse more flexibility.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Robin Stang with Larri Jo Starkey in The American Quarter Horse Journal
All team penning horses have to have a lot of handle on them.
Whether your horse is an ex-cutter or an ex-reiner, you want him to go directly into the herd to a specific cow, get behind that cow and bring the cow right out of the middle without disturbing the herd. You want him to go in nice and smooth and flat-footed. When he’s bouncing around a little bit, he’s going to scatter the cattle, because he’s making more noise than you realize.
Perfect team penning horses know how to stop and turn. They’ve got all the handle and the moves. They know how to run down a wall, box a cow and circle a cow. The horse has to know that he’s maybe going to stop and change directions and circle the cow the other way, so he’s really broke in the face, broke in the mouth and flexible. He has a lot of cow sense, and he responds to the rider’s requests for every move.
Warm Up Your Horse
It doesn’t matter if I’m at a team penning or at home, the first thing I do when I ride is warm up my horse. I want him trotting nice and smooth. I don’t want him rushing, and I want to keep trotting until he’s relaxed.
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When he’s relaxed, that’s when I’ll start loping. I tell people to lope their horses until they’re wet around the ears. Until then, a horse isn’t warmed up enough. You might think he is, but then when you go in the pen for the first run and he sees a cow, he’s likely to start bucking and playing. If he’s not warm enough, he’ll be too fresh for the herd and scatter the cattle.
While I warm horses up, I do a lot of bending to start getting them flexible, just picking up their heads from one side to the other.
Move That Rib Cage
The biggest problem people have in team penning is that the horses aren’t flexible – they just aren’t broke enough through the rib cage for lateral moves.
Lateral moves are important in team penning – picking the shoulders up and moving the hips over – because when you go into a herd of fresh cattle for a cow and the horse whips his hip around, just that movement can scatter the cattle to the other side.
Lateral moves start with a circle, at the walk, the trot or the lope. Pick up the inside shoulder, using your inside leg to support and push the horse’s shoulder out. His head should bend in the direction you’re going, but don’t let him turn that direction. It’s kind of like asking him to go sideways a couple of steps. When the horse gives to you on that lateral move, drop your reins and let him walk out before asking for it again.
What he’s learning is to get relief from pressure by moving. When he responds, you reward him by quitting pushing. Eventually, with repetition, he’s just going to get more and more flexible, and he’ll move right over when you push with that leg.
At the walk, make an inside and an outside circle in both directions before moving up to the trot and eventually the lope. The inside circle is the easiest, so ask your horse to do that one first.
This exercise will help with your turnarounds when you’re in the herd.
Break at the Poll
I like to do my lateral flexing before I do my vertical flexing.
You can tell a horse isn’t vertically broke enough if every time the rider pulls on the head, he throws it up in the air. If he was broke more vertically, he would be more flexible through the poll.
When a horse doesn’t know how to give vertically, when you pull on his mouth, he doesn’t understand, and he’ll try to find relief by rooting his head in the air. Every once in a while you’ll get a horse that drops his head when you pull on him, but nine times out of 10, they’re going to put their heads in the air. That means they aren’t vertically broke enough. You have to teach a horse that his relief is down below.
When he sticks his head up, give him more and more leg. When his nose drops even a little, reward him by releasing. Then you can build on that. It won’t be long until he puts his nose down to give when you pull. His reward is you releasing the pressure.
Stop and Turn
At home, I do a lot of stopping. I want my horse to stop – and then turn.
A lot of people, when they are team penning, they’ll see a cow going away and when the horse is coming to a stop, they’ll try to hurry up and turn without stopping first. When they do this, the horse’s hip whips around. It’s an automatic reaction because the rider didn’t get the horse to stop on his haunches.
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Every time you ride your horse, when you stop, you should back your horse up until he feels light in the face, whether that’s one step or six. Without a good backup, you can’t get a good stop. To me, the backup is the stop.
Backing up every time will get him to thinking that if he stops, he needs to back up, so he will get his hind end under him and make a better stop.
A better stop will make you faster in the herd. I see so many team penners who are chasing cows, and when they change directions, they turn the horse’s head so that he is pivoting on his forehand and not his hindquarters.
By that time, he’s out of position, and the cow has him beat by two or three lengths, which means the horse actually has to do more work to catch up.
If riders will sit their horses on the hindquarters a little more and pivot on the hindquarters, they’ll be faster on the cow. A horse with a good stop and rollback – a good, broke horse – is going to be more agile on a cow.
To get your horse agile, you need to repeat exercises that keep him flexible and get him stopping and pivoting on the hindquarters. He’ll be sharper on a cow, and so will you.