Show-pen success hangs on many factors, including talent, skill, practice, and luck. A key ingredient that’s often overlooked, however, is the strength of the connection that exists between the horse and rider. How important is it? It can make the difference between just doing OK and winning the world.
This hit home in a big way as I was writing the story about reiner Courtney Boesch, who did in fact win the world in amateur reining with her Quarter Horse gelding Northwest Whiz. And without the benefit of a trainer, to boot.
When I asked her the secret to scoring such a triumph on her own, she pointed to “the connection I have with this horse.”
Her friend Karen Russell, the photographer who took the images for the feature I wrote, confirmed that the horse trusts her implicitly. “I’d be trying to get his ears up for a photo, and he’d get all nervous and upset. Then Courtney would just touch him and he’d calm right down.”
How do you develop this degree of connectedness with a horse?
Spending a lot of time with him helps. The late Greg Ward, four-time winner of the National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity, spent two to three hours a day to develop the special relationship he had with his final SBF champion, the homebred stallion Reminics Pep.
“They say a dog is a man’s best friend,” he told me shortly before he died, in 1998, “but if you lived with a horse the way you live with a dog, he’d be your best friend.”
During the time you spend with your horse, of course, you must always reinforce that you are the leader of your herd of two. This applies whether you’re riding, doing groundwork, or just hanging out. You must stay aware and keep your horse honest in all his responses, large and small.
Courtney spends the right kind of time with her gelding, and she’s also careful to avoid overworking him—another key to developing that extra-strong bond. She rides in the arena just enough to keep him framed up, spending time out on the trail instead, which he prefers.
“We trot, lope, and just cruise along, letting his mind relax,” she explains. “He could probably handle a lot more showing than we do, but not if left in training or if someone was picking on him all the time.”
Ultimately, a strong connection with your horse becomes a “virtuous circle.” You can use it to understand exactly how your horse is feeling, which in turn enables you to deal with his unique personality in the best possible way. Courtney says she uses her connectedness with Whiz to intuit when and how to avoid fighting with him.
“He can be quirky. If he starts out really silly, looking at everything and getting upset, I know he won’t be paying attention to me. Sometimes I work through it, but sometimes it’s just better to put him away and start fresh the next day.”
Developing an enduring connection with your horse requires a real investment of time and effort, but it’s an investment that never stops paying dividends—in the show pen and everywhere else.