Earlier in my training career, I was blessed with a very special horse—my dear friend and brilliant performance mare, “Roxy” (Whizards Baby Doll). Horse people came to know she was special, but she transcended the horse world and took on celebrity status in the mainstream media as well.
In a video that went viral in 2008, millions saw Roxy carry me to the freestyle reining championship at the 2006 All American Quarter Horse Congress with no saddle and no bridle.
(Find it at youtube.com with a search for Stacy Westfall’s Championship Run 2006.) That catapulted her onto a world stage. Roxy was the featured performer of the 2010 World Equestrian Games opening ceremonies, became a Breyer model, and appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, among many other public appearances.
We tragically lost Roxy to an injury in 2012 at age 11, but today she still symbolizes the balance between the world of natural horsemanship and the world of the performance horse. There’s something about performing completely free of equipment that makes it clear that the horse is mentally “there,” and people around the world were captivated.
Last year, I began working with Roxy’s last foal, Jacs Electric Whiz. Jac is 3 this year, and though different in personality from Roxy, shows his own brilliance. Will he follow his mother into a groundbreaking performance career? Become an influential sire? Or set his own standard? Well, Jac’s personality will help write his own future. Here, we’ll take a look at how his character differs from Roxy’s throughout their early training. I’ll also share some insights I gained through working with them that may help you as you start your own young horse.
Laying the Foundation
I started working with both Roxy and Jac as 2-year-olds, and as I typically do, spent about three weeks on groundwork before getting on. I immediately took note of their different personalities: She was timid, and he’s bold.
I recognized that Roxy was reactive and fearful. She was highly aware of my movements, watching carefully for any signs that she wasn’t “safe.” When I’d introduce an item, such as a bag or stick-and-string, to sack her out, she’d view it warily. Her desire to flee was not only a sign that she didn’t trust the object, but also a sign that she didn’t trust me, either.
Jac expressed confidence from Day One. He was initially apprehensive about a new item, typical of horses in general, but as soon as he grasped the concept of sacking out, he quickly became comfortable with it. His sacking-out breakthrough moment (when a horse exhibits that the lesson is learned, as if saying, “Oh, I get it!”) came on only the second day. Even during those earliest sacking-out sessions, I could see his confidence—and his willingness to challenge me.
Despite using the same sacking-out techniques on Roxy, she reacted each time to a new item. She figured out that I wasn’t hurting her, so she did have the “a-ha” moment, but she still seemed to be holding her breath, tensely waiting for the next scary thing. Physically, she was doing the expected things for me, but mentally, she wasn’t at ease because she hadn’t fully committed to trusting me.
Roxy and Jac learned at roughly the same speed, both being what I call next-day learners. These are horses that absorb a lesson overnight and are ready to be reminded of it and take a next step the next day. In training both horses, the goal has been the same: a responsive, willing partner with a full education. The steps I’ve taken in their training have also been the same, but the horses’ personalities meant that they needed those steps for different reasons.
I repeat, repeat, repeat lessons in my training, trying to get a horse to the point where he’s responding with thought rather than simply reacting. In Roxy’s and Jac’s cases, I repeated for different reasons: with her to gain her trust, and with him to teach him his boundaries.
Here’s a great example of how differently these two responded to a typical training step. As I mentioned, Roxy was clearly insecure around new objects in the beginning. Jac wasn’t. I introduced him to a Weaver Activity Ball, and rewarded him for approaching it. He then assumed that the reward was all about his proximity to the object, and once when I came between it and him, he nearly ran over me to show me he knew where he was supposed to be.
I had to work with him to teach him that the lesson wasn’t about the object, but about listening to me. Roxy would have been cautious of the object, but also conscious of me and never would have invaded my space. So, in groundwork, I spent much of the three weeks convincing Roxy to trust me, but teaching Jac to respect my space.
Leadership From Above
In my program, the core work is the same through the first three months of training any horse, whether it’s a reining, dressage, pleasure, or trail horse, because I’m trying to get the horse to focus on me as the leader. For Roxy, that meant she had to trust me enough to see me as her leader; and for Jac, it means he has to respect me enough to see me as his leader.
Roxy’s tenseness in the early days was so apparent that a girl who worked for me observed me riding her in the indoor arena and said, “You’re crazy if you ever ride that mare outside.” And she meant with a saddle and bridle! Knowing that intimidating Roxy could be disastrous, my work with her was a matter of prevention—always anticipating what might ruin her trust in me and not letting that happen while getting my points through to her.
One training tool that I use when I first mount a young horse is what I call the parking brake. It’s a cue that he’s to stand still. I bend the horse’s neck to the side, bringing his head back toward the saddle, and as soon as he stands still, I reward him by releasing his head. Most people, when mounting, simply hope the horse will stand quietly. If he moves right, they move him left, if he steps forward, they move him back, and so forth. It’s much simpler to teach a cue that means “freeze your feet.” It acts as a common thread throughout a horse’s training and can be used less often as progress is made, yet is always there if a horse needs a reminder that the rider’s in charge.
Roxy and Jac took to the parking brake differently. For Roxy, it acted as a security zone, something she knew how to do from the start of training, and that we could fall back on when she got nervous. For Jac, it acted as a reminder to keep his attention on me and that I was in control. It’s a great example of how the two personalities benefitted differently from the same tool.
Further along in training, we addressed maneuvers found in reining patterns. The large, fast circles required of reining horses were another situation in which Roxy and Jac were different. When adding speed, Jac defaults to boldness. Roxy was intimidated by the speed, like a nervous driver trying to handle 70 mph on the freeway. And, like a shaky driver, she actually felt wobbly at speed in the early days. Jac felt smooth and stable early on.
Both personalities held true for our work on sliding stops, too. Horses may perform small sliding stops by themselves when turned out, but when they wear sliding shoes for the first time, it changes the way their bodies work. True to form, Roxy was intimidated by the slipping feeling, and Jac was like a teenage boy relishing the challenge of crossing a patch of ice.
Despite Roxy’s and Jac’s different perspectives on practicing those maneuvers, the overall program stayed the same. I worked on building and training their bodies through repetition and on asking them to partner with me in their minds.
Breeders hope that good traits will be passed along, and despite different personalities, trainability came through as well as athleticism in Roxy and Jac. Both horses were logical thinkers and great to train—accepting of the process, learning concepts readily.
Comparing the timid horse, represented by Roxy, and the bold horse, represented by Jac, I have some thoughts that may be useful to you as you start your own young horse.
It’s important to know that a horse’s personality is separate from his or her sex. I’ve worked with three generations of Roxy’s family, including her mother, aunts and uncles, siblings, and offspring. Roxy was timid, but not necessarily because she was a mare, and Jac is bold, but not just because he’s a stallion. Roxy’s dam was confident and even opinionated, and the most recent stallion I’ve had big success with was quite timid. So don’t assume your horse’s personality is based on his or her sex.
There’s a necessary back-and-forth process in teaching any horse. You physically manipulate the body, repeating that dozens of times, and hope the horse’s mind grasps the concept. Once the mind grasps the concept, it helps the body achieve a higher level of performance. As a trainer, I’m always teaching the body to try to get to the mind, then hoping that I get more from the body.
That back-and-forth method between body and mind extends beyond the arena. It was a journey of three years and about 1,000 hours of working with Roxy, building her confidence, to get to those famous tack-free rides. It wasn’t just a matter of how many circles, spins, or sliding stops we practiced, but the bigger process.
For example, if I’d ever been rough loading Roxy into a trailer, it would’ve shaken her trust in me and carried over into other areas of our training. Always remember that you’re training your horse outside the arena as well as in it, and remain committed to the approach that works for his personality. Otherwise your relationship could experience a huge setback.
Jac overflows with confidence, so it might appear that he didn’t need as much training time as Roxy—but he did. He’s needed the time so that I could make sure he was taking direction from me. Roxy knew she needed a leader, but just wasn’t sure I was that leader. Jac often thinks he’s the leader. I didn’t want him looking past me with his own agenda. A bold horse can be like a teen who seems mature most of the time, but can still make occasional bad decisions. You then realize he’s not quite “there” yet, because confidence isn’t the same as experience, and that he needs the same steps in training as the timid horse. Both the timid and the confident need time to mature.
Someone might be tempted to rush the training on a horse like Jac, who’s not easily intimidated, assuming he can handle it. Even if a horse can handle quick training, that doesn’t mean you’ll end up with a successful horse in the long run. If you skip steps along the way, those holes will show up in the future. Don’t make the mistake of expecting too much too soon. One of the biggest mistakes some people make in attempting to ride with no tack is taking the equipment away too soon, before the horse is ready.
Finally, there’s a common misperception that the confident horse is right and the timid horse is wrong. Neither is right or wrong, it’s just that they require slightly different approaches in training. For example, timid Roxy never threatened to charge me in early training, but confident Jac did, so confident doesn’t necessarily mean better. When a timid horse learns that you’re the rescuer, you become an incredibly important person in that horse’s world.
Looking Toward the Future
I physically train horses and leave the door open for them to mentally choose me. Timid as she was, when Roxy finally chose me as her trusted leader, we had an amazing bond that led to worldwide fame, with her facing unfamiliar surroundings, bright lights, and thousands of applauding fans.
Time will tell whether Jac will form a similar strong relationship with me. I think we’re on our way, and if we do form that bond, it will be our own, different from the one I had with Roxy, because Jac is unique. Your horse is unique, too, and when you understand how to get through to his personality in your training, that bond can be within your reach.