Sarah Dawson is a leading professional trainer of working cow horses (a type of western competitive performance horse). She spent a season starting colts at Tom McCutcheon Reining Horses—including some colts of ours. This week, we flew her to Wellington to work with our young jumpers. From ground training to riding, her feel for a horse is extraordinary. Her ground work helped our horses with desensitization, respect and attentiveness, flexibility and softness. She reads each horse’s particular needs and tailors her training. (For example, one horse needs to yield to the halter and move his feet more quickly; another needs to relax and get confident.)
She also rode—in our english saddles and her western, no-noseband, rope-reins bridle—and gave us some fresh ideas for improving our horses’ balance, impulsion, confidence and relaxation under saddle. She started by giving them freedom in their head and neck and moving them forward, teaching the horses to work from their haunches and carry themselves. Then she chose the exercises each horse needed most, for their state of mind, way of going, and responsiveness to the aids.
The verdict from the horses’ regular riders: she made a big difference in a short time.
Two concepts fundamental to her work that you can use with your horse:
1. Pressure and release are the key to just about everything. Maintain pressure until the horse starts to do what you want; then release pressure immediately. When you release pressure, you’re rewarding whatever the horse was doing at that moment. So DON’T release pressure when he’s doing the wrong thing (like throwing his head in the air, or backing up to escape) but DO release when he starts to do the right thing (like lowering his head, standing quietly, or moving forward when you ask). This is how he learns what you want. What constitutes pressure? Pulling on the reins, driving with the leg, waving the stick and flag, pressing on his poll, even coming near with clippers. Any stimulus the horse would rather not experience is a kind of pressure. He can learn to accept it, but first he needs to know that escape and resistance don’t make the stimulus go away.
2. In riding, first get your horse moving forward from your leg, carrying himself with impulsion, before you ask for anything more complicated. He needs to be confident and relaxed, carrying himself, and working from his hind end. This is true for any horse in any type of sport.
Amsterdam wasn’t afraid of the flag at all:
Working on softness:
Eddie was spooky at first but eventually relaxed and got confident:
Eddie in that western snaffle bridle:
Sarah learned horsemanship from her father, Richard Winters, who travels the country teaching clinics and hosts a weekly RFD TV show. He was the 2009 Road To The Horse Champion. Sarah has a background in three-day eventing along with western disciplines. She and her husband, Chris, operate Dawson Performance Horses in Aubrey, TX.
Check out Sarah’s videos on colt starting at Tom McCutcheon’s VirtualHorseHelp.com: