Starting colts and riding broncs

Starting colt’s is something you would think all cowboys are good at; not at all true. I’ve been around some pretty good hands and some that were good at just about all a cowboy was asked to do but some were never as good with colts as they thought they were. One of my good friends and cowboy at Simplot’s feedlot in Grandview Idaho felt that the great Basin Cowboy’s were as well rounded as they came; I agreed with him, for the most part.

They could ride a bad one and rope just about anything whether it wore hair or not and were generally tough; some were a little too tough when it came to horses and women.

Terry my feedlot cowboy friend and I will leave his last name out, had made a considerable loop in his cowboy career, some bigger than mine so I valued his opinion on many things concerning the skills of a cowboy.

The one thing that I felt happened quite often and not just with Great Basin Cowboys was that they pushed their 2 year olds too hard. When I use the word ‘cowboy’ I am not being gender specific as there are a lot of great cowgirls out there working for a living, using a horse and a rope, calving cows out and riding the range.

A 2 year old has a very juvenile mind, too much riding is far worse than too little. The trick being is how much is just right. There is no easy answer as all horses are individuals. You as the rider has to decide and the decision is made with a lot of input, all variable.

How old is your 2 year old? Is it 2 years old literally January 1st, or is it 2, May 1st? Or is it the fall of it’s 2 year old year? Are you in the feedlot with cow shit up to your horses belly or are you out on the open range or in the mountains? How big a motor does your colt have? A big motor can be a huge problem as riders have a tendency to over ride that type of colt. Are they good minded, do they have a lot of fight or are they ‘born broke’ as some folks call them? There are so many variables in starting colts and making good horses out of them that there is nothing cast in stone when it comes to starting colts or making good using horses.

A very popular western author commented that ‘few animals respond to kindness the way a horse does’. I have not found that to be necessarily true. Some horses do respond to kindness, in fact a large percentage do but there are some horses that are very indifferent to the human touch; feed me, ride me and leave me alone.

Being abusive or cruel to horses doesn’t work either. A guy I was gathering cows with on the Robb Creek Grazing association, south of Alder Montana, got bucked off his horse after cracking his whip over it’s head and walked a long ways before he cornered the horse against a drift fence. The first few miles of walking he wanted to tune on the horse but by the time he got the horse caught he was just glad to get back on. Beating the horse would have been counter productive; some cowboys I have rode with weren’t smart enough to understand that. If you are going to discipline a horse it has to be ‘in the moment’. Later doesn’t work as they don’t make the connection to the punishment verses the offense. Trust me I’m not suggesting you overhaul them at the slightest offense as there are lots of ways to get what you want from a horse and never tune on them.

Working horses for a living makes it a lot easier to start them and then bring them along. Something about having a job just makes it a lot easier on cowboy and horse.

The Spinner place on the Ruby River out of Twin Bridges Montana was one of my favorite places not only to calve cows out but to start colts. I don’t remember how many I started there but after putting a dozen rides on them the fall they were 2 year olds, so about 30 months of age and those 6 extra months can make a huge difference, they would get a break until February of their 3 year old year so roughly 4 or 5 months after their initial dozen rides. As the cows started calving the colts went to work.

There were a few ‘crow hopping’ mornings but overall most of them went right to work. After moving pairs and bringing cows in close to keep a better eye on a possible problem the colts would start tracking and watching on their own. It wasn’t long after that I was roping a calf here and there with them. I never tried to ask a colt to do anything that he wasn’t ready to do and there were times when I would have to quit before the colt was frustrated and grab a broke horse to finish the job. If at all possible I would quit before he or she felt they had failed. If I controlled that then they never knew failure.

One big Buckskin I had was magnificent to ride but was a bit of a bronc. He was the most powerful 3 year old I have ever rode; too powerful and would have injured himself if I hadn’t watched out for him. He tried pretty hard to get out from under me a few times but I managed to get him rode.

The fall I started him I was loping across a meadow and as he went through where someone had gutted a deer, he blew. I was in my early 30’s and was about as forked as I was ever going to be. He was a ‘high, wide and fancy’ bucker and those kind I could generally get rode. It was them snaky little buggers that would get out from under me.

He made a nice loop hogging pretty well and bawling on every jump with me spurring him from his shoulders to his belly and after a bit he popped his head up and we went back to work. I never got in the habit of grabbing my lariat for a hand hold  and would keep both hands on the reins for balance. He was a money horse and I sold him as a 3 year old that winter in Butte. He was handy and turned out to be fun to ride and good to use.

One of the colts I started there was about as nice a colt as I have ever threw a leg over. He was raised in the Big Hole country by a family that bred running horses. They had dropped the papers on this guy and a filly that was a half sister to him so they were grade horses. The filly was a bit more of a hand full but she came around  nicely. Some of them that fight like cougars when you start them turn out great if handled and rode right; she was that kind. As soon as she realized she had a job to do and she was good at it, she was great. She was a crop out quarter horse and had a white spot on her belly; a local breeder bought her to raise paints.

Getting back to her half sibling this colt was ambidextrous and good minded. The filly was mine and the colt belonged to a friend of mine in Rupert Idaho.

I rode the colt as much as he could take as a 2 year old, then shipped him to Rupert. They let him sit for awhile then someone wanted to ride him and he bucked them off. The next winter we were living in Rupert and I put some time on him; he had decided he liked to buck.

I had my mom haul me over to where the colt was and saddled him up. He didn’t blow much as I turned him loose for a few minutes but as I stepped across him he tried me. I got him covered and headed across the farms to home. I rode him for a month but he was set in his ways by then.

He was pretty serious about bucking after that and tossed me over his head as I was loping him down a dirt road one day. I had been on him about 3 weeks by then and had rode him pretty hard. It has always impressed me how long it can take to teach a horse a good habit and how fast they can learn a bad habit. I lost track of what became of him after that but was always disappointed that it turned out that way; with the right riding  he’d of been a good one.

I rode into my first Reined Cow Horse show the fall of 1991, I was 41 years old and had been a very private individual most of my life. Being under the Judges microscope and the scrutiny of an audience was something that I would struggle with. Eventually I was able to get it under control and concentrate on showing my horse.

I was only moderately successful and rode into my last show in 2009. I loved just about everything that there was to love about reined cow horses; with the exception of professional trainers. I quit because I could no longer support an industry that crippled or killed horses as fast as they did. Yes it is cool to win and and know that you won that day because you did a good job but I valued the horses too much to cripple one trying to win.

I learned a lot from the show pen and am glad that I did it though.

We raised horse seriously for about 10 years, not that we hadn’t raised a few before or since but we had a stud that was Colonel Freckles and Reminic and a half a dozen mares of anywhere from foundation bloodlines to contemporary bloodlines. It didn’t take long to have colts ranging in age from foals to 3 year olds. Our 2 youngest sons rode for us and all of our kids can ride a horse with a snaffle bit.

We ran 50 head of stock cows as well as a flying business so we were all plenty busy year around. I would ride colts in the fall, winter and spring but was too busy in the summer. We pretty much followed the same pattern as far as starting colts the fall of their 2 year old year, so about 30 months of age and then going to work calving on them the following winter. We have an arena at the house so we could fine tune them or work on a little finesse. We like them smart and feely; speed and cow are good traits as well.

Three of our sons rode for Dee Craig out of Star Idaho so they were exposed to some great horses as well as good training techniques to add to their skills. My youngest daughter rode for Annie Reynolds for a short time and was exposed to some great horses there as well.

I’m still riding colts but there are days that I figure I should quit. I’m pretty sure that I won’t though, it’s too much of a passion. It is nice to have some younger riders to lend me a hand once in awhile though. Some of my grand kids are old enough to help now and its always fun to ride with them.


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