Twister Heller Starts a Colt
Twister had a two-year old bay gelding that he was to start for a client. He invited us to observe his methods and take photos. Over the years he has started hundreds of colts. This colt, on its dam's side goes back to Doc's Oak and on its sire's side to Doc's Juniper, both sons of Doc Bar. He explained that the colt had just come to him from his client in Prescott, Arizona. Twister had lounged it a few times, but it had never been saddled or ridden. He led the colt to his round pen and proceeded to lounge it for a few minutes on a long lead rope. He emphasized the importance of lounging the horse quite a while to take the edge off before the first saddling. As luck would have it, Twister was also breaking in new help so he spent some time showing Amy, the trainee, how to see when the horse was in the correct leads, both front and back, and how to speed a horse up or slow it down a little to change leads. He had the colt stop and change directions a number of times. When he stopped the colt, he wanted it to remain perpendicular to him and turn only its head and attention towards him. The reason for this was he wants a horse to learn to stop straight, like when you are riding it, and to only turn or come to you when it is told . If a horse doesn't want to stop correctly, Twister will reprimand it by making it back up. Most horses have one side and direction they are better on, like a right or left handed person. A trainer should work about 3 times harder on the less able side to bring it up to an equal with the other, but shouldn't ignore the good side.
Next Twister tied the colt's halter rope to a bar on the top of the round corral. He spent time patting it all over, and then proceeded to attach another long soft lead rope to the halter. He used that rope to get the horse used to a rope around its front legs. After the colt became calm with the rope around its front legs, Twister hobbled its front feet with a length of soft cotton rope. Years ago, Twister used burlap hobbles, but changed to soft cotton rope because gunny sacks have become hard to find. The rope is placed around the off front foot, twisted a few times, placed around the left front foot, and tied in a square knot. Hobbling horses has several important applications. Hobbles teach respect and patience. They also teach a horse to stand if they come in contact with wire or a rope or become caught in a fence. They also add a measure of safety for the trainer during sacking out, saddling, bridling, and teaching the horse to accept human weight on its back.
Twister said that hobbling depended on the horse. Some people believe hobbling is not humane, so he does not use that method on those people's horses. Some horses need all four feet restrained by hobbles front and back, as Twister did with some broncs he broke for the R O' s Ranch in the article by Chuck King. Twister believes that eventually it is a good idea to teach any horse about front and hind hobbles, but to keep in mind that hobbles are only one way to train. There are other approaches that work well also. He also emphasizes that, as with any training technique, it must be done correctly and in a safe place for horse and trainer.
With the colt's front feet restrained, Twister used the long lead to desensitize it to the rope on the rest of its body-sides, back, rump and back legs. Then Twister took a saddle pad and rubbed the colt all over with that. Then he used his own body, leaning his weight on the colt, across its back and rubbing it all over its sides, belly, hips, and neck and then swinging up bareback. He sat on the colt a while patting it everywhere he could reach, including the head and neck. He said that procedure causes colts to be much less apt to be upset by saddling and the first saddled ride, hopefully eliminating bucking. He slid off and replaced the saddle blanket on the horse's back. He then added the saddle. Interestingly enough, the more Twister progressed, the quieter the colt became.
Twister said that the trick is allowing the animal to think about what is happening at each step. If something is too difficult, take a step backward in training until it becomes easier. Quit before a fight develops. Teach a horse NOT to buck. Keep the horse from scaring itself. When Twister finally tightened up the latigo, the colt didn't seem to mind at all. After flapping the stirrup leathers a time or two, Twister unhobbled the colt, tied the halter rope around its neck and lounged it around the corral in both directions with the long lead rope. At first, he just walked the horse a few steps and then stopped it, allowing the colt to think about the saddle. That progressed to full circles. He said that if you are in doubt at any point if you are doing too much with any training, you can always stop there and come back at another time.
Since the horse was progressing well with the saddle, Twister started phase two by putting on a bridle with a snaffle bit. Again he suggested hobbling the horse to teach the colt to stand and for the protection of the trainer. He put the headstall over the horse's nose, then using the right hand to keep the nose down , if necessary, worked the ring snaffle into the mouth. Then he put the rest of the headstall over the ears. In order to give the rider a little control for even the first mounting, Twister likes to "pull the colt around." To do this he uses a McCarty rope or a long lead rope snapped to the ring on the snaffle and runs the lead around the saddle horn or back of the cantle and pulls the colt's head around towards its tail, teaching it to turn around to the pull of the rein on the bit. It is important to desensitize the animal to the rope first by rubbing the rope all over the body and legs. The first few pulls you can help the colt to turn the correct direction with your hand on its nose. After they learn to give to the pull, they won't get into a fight with it.
Once the colt was turning reasonably in both directions, Twister was ready to mount for the first time. Twister says that there is a best place to get on a colt in the round corral. That place is near the gate where it entered the corral. If a colt spooks, it will naturally go to the gate, giving a rider time to obtain control before it gains momentum. Again he hobbled the colt. He mounted slowly, allowing the colt to think about what was happening. At any point if the colt didn't like what was happening, Twister simply did it again until the colt accepted it. Twister mounted from the front in the cowboy manner, being very careful to put only the toe of his boot into the stirrup and not poke the colt in the side with his toe. He said that it is also important to later on work back to mounting from the side, facing forward, as many people like to mount that way. After he stepped up, he patted the colt everywhere he could reach, especially the head & neck. After a couple of minutes topside, he stepped down and called it quits for this particular session.
Twister said that not all horses would progress this far in one session. Part of the trick is to be able to read the horse and know when to quit. He said this particular colt was above average. Better bred horses tend to start easier, but people can mess them up quicker because they are too smart. Twister rides the colts slick heeled (no spurs) for a time. He doesn't want to accidentally hook the colt with a spur and spook it. His aim is to not have the colts buck, if possible. This first session, Twister sat on the colt, but did not move it. That came in the second session another day. Twister likes to ride a horse 3 or 4 times in the round corral and then to open the gate and start riding outside to show the colt some country. That gets the colt untracked so it is not afraid of its rider and it has other things to think about. This colt will probably be handled by Twister for 60 to 90 days, then returned to its owner, who plans to put it on a ranch where it will be ridden outside and learn to follow cattle. Twister says that 90 days of riding is the best program for starting a young horse, because one can teach them consistently and cause them to become solid in what they had been taught.
If you want to look further into Twister's horse training secrets go to the following pages to have him explain some of his gear including "Cowboy Draw Reins," the "Cowboy Martingale," "Cowboy Training Halter" and special uses of the McCarty. For more on colt starting go the article on the CO Bar Clinic.
This is the colt starting portion of an article that appeared in Western Horseman Magazine. If you want to know more about Twister and his techniques please visit Twister's web site at http://www.twisterheller.com/.