THE “IGNITION” PROBLEM – with your horse.

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Michael Johnson


   “5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1…Ignition…Houston, we have lift off.  All systems go.”

     Okay, that’s what I need.  I need that “ignition.”  I’m a bit worried about it, but I have hope.  Because one time – actually three times – I had it…and it made my heart swell up.  Joe Ben ignited.  Now my challenge is to get him to do that on a consistent basis.  As usual with my horses – after losing my self-anointed “expert rating” some years ago – I’m not quite sure how to go about that.  The thought struck me maybe if I write a column about all this, that will help me achieve my objective.  As that old line says, “How will I know what I think until I read what I write?”  Maybe it will help if I write about all this out loud.

Sherry and I took pains with the colt called Joe Ben Black from the time he was born.  Our main objective was to never frighten him in any way.  We did a good job with that.  We put a halter on him when he was only a few days old.  He liked it.  When he was six months old, we put driving reins on him and drove him around like an old mule. He loved the attention.  He quickly learned to go forward, to turn right and left, and to stop.  We put towels on his back at eight months and a baby saddle soon after.  In time, I stepped up on him and away we went.  He never bucked.  Shortly thereafter, we began to track a few slow cattle on Joe, and I noticed something…Joe didn’t seem to take any of this “tracking” seriously.  Not that the horse did anything wrong.  Indeed, we thought Joe to be most cooperative at any task you asked him to do.  Rather he seemed like the child in school who has trouble paying attention.  (I know a lot about those…having been one myself.)

Something I underestimated for years was the behavior of the horse when he enters the roping box prior to pursuing the steer.  (It embarrasses me so now to write those words.  How could anyone not pay attention to that?)  What we want in terms of the horse’s behavior in that regard is for the horse to be relaxed as he enters the box, and for any route of entry to be perfectly okay with the horse.  If we go in the same way every time, e. g. from the front, what if we go to a roping where the only entry is from the rear?  Seems unimportant which way we go in – until we go to a place where an entry is required the horse has never seen.  Joe was fine with all that.  Route of entry didn’t bother him.  Next, we want the horse to enter smoothly.  Most of us would ignore a small stutter step on the part of the horse prior to entry.  We should not.  That stutter step is akin to a small cut, a small rash, or infection.  Chances are if we don’t treat it, that small step will get worse and become more.  That minor step is a sign there is tension and that sign is an indication the horse is trying to tell us something and we are not listening. Joe was fine with all that.  Once those behaviors are consistent, when the horse turns to face the steer prior to pursuit, how does he stand?  He should be calm and relaxed, his weight distributed evenly on all four feet, his rear end not jammed up against the rear bar, but lightly touching.  He should be still, but like the martial artist who is focused and ready to spring from his center, the horse is ready to ignite. No pressure on the reins.  He stands there willingly of his own accord.  No restraint or force on our part. When the gate opens for the steer to run, that is not a cue for the horse to begin pursuit.  Rather the horse leaves only when the rider cues him to do so. When he comes, the image is one of powerful flowing water.  Here is where Joe Ben falls from the top of the class.

He’s not really awful, there is just so much more speed there.  He comes softly; not with power.  An indifferent lope like some fourth grader not really into the teacher’s lesson that day.  I’ve asked knowledgeable friends if I should kick harder or wear spurs.  All have said “No!”  All have said, “Let Joe understand pursuit on his own.”  They further cited a number of studies show any use of such force often retards the horse’s speed. ( Research by Dr. Paul McGreevy and Dr. Lydia Tong, Animal Welfare Sci. Dept.  University of Sydney.)  I have long believed pain has no place in developing a willing partner.  I have also – as best I can – eliminated physical pain in the horse preventing him from running as a cause of his reluctance to run.  Some have said, “Maybe Joe just doesn’t have that gift of speed.”  While that may be an obvious explanation, I know that is not the case.  Because as I mentioned earlier, on one glorious day in my life, Joe Ben came like flowing water.

Perfect spring day some years ago.  My wife, Sherry, and Meagan – a young woman who worked for us at the time – were turning out steers for me.  I was roping a few on Blue, then on Joe.  When Joe’s turn came I rode him in the roping box knowing what would happen.  He would come out like that fourth grader.  Joe was often far more interested in the ducks on our lake than running after steers.  Yet to my amazement, on that day the Joe Ben Man fired all rockets!  He came out low streaking like some black bullet train across the plains.  My goodness.  As I was riding back from the other end, Sherry was sitting on the roping chute.  “What on earth was that?” she said with awe in her voice.

“I have no idea,” I said, “but I am so glad the Lord let me experience that one run in my life.”

Joe did the same thing on the next two steers.  Ignition was there on that day, and it took my breath away.  I quit Joe for the day after that third steer, and took his saddle and boots off in the roping box complete with a bucket of grain served alfresco. But the next day and for several runs thereafter, Joe’s interest was back on the ducks.  The magic hasn’t appeared again, and because of injury and foul weather, it’s been some time since I roped on Joe Ben.  But I felt the thrill of his speed that day, and I know it’s in there.  Question is how do we get it to come out?  (And don’t say, “Get rid of the ducks.”)

Spurs?  I don’t think so.  Pop him on the butt with the rope?  Nope.  What then?  This…

Approximately 2500 years ago now, The Greek soldier, Xenophon, became the commander of 10,000 men somewhere around the age of 30.  Because he was also quite a horseman (Xenophon is credited with being the “Father of Dressage”) he was tasked by the king to develop something called the “War Horse.”  Xenophon knew this would be a difficult task because he also knew that horses were not fond of loud noises, waving flags, or sharp spear points. But if failed, he knew the king might well have him killed.  Xenophon was successful. In his later writings, you can feel his sadness between the lines when he wrote…

What the horse does under compulsion, is done without his understanding and there is no beauty in that, any more than if one should whip or spur a dancer.”

     “You can create the War Horse.  He will charge into battle for you and he will launch himself onto the spears of the enemy for you.  He will give his life for yours.  All you have to do…

is get him to love you.”  

And finally, Xenophon, a student of Socrates said, “Where the teacher is not pleasing to the pupil, there is no education.”

And that is the approach I plan to help Joe Ben give me that magic again.  I will try my best to be patient.  Some might say, “Well, maybe he doesn’t want to.  You shouldn’t push him.”

My response is angels on this earth pushed me. I thank God for them every day.  If Joe doesn’t really want me to rope on him, he should have never let me feel that speed.  I know it’s there, and I know when I will stop trying to help it come out – when Joe does it…

or when one of us dies.

I’ll keep you posted on how we do.

“5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1…”

—    Michael Johnson


Author Michael Johnson and his horse, Joe Ben Black.










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