Mothers Don't Let Your Horses Grow Up Without Cowboys
by Nikki Alvin-Smith

Mothers Don't Let Your Horses Grow Up Without Cowboys
by Nikki Alvin-Smith

Many horse owners breed, raise and compete their own horses but not so many of them start their youngsters under saddle. The reason is not necessarily anything to do with their competence or confidence. The reasons are often quite simply, they don't want to risk a fall, they don't have the time or the inclination and/or they simply appreciate the benefits of the world of the Western cowboy.

Many moons ago when large operations like Hilltop Farm, of Maryland, were starting out what is now a massive warmblood breeding enterprise, their rising 3/4 year olds were not started by their own team. Instead they imported the expertise of John Lyons and later his son Josh Lyons. The Lyons methods are well known and can be followed using a vast resource of books and DVDs that the Lyons have produced, so I won't delve further into their methods here. Before Hilltop and after them, other breeders and horse owners both large operators and small were doing the same thing, sending their horse out to the world of Tom Dorrance, horse whisperers of the old school, and other disciples of Tom Dorrance and of other cowboy trainers like him.

I had the pleasure of meeting the much missed Tom Dorrance, and I can attest to his kind and talented manner. Both with horses and people. The birth of Natural Horsemanship and round penning techniques were not new, they had been practiced for hundreds of years. As a dressage rider/trainer from Europe, I was not familiar with these techniques, and we started horses we had bought as weanlings or horses we had bred in our own program at Willowview Hill Farm, through the traditional method of starting work on the longe, adding one item of tack at a time as and when the horse seemed ready. The final reward being able to lay over the horse's back and then sit upon your horse and be led about, hopefully peacefully.

I can attest to many injuries sustained by both my husband and myself, as either ground person or rider. One gelding was walking fairly happily forward during an early mounting while I walked beside him. The young horse reared up unexpectedly, and pulled my supraspinous ligament badly. My fault for grabbing at the rein and not leaving the recovery to the rider who also grabbed at the rein in surprise, effectively hoisting me between the horse's mouth and himself. Then there were the numerous bucking fits that tore groin muscles, pulled elbow ligaments, caused concussions, plus the broken arms, damaged knees and stitches required from being kicked or thrown. And I consider ourselves lucky. Well, you get the idea. Life with horses does not come without a learning curve and even if you do everything right the horse is a highly unpredictable beast. With a young horse being started under saddle, or indeed a horse of any age being mounted and started out under saddle for the first time, life can become a blur in a matter of seconds.

So does it make sense to try and avoid the high risk of starting up a horse, and mail him out to a professional? And if so, why do English discipline riders love to send them out to cowboys? And how much time does it save? And is it wise?

Like most things there is no simple answer as horses and trainers are all individuals and vary greatly in their talents. One thing for certain, it is prudent to do your due diligence before blindly sending your horse off the farm.

A fellow dressage rider who had a four year old warmblood to start sent him out to a Western trick trainer in New York, who had the horse for about 2 months. The trainer was an experienced horseman and had started many horses over the years, and most to good success as far as I know. By the end of month one, he was riding the horse on the trail, across stream and field to great applause from the owner. By the end of the second month however, the horse was lame. The trainer suspected neurological issues caused by a virus. The horse was rushed to a noted clinic where all manner of tests concluded the horse was merely sore and the lameness and wobble in the hind end was caused by too much work, too quickly. So the horse was shipped to a dressage trainer and continued his work after some recovery time.

Was this because of the breed and it's late maturity, or was it a conformational problem? As always, the answer is unclear.

Not all cowboys train using the round pen. And not all cowboys saddle up the horse in one day from start to finish. Some demonstrations of 'Natural Horsemanship' that I have witnessed are basically wearing the horse out mentally and physically until the horse gives in and then taking advantage of its total lack of energy.

To learn more about why folks send horses out to a professional I interviewed Western trainer Ryan Chiappone, who specializes in starting out young horses.

Ryan is a co-owner of Finger Lakes Equestrian Center, in Canandaigua, NY, and has started many horses in the course of his career to date. I had the pleasure of watching him for two days, working with horses from a variety of breeds, backgrounds and ages, including his own mare Luna, a pretty horse that I met in the barn aisle-way, who stood there patiently ground-tied while a bevy of activity went on about her as a clinic was in progress. Impressive. Ryan was close by and it set us talking as I stroked this obedient horse and I was delighted to learn about his training methods and experience. Ryan exudes that calm and quietness that you find in all good horseman and his demeanor is open and pleasant. There was some reminder of Tom Dorrance in his manner that I could not quite put my finger on.

Here is what I learned:

CH: What is your background, riding experience and training wise? Any special folks you have worked with? Who do you look up to?

RYAN: I wish I could say I have a college education in horse training or an extensive training back ground with some prominent trainer. The truth is I don’t have all that. My experience is with one trainer who I started riding with at the age of 8 and followed until I reached my twenties. She rode the Appaloosa circuit and rode mostly western and hunter/jumper.

I remember my first lesson was on a horse, more a pony since it was only 14.2 h.h. His name was BW, which stood for Black & White as he was a black and white painted pony. That was the only time I got to ride him. My trainer believed you can’t learn on a horse that is too easy to ride and you should never get comfortable on one horse. There were so many times I walked out of that arena crying because I was afraid to do something. She would tell me to get off; if I was going to cry like a baby ( and said) I don’t need to be in the ring or on a horse. I never got off.

I learned western performance, western horsemanship, pattern pleasure, basic reining, jumping and barrel racing from her. I also helped break out and train her 3 year olds as well as auction horses she would purchase, retrain and sell. So I guess you would say my experience was gained by doing, by making mistakes, by having to fix mine and other people’s mistakes and by succeeding.

As far as people I look up to I couldn’t possibly say as there is no single person or even a group of people that I really look up to. Every trainer has a style and some trainers have made themselves famous promoting that style. Every trainer has good things to offer and learn from. There are trainers I don’t agree with that still offer me something to learn, even if it’s learning a technique that’s flawed or impractical.

CH: What is the number one thing you feel is important to teach a young horse (or any horse?)

RYAN: I feel a lot of trainers would answer this in very different ways; such as collection, balance, forwardness..etc. A 3-4 year old horse isn’t going to learn all of this in 90 days. These are all skills that will take years for a horse to perfect.

The most important thing I feel to teach a young horse is a positive work ethic and willingness to want to learn. To me there isn’t a greater reward then when I feel a horse start to learn. Rewarding a horse with the positive energy of that feeling teaches them a confidence which gives them a desire to learn more and be rewarded. They will want to learn to collect, to move off the rear end, to balance and more.

CH: What is the general order of go training wise in your program when you have a horse sent to you for starting u/s? i.e. what do you start with, how do you decide when to move on to the next stage.

RYAN: My training program typically starts with crosstie work and grooming for a couple days to help establish a relationship and to start teaching patients. It also helps to give me an idea of the horse’s temperament and level of patience. Young horses need to move and need to be occupied just like a young child, they will get bored easy. I move onto lunge line work which helps me teach them their 3 gaits as well as start to teach them to balance and learn to use their bodies without interference or influence from a rider on their back. The horse begins to learn to be confident in doing what is asked of them. Lunge work also helps them learn verbal cues which aids when finally getting them under saddle. My training sessions at this point are never much longer than 30 minutes from grooming to put away.

After about 5-10 days I will begin to lunge the new horse under saddle so it can feel what it’s like to move with the weight and rigidness of a saddle. Typically around 15 days, or once I witness a certain level of confidence I will pull in additional help to hold the horse while I mount. Once seated in the saddle my helping hand leads me around the ring a few times in each direction. If I feel the horse open, confident and willing to absorb more I will ask to be let off the lead to walk on our own. If the horse is signaling that its being tolerant but getting overwhelmed then the lesson ends on a good note for the day as a reward.

At this point you’re probably wondering what the hell I was steering with. I’m very old fashioned and will typically work under saddle for a little while in a bosal. I find when teaching a horse to move forward in the beginning it’s easier with less distraction and less stimulation. Right now it’s not about being on the bit, it’s not about collection or balance, or the aids. It’s about teaching them to learn, to be confident and to be trusting of the rider on its back.

There is so much more to say, this interview could just all be about this part .

CH: What do you think the biggest mistake is people make when starting their horses?

RYAN: The biggest mistake people make when starting a young horse is not knowing when to call it a day. Part of training is knowing when your horse has learned the most it’s going to learn for that day. Trainers sometimes make the mistake of believing if they try one more time the horse will improve that much more and that much faster. What usually ends up happening is the horse misses the cue or performs the action incorrectly and you have lost the moment you had to reward them for what was accomplished. The exercise is no longer a learning experience. If you stop on a good note it becomes a reward and the learning experience can be built upon the next day and then further the next day. Soon you have a horse that wants to learn and wants to please.

CH: What is the hardest horse you've ever had to work with and how did you resolve the issues?

RYAN: One of the co-owners at Finger Lakes Equestrian Center ( FLEC) is Dan and his mare Kerri was a difficult because there was an extensive training background on the horse that I don’t feel was effective. She was a challenge, but I knew her background and all of the issues she had going into it. She had been blown-up, over-ridden, pushed to the point of being hot, by a heavy handed, unbalanced rider. The difficulty with her was teaching her that every time someone got on her back she didn’t have to be nervous and hot. I essentially had to re-train her that if she worked well for me, she could be done working for the day; some days I would just get on and walk. She was very responsive and learned quickly once she realized that she wouldn’t continue to be pushed and pushed even if she behaved well. Moving forward in her training as a gaming horse, once I put her on the barrel and poll patterns, my goal was not perfect practice runs or speed, but consistency and willingness. This was rewarded by ending the lesson for the day. This set the stage for Dan to take over as the primary rider, at this point he was still interested in Kerri as a gaming horse, but I know he would say that my work set the stage for a successful transition into dressage work.

CH: What is the advantage of sending a horse out to you?

RYAN: The advantage to having me start a horse is that you are starting with a horse that knows nothing, and I lay the ground work for whatever the future training goals are for the horse. This all starts with the relationship of trust that I described with Kerri. There is a certain point early in training where all disciplines rely on the same fundamentals. The horse learns to move forward in all 3 gaits off the hind-end in a balanced way, begins to learn the basic responses to the aids, learns a tempo and starts to learn consistency. These early lessons for the horse can come with a lot games and evasions that other trainers who work in specific disciplines don’t want to put up with.

Many trainers would rather have a horse that has moved beyond the basic responses to the aids, and learned to use their body effectively. I have heard a lot of owners call it “getting the bucks out” while I like to call it laying a solid foundation for the horse to be successful in the job it will be asked to do.

CH: What breeds and types of rehab cases have you done?

RYAN: I’ve trained and rehabbed various breeds, including, Quarter horses, Thoroughbreds, Paints, Appaloosas and Lipizzaner. I currently have a 7 year old Dutch warmblood in training and had a lot of fun training a 5 year old Oldenburg which was a son of Quaterback. This horse and owner spent 4 months in training with me and went on to apprentice in Florida with an Olympic dressage rider/trainer, the ideal outcome of my training program.

CH: What is Best way to contact you i.e. email/website/tel

RYAN: The easiest and best way to contact me is by email at Additional information about me and our stables can be found on our website at

CH: What is the mission of FLEC?

RYAN: The most important idea behind our stables is that we are an ego free facility where people of all disciplines and education levels can ride free of judgment or ridicule. Professionals can come in and work with their clients and their horses without worrying about stepping on toes. Our facility is about caring for horses and enjoying our horses in the best possible way and that everyone has something to learn and to teach us. Our hope is that by presenting this style of care we promote a community atmosphere within the horse industry, which is often cut throat.

I make sure this is brought into my training program as well. I know I won’t be last stop in a young horses training and believe a client’s horse should be set up to be as successful as possible for the owner and future trainer. If a person isn’t sure what the next step is or who should help complete their horses training then I will help find an appropriate trainer based on the persons goals.

I noted while I was at FLEC that the mission statement held true. With dressage trainer Kim Preston, horse care specialist and barn manager Dan Schubmehl ( FLEC co-owner) and farrier Paul Batz ( FLEC co-owner) the team is impressive. Riders of a variety of disciplines took to the ring after the clinic, including autistic kids riding with Quest International Director Megan Malan, and Western trail and English riders. The mutual respect and support was palpable.

So if you do decide that your horse could use a good start with someone other than yourself be sure to do your homework and source out a trainer that works in a manner that you have seen, that you approve of and that you see the positive results of horses that are the very best testament to the trainer's talent ( or lack thereof).

And also be aware that if you expect fast results and limit the training time allowed too fiercely, the end result may be affected. Some horses simply learn faster than others, just like we do. A good trainer will not rush the horse to please the owner.

Recommendations are a wonderful tool too, but it is obviously best to take the time and visit, watch and learn if possible. I know a lady who sends her horses from New York to Colorado to be started by a Western trainer/cowboy out there because she met the trainer at the AQHA Congress and liked him. Things seemed to work out O.K. for her and her horses as far as I know. I'm not sure I'd be that brave.

As a dressage competitor/trainer and horse breeder for over 34 years, I believe that giving the horse a solid foundation and obedience training is fundamental to a horse's ultimate well-being. Wherever he goes in his life, he will understand the basic behavior expected from him and everyone prefers a well mannered horse to a rowdy one. I have also learned that not everyone or many in fact, are the best at everything. We specialize, we have different personalities that may be great for serious competition focus but not so great for working with the right knowledge on the basics because we've always bought trained horses before. Perhaps we have 'mothered' our youngster too much, not been strict enough or perhaps we just don't bounce like we used to.

Whatever the reason I believe there is a lot to be said for, " Mothers, don't let your horses grow up without cowboys."