“It’s about making the wrong thing difficult, and the right thing easy.” Most people who’ve spent time around horses will recognize this saying, but after a lifetime of riding horses, it’s evident Brett Rusher understands this mantra better than most.
As the trainer that supplies working horses to all Ranchlands properties, he knows a thing or two about starting colts, estimating a personal tally of over a thousand started under his saddle. He recently brought a batch of new horses to the Chico Basin Ranch and spent a couple weeks explaining fundamentals of groundwork and communication to the team at the ranch, leaving us with a deeper understanding of horse psychology and how to use it to forge a relationship based on trust and mutual respect, making better horses and more importantly, better riders.
Traditionally, “starting colts” evokes an image of a bronc violently thrashing its way through a corral, attempting to launch a cowboy into the flight path of the next passing commercial airliner. “Breaking a horse” aptly describes this act of attempting to break the animal’s spirit until it gives up and gives in and was the tried and true method of turning a wild animal into a functional, living tool for utilitarian use. Cowboys rode and moved cattle for hundreds of years on horses started this way. But somewhere along the old, dusty trail, the connection between horse and rider became more of a partnership than a relationship based on submissive servitude. By spending more time on groundwork and establishing a relationship between animal and rider, Brett’s methods open the door for faster learning. It also limits the mental and physical stress on both rider and horse, fostering an enjoyable experience and encouraging growth in the process.
This new school of thought, often referred to as natural horsemanship, undoubtedly yields highly capable horses. Brett fully believes in it, and his results speak for themselves; his process leaves them halter broke at six months, practicing ground work fundamentals at eighteen, and ready for light rides after just two years. At five years, his horses can do any job on the ranch. The process, while requiring more time than old methods, can be begun at a younger age, with the real result lying in the precision of the horse’s ability and a mental maturity beyond their years. After a lifetime practicing and observing horsemanship, Brett stands by this philosophy rooted in “making the right thing easy” that produces experienced, intelligent, and willing horses.
Many people spend considerable time finding their life’s calling, if they are ever fortunate enough to find it at all. Brett, the exception to the trend, was born into it:
“I guess I haven’t ever known anything different. It’s always been a part of our life and our way of life would be the way to put it. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do and I can’t remember back to a time when I wasn’t doing it. I didn’t have any choice.” Brett grew up in eastern Colorado with a mother that trained horses and a father that ranched. It was different then. “In those times, you didn’t have all of the information available, so if you didn’t have the opportunity to work with people who were pretty good horsemen, you just kinda had to figure it out. Mom had a knack for reading animals and so the philosophy of ‘try to close every door but the one you want them to go through, and let them figure it out and come to it on their own’ was what I grew up knowing”. Brett learned early that, as prey animals, horses respond to the “reward” of relieving pressure more than the “punishment” of pressure itself. As soon as the horse makes the correct move, all pressure is relieved, and they come to a conclusion on their own. The key lies in making it an enjoyable experience for the horse. By only applying as much pressure as the horse can handle, the animal remains calm throughout the training process and can focus on completing the tasks at hand. Speaking a language they understand is critical.
In a horse herd, a dominant mare typically calls the shots. She leads the herd to water, disciplines the ones that need it, instills a social hierarchy, and the rest follow. Brett applies this same notion to his training process. By speaking their language and supplying the sense of security typically provided by the dominant mare, trust grows between horse and trainer. The horse realizes quickly that life is easier with the trainer than without. “That’s why I speak his language. To get him to start to make that realization that I can count on this person. If I can get him to trust me in that round pen, the rest of it is a cinch. Once I get his trust I can teach him anything I want him to do.” Undoubtedly, the result fosters an eagerness to learn and a sense of purpose. While the older generation of trainers relied on dominant handling and discipline to gain submission, Brett’s philosophy uses the animal’s sense of security. Correction comes in the form of more work for the horse. For instance, groundwork in the round pen teaches the horse to read and respond to the trainer’s body cues. If, for whatever reason, a colt struggles with it, Brett forces it out to trot around the perimeter of the pen. The idea draws from herd instinct; the dominant mare will force the misbehavior from the herd, and highly social herd animals lose their sense of security when forced to the perimeter. It takes little time for them to realize that life is easier in the center with the trainer. In turn, the horse focuses on the trainer and eventually learns to read body language, leading to a much more responsive ride down the road.
Horsemanship, like most good passions in life, can take a lifetime to master. “I hope someday I get to call myself a good horseman. I don’t feel like I’m there yet, I just feel like if you ever quit trying to learn, whatever trade you’re in, if you think you’ve learned it all, it’s probably time to quit because you’re going to get stagnant. Almost every new colt that I start to this day and I’ve probably done over a thousand of them in my lifetime, I learn something new.”