Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Heather Smith Thomas — Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Preparing to Ride Khamette

Inner tube and curtain cord become valuable tools as Heather Smith Thomas and her brother Rocky train young Khamette. 

When school was out for the summer, I had more time to work with my filly — who was now a yearling.
Heather and her yearling, Khamette, in 1960
Khamette already knew how to lead at the walk and trot, with me moving alongside her left shoulder. I held the halter rope a few inches from the halter and the rest of the rope looped safely in my other hand. Neat loops allowed me to play out more rope as needed, without my hand getting caught. I’d learned that you never hold a lead rope in coils that could encircle your hand or wrist, in case the horse bolted and got away.

Now I wanted to teach her to walk, trot, and halt on voice commands, to work on a longe line — traveling in a big circle around me —, and stand squarely for judging in a halter class at the Fair. It only took a few practice sessions to show Khamette what she was supposed to do. If she was standing crooked on one leg, I gently tapped or tickled that leg with a long willow stick until she moved it back into proper position. She learned voice commands and I could lead her up and down our lane at the walk or trot, and bring her to an instant halt just by saying “whoa.”

Teaching her to longe was a little more challenging because she didn’t understand at first that I wanted her to travel around me in a big circle. Instead, she wanted to come to me. I used a long willow (since I didn’t have a longeing whip) to encourage her to stay out in the circle, tapping her gently on the rump and using voice commands to encourage her to keep moving instead of stopping or coming to me. Once she got the idea, it was easy.

I also taught her to ground tie.  This meant being able to leave her halter rope (or later, after she was grown up and being ridden, the bridle reins) hanging down on the ground while she stood there, not moving. I started by telling her “whoa” on the longe line and having her stand awhile. If she started to move, I reminded her of her task with a slight tug on the line and the word “whoa” again. Soon she would obey just the voice command without any tug on the halter. This lesson paid off later, when I was riding range and chasing cows. If I had to get off and walk through thick brush to get the cattle, or get a little calf back through a fence it had crawled through, I could get off Khamette and go into the brush or through the fence. I knew I could leave Khamette and that she would wait patiently for my return. She trusted me and I trusted her. She never wandered off or headed for home.
Khamette as a two-year-old
The next summer, as a two-year-old, Khamette’s training continued in preparation for when I could start riding her. I put a saddle pad on her back, and then my saddle.  After a few days of saddling and unsaddling, I started leading her around with the saddle on. The first time I led her at the trot and the stirrups flopped against her, she was worried, but calmed down when she realized it wasn’t hurting her. Then I longed her with the saddle on, at the walk and trot.

Next it was time to try a bridle. I didn’t have a snaffle bit so we borrowed a training snaffle, and my brother Rocky and I made use of some of the old harness leather hanging in the shed to create a headstall. We cut some leather the proper length, and using a leather punch, rivets, and buckles, we made a nice headstall. I had Khamette wear the headstall and bit when I led her or longed her, and she soon she stopped trying to spit out the bit or get her tongue over it.

I wanted to do a good job of training Khamette, and not be hard on her mouth, so Rocky and I improvised a bitting harness to get her used to bit pressure. We used harness leather to make the side reins and, for the end that hooked to the bit, we used a slice of old rubber tire inner tubing for stretch. The leather part could be hooked to the cinch ring on my saddle. We also made an overcheck out of old curtain cord that ran down each side of the headstall to the bit. The upper part ran from the top of the headstall back to the saddle horn. When wearing this bitting harness, Khamette could hold her head in proper position, but the overcheck would keep her from lowering her head down toward the ground, and she couldn’t try pull on the bit without the elastic side reins pulling her head back into place.
Khamette wearing the homemade bitting harness
This helped her get used to pressure from the bit (when she pulled on it) but provided instant relief from pressure when she “gave” to the bit, and was very easy on her mouth. Soon she stopped trying to pull on the bit, which was the start of learning to respond to a pull on the reins. She learned this important lesson before she ever had a rider.
Khamette in training as a two-year-old
Next, I taught Khamette to drive in long lines using long reins I made from the old harness lines. I hooked the long reins to the bit and put them through the stirrup bows of the saddle, so they wouldn’t dangle down onto the ground where she might get a foot over them. At first she didn’t understand that she was supposed to go forward while I walked behind her. She wanted to turn around and come toward me. So Rocky led her until Khamette got the idea.

By the fifth lesson, Khamette was doing so well that I took her out in the small pasture by the orchard and we travelled around the pasture. It was fun! Khamette seemed to enjoy the lessons and I thought it would be really neat to someday teach her to pull a cart.
Rocky driving Khamette in long lines. I let Rocky drive her so I could take photos.
We never did pull a cart but over the years, I used her to pull many other objects when our vehicles couldn’t manage difficult terrain: bundles of wood posts up a hill to rebuild a fence, our Volkswagen out of a mud hole when it got stuck, and many years later, when Khamette was thirteen, a water trough (with my two little kids in it) to install at a spring on the range.

For earlier installments of Khamette’s story, read:

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. She blogs at

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