In Training: From Round Pen
In the first of this three-part series on Ryan Lovendahl’s training timeline, learn how his philosophy for the first six months of a young horse’s career sets the stage for long-term success. – Article and Photos by Danika Kent
“I’VE NEVER BEEN A FLASH-IN-THE-PAN FUTURITY HORSE KIND OF GUY. If they’re begging to go, they’ll go, but if not, we’ll give them the time they need to become long-term rodeo horses.”
Such is the substance of the take-it-easy approach that Ryan Lovendahl has applied to scores of barrel horses, many of whom have gone on to have successful careers with other jockeys and effectually speak for themselves from their success in the agedevent arena to the rodeo ranks. Four of those horses, in particular, found futurity fortune before climbing to the pinnacle of our sport, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo – the stallion, Blazin Jetolena, ridden by Melanie Southard, and his protégé, Sheza Blazin Move, ridden by Christy Loflin, as well as MP Meter My Hay and MP A Man With Roses, both piloted by Sherry Cervi.
“In barrel racing, they don’t have to be a futurity horse until they’re 4 or 5. Cutting horses and reining horses go to their biggest event as 3-year-olds, at the start of our year. They have to put a lot of pressure on those horses as 2-year-olds. I’ve never felt like barrel racers have to do that as much as trainers in other events, especially for me; I like to keep my futurity horses as 5-year-olds,” explains Lovendahl, who trained reining horses with Noel Skinner before he converted his own college calf roping horse to the barrel pattern.
Lovendahl will be the first to concede that his timeline is a bit different than most futurity trainers. While he grants that it’s less economical for some owners to hold a horse that extra year and knows certain bloodlines mature earlier than others, he believes that in most cases, the extra time makes a measurable difference in a horse’s capacity to stay sound of mind and body.
“I have a little brown mare that is 6 and she is hot. We’ve kept her slow, kept her right and didn’t enter her until the fall of her 5-year-old year. If you’d have run that horse as a 4-year-old, she’d be somebody’s broodmare; you’d have blown her right through the roof. But right now she’s winning a buckle series and has been in the 1D seven runs in a row. It looks like she’s going to have a great career. With some confidence, she’ll do pretty well.”
With consideration for each individual’s physical and mental level of maturity, Lovendahl starts his colts as early as they will allow.
“We usually get on our horses anywhere from January to April of their 2-year-old year, depending on their physical abilities. You do not want to be riding anything that has open knee joints or joints that aren’t fully developed. If the horse isn’t 100 percent matured and grown, he’s going to have growing pains. Blazin Jetolena went to the futurities as a 4-year-old, but I think stallions are a lot stronger at a younger age due to the testosterone.”
Even in the earliest stages of a horse’s training, Lovendahl’s efforts are concentric to the end result and where the clock is not concerned, slower is faster.
“When I start my colts, I go slow. My philosophy is to teach them one small thing each day, not going forward until each maneuver is perfected and the horse is doing it mostly on his own. I show him what I want, he does the work on his own. A horse that is working on his own is going to be a much more consistent horse, and down the road, better able to handle different ground and the different situations that he is going to encounter in competition.”
Rationale in the Round Pen
Lovendahl spends the first 30 to 60 days in the round pen with a 2-year-old, taking advantage of the physical and mental barriers that come with solid walls.
“I feel like the horse has a little bit of security for his own mind and you have a lot more of his attention when you’re in there. One of the biggest things right from the getgo is to build a bond for the horse to really rely on and trust that the rider knows what they’re doing. That horse has got to know that whatever you’re asking him to do is not going to get him into trouble, and that will make him more willing. In the round pen, Lovendahl instills tools as well as trust. In the first two months, his 2-year-olds learn the foundation of his time-tested program. He uses a methodical approach based on an understanding of the horse’s thought process to introduce the basics.
“If I’m stopping, the first step is to sit down, the second step is to say whoa, and the third step is to pick up and ask him to stop with my reins. Pulling on a horse’s mouth is not what he wants,” Lovendahl explains. “So if I sit down and say whoa and he still doesn’t stop, I pick up the reins, stop him, and go ahead and get onto him a little bit and back him up. If you’re consistent with those steps, a horse learns that when you sit down and say whoa, the next thing that comes is the pulling on the mouth and backing up. He thinks he can avoid you pulling on his mouth. You have to let him know that’s the truth. When he feels you sit down and say whoa, he’s going to stop and you leave him alone. Now he’s learned to listen to much lighter cues.”
Following this philosophy instills in a horse the incentive to work on his own. Lovendahl applies the same approach in teaching a horse to give to pressure from his reins and legs.
“The first 30 days,to me, is really the foundation that you’re going to probably deal with his whole entire career.”
“When you’re teaching a horse leg cues, you have to show him what direction you’re asking him to go. That may even be going forward. I’m not a big kicker; the only reason a horse ever gets spurred on is because he’s not done something when I’ve asked him or he’s not tried hard enough. As soon as that horse does try hard enough, you’ve got to give it back to him. You can’t just keep kicking on him or he’s never going to see a way out or have any incentive to be better.
“The turn is going to be the same type of a deal. I’m going to pull the nose first, then come with the outside rein, and then I’m going to apply a spur with my outside leg. Pretty soon, when you come with the very first cue with the inside rein, he knows the steps that are going to follow and he’s going to come to that inside rein and bring the outside of his body with him, because he knows that if he doesn’t, you’re going to get him in trouble and bring in that outside leg to make him finish. Pretty soon, these horses start to listen to your fingertips because they know that if they beat you to the punch, you’ll leave them alone.”
Lovendahl cites this process as the reason his horses stay relaxed and work willingly and consistently at the top of their game.
“They know what’s coming. They’ve got that confidence and it’s just the same thing they do everyday and it’s no big deal. But in the same sense, they’ll go in there and give you 110 percent because they know what you expect.”
To the Pasture, Not the Pattern
From the round pen, Lovendahl bypasses the arena and rides out to the pasture with all the necessary tools at his disposal.
“When my horses are handling really well in the round pen, I venture out to the pasture. I have them out turning trees, jumping over logs and into and out of dried-up river beds, even loping circles in the water. These skills and different situations add to their athletic ability and teach them how to handle their feet. At this point, I’m not putting a lot of mental pressure on them, but I’m teaching them that whatever obstacle comes up, if I point you at it, just deal with it and move on. Down the road, if there’s a wet spot in the arena, it’s no big deal.”
In the first six months of training, Lovendahl imprints this foundation into his 2-year-olds. While he doesn’t expect immediate perfection, a horse that is ready to graduate from this phase has demonstrated an understanding of and a willingness to respond to the trainer’s cues.
“The first time I ask, a horse needs to immediately understand and get into whatever position I’m asking him to get into. If I have to force him into a counter arc or force him to back up and get off the bridle, he’s not ready to go on. If I ask him, he should immediately form up and stay that way until I ask him to do something else. I need the horse to understand 100 percent so that when I start introducing drills and the pattern itself, I can do that with very light pressure and hopefully very few arguments so I don’t run into a fight that he will associate with the barrel pattern.”
While it may be tempting, it is unlikely that a horse in Lovendahl’s barn will see a barrel much before his 3-year-old year.
“We don’t just get on a 2-year-old and start trotting the pattern and hope he figures it out soon enough. I’ve got some 2-year olds that you can tell are phenomenal horses and if you were to trot them through the pattern 10 times, you could fake somebody out and say they’ve been on the barrels for 90 days. But there’s no way I would ever do that because once they’ve been patterned, especially at a young age, it’s really hard to go back. I don’t want them to take over control from me.”
It is because of the same thought process Lovendahl described earlier that he avoids taking a horse to the barrel pattern too early.
“If I’m trotting a colt through the barrels without really having any control of him but he’s really easy and you can sneak the turns out of him, at some point he’ll start trying to beat you to the punch and start turning too tight, which is usually what happens with a good one. It’s the same sequence that I just talked about. If you understand how a horse tries to please a person, the barrels are the same thing. As soon as he does that, if you don’t have him broke enough to be able to immediately put a stop to that, it could be something you deal with for the rest of his life.”
For many horses, this stage represents a fork in the road. A horse may be patterned and taught which path to follow through the cloverleaf, or trained with the tools he will need to work through challenging situations that may send him off course later.
“You can get a horse patterned so he knows where he’s going to run, but if he ever gets off pattern, you’re in trouble because you don’t have any way to help him through things. You can get him trained to where you can get him consistent, but you’re usually going to run him at a rodeo or two and then you better hope you’ve got somewhere on the road you can find a practice pen and go right back to the drawing board.
“If you go slow and you have all of the tools, that’s what turns him into a finished, automatic barrel horse versus a constant project. There are a lot of girls that win on constant projects, but they’re super handy girls. The first 30 days, to me, is really the foundation that you’re going to probably deal with his whole entire career.”
In addition to the techniques he teaches his 2-year-olds, Ryan Lovendahl has a couple of indispensable, perhaps unconventional and occasionally misunderstood tools of his own.
SHANKED BITS: “People say that their horse doesn’t like a shanked bit, but I think if you’re being honest, I don’t think any horse likes a bridle at all,” he says. “A ring bit can be a little easier for a horse to understand, but as a trainer, you have to know how to introduce a curb strap and a shank to a horse. I think it’s good to get it over with at an early age so they learn to give in and get away from that pressure. I think you’re much further ahead doing that right off the bat so you have that tool when you start speeding them up and putting them on not-so-optimal ground.”
TIE DOWNS: “My horses are going to have a tie down within the first couple weeks to the first 30 days for the exact same reason,” Lovendahl continues. “I hardly ever run them with a tie down holding their head down, but they’re broke to one from the get-go. I use wire because I don’t want them balancing or pushing on it. A lot of people will put a tie down on thinking they’ll balance on it, but anytime they’re balancing on it, they’re usually getting pretty front endy. They need to learn to respect that just like they respect a bridle; they’re going to stay in frame and maneuver off of their hind end a lot better.”
Before leaving the round pen, Lovendahl again turns to the wall to teach his young horses to lift their shoulders and counter arc as they move off of pressure from the outside rein and leg, with the nose tipped to the outside. The solid wall deflects some of the confusion and frustration that may otherwise come with learning the maneuver in a different setting.
“Getting the outside of the body broke is just as important as the inside of the body and that is going to help with a more balanced turn and keep your horse standing up and safer on bad ground,” Lovendahl adds. Taking the time in the round pen to make these tools second nature to his horses translates to fewer steps backward, should he encounter issues on the pattern later. “The round pen gives a horse a little bit of guidance from the walls so you don’t have to immediately start pulling on his face. It’s not for safety reasons, it’s for mind control. If you have not installed any or enough tools, you risk starting over or going on and blowing them up altogether, which, unfortunately, you see quite often. Getting a horse broke first is going to take more time, but in the long run I feel it is the best way to better the odds that the horse will have a long, sound future.”
Meet Ryan Lovendahl
Ryan Lovendahl grew up in Bluffdale, Utah, with six siblings and an enduring interest in horses. From his first hardearned trophies at the age of 3 aboard a Western pleasure horse, to the stepping stone that is 4-H, and on to a collegiate career as a calf roper, Lovendahl honed his competitive nature. After college, he went to work for Noel Skinner, a renowned reining horse trainer, and had a hand in the training of Jerry Lees Surprise, the 1996 NRHA Open Derby Champion.
“I had a pretty major background,” Lovendahl says. “I got to ride around some pretty awesome reining horse guys that I think gave me a really good foundation for how to get a horse broke outside of the barrel pen. But it never grabbed ahold of me like the speed does.”
Armed with the influence of a Talmadge Green clinic, Lovendahl went on to become one of the first men to barrel race competitively in the western United States when he turned his calf horse into a barrel horse and found immediate success in the amateur and novice classes. He then went to work for Talmadge Green and Mike Green before starting his own futurity ventures. These opportunities eventually led him to Busby Quarter Horses, where he currently heads up the barrel horse program.
“It takes a good team to get multiple horses trained and KC Groves has been my assistant trainer for 15 years. He plays a big role from getting these horses started to the point where I can compete on them. He takes on the tough jobs with the greener horses and he does great work with them. We are so excited to be involved with Busby Quarter Horses; they give us the best working conditions and provide optimal care to some of the most amazing horses in the industry.”