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Brent Graef, Young Horse Handling, Part I

Published: 2/24/2016
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

In this new multi-part article, Skinner discusses a visit to Texas to work with Graef.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

After an endless layover, a long, runway weather delay, and a white-knuckle flight over turbulent air, I landed in Amarillo's small airport at roughly two o’clock in the morning. Brent Graef and his wife, Kris, were expecting me at 11 pm, but when Brent rolled up to pick me up at 2:30 in the morning, he was in as good a mood as ever and helped me load my bags into the back of their hybrid Prius.

I was exhausted but excited about the week to come. When we arrived at their place, I curled up in the comfortable accommodations of their guest bunkhouse and slept deeply.
The next day I woke at 6 to shower, scrambled through bleary eyes to find clothes for the day and headed over to the Graef’s house for breakfast.

I was greeted by the smell of coffee and bacon and the welcome of two endlessly energetic dogs. I exchanged greetings with the three other participants in the class and ate a hearty breakfast of sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs and biscuits while we discussed our plans for the day and goals for the week.
Brent and Kris had picked up three 18-month old colts the day before. Born in the canyon, they'd lived a life largely free of human contact until they had been corralled and herded onto a stock trailer.

They would be living in a large round pen for the week, and we were here to learn how to handle and educate these young horses over the course of five days.
It was bitter cold that first day, with sharp wind howling over the flat Texas plain and no trees to bring relief. Living in northern Michigan, the lack of trees surprised me, but I stood by the round pen watching Brent work the babies on their first catches as the wind threw around that red Texas dust mercilessly. Into eyes, ears, mouths. It found its way through any weakness in the fortress of my winter clothes.

Brent began by quietly driving the colts out of their large round pen and through the gates of three connecting round pens. He sent them through the gates back and forth, through tight spaces to which they were unaccustomed, until they could walk through nice and relaxed. Then he split them off to work them individually in the round pen.

Brent worked each colt loose in the round pen with the goal of first establishing a draw or connection. Because they were afraid, he wanted them to seek him out and tune into him for comfort and direction. As the basis of their education, he wanted them to move freely forward with relaxation and look to him for confidence.
Once each baby was caught with the lariat, he worked at getting them to draw in from the feel on the lariat and stop to face him. He worked at getting them to seek out the lariat and catch themselves, His goal was to prepare them for haltering, looping a coil of lariat over their nose and asking them to give their noses left and right.

Once they were comfortable with this, he slipped on a halter carefully and worked both with the lariat around their necks and halter lead rope. He wanted to help them understand that the feel of the halter meant the same as the lariat around their necks. Working off both the halter and the lariat, he slowly began weaning them off the feel of the lariat and predominately using the halter.

To help make the young horses understand his intent, Brent watched which direction the young horses were thinking of heading. Before they would move, he’d ask them to go in that direction. He said, “there's a fine line between blending and letting the horse take over.” With horses this young in the beginning stages of their education, not being overly expectant was important, but they needed to not know about pushing on a person or taking over. Learning to walk this line would be the difference between a pushy horse, and a confident and respectful one.

“Release for the slightest try,” Brent said, “But then build on it. Don't stay there for too long.  If you're not progressing, you might accidentally teach them that they don't have to search and try to find the answer. Brent's releases were all smooth so as not to frighten the babies or create any breaks in communication. He emphasized smoothness throughout all work with them to keep them light, interested, and confident.

Too fast a release or one without smoothness (ie, dropping, jumbling, or jumping down the rope) could be frightening, jarring, and counterproductive to lightness. He helped us understand this by working us on the end of the rope to feel what the horses felt during these different types of releases.

The colts ended their first day with a little more understanding and confidence, and all of us were looking forward to the next day where we would work with them ourselves and try our hands at the same smoothness.

Read Part II

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"In the language of the range, to say that somebody is "as smart as a cutting horse" is to say that he is smarter than a Philadelphia lawyer,smarter than a steel trap, smarter than a coyote, smarter than a Harvard graduate - all combined. There just can't be anything smarter than a smart cutting horse. He can do everything but talk Meskin - and he understands that." - Joe M. Evans, A Corral Full of Stories