War Drum and The Basics

A horse that nearly was sent to the killers because of his dangerous habits learned "The Basics" and became a good citizen. 

No one would ever mistake War Drum for a reining horse. At 16.2 hands high, the rangy, blaze-face chestnut gelding looks like what he is--an off-the-track Thoroughbred with a smattering of jump, dressage, and field hunter experience. But, for right now, he is learning "The Basics" that Dr. Andy Anderson puts on his reining horses that were discussed in earlier issues of The Horse. And, for right now, they are saving him from the junk-horse sale barn.

I bought War Drum as a 6-year-old field hunter prospect more than three years ago. I'm now a joint master and senior whipper-in to our hunt in northeastern Oklahoma. My main hunter is still strong and capable, but he's starting to get some age on him (aren't we all?).

War Drum quickly showed that he had the ability and desire to jump, and his first few outings in the hunt field were very promising. Then he began to develop serious behavior problems. Fifteen minutes into every outing, he would become increasingly difficult and fractious, winding up ungovernable and dangerous. His behavior at home was much milder, but it still could be cantankerous.

By the fall of 2005, I had given up and sent him off with a show jumper trainer, thinking he could learn that trade and at least be salable. He did very creditably in the novice ring, but did not sell, and in the summer of 2006 I had him back. After several difficult outings during the 2006-2007 hunt season, I was about ready to admit I had made a mistake.

Last May another young lady wanted to try him, but after a two-hour group ride, he was again more or less out of control. By then I was ready to ship him to the nearest loose-horse sale.

I discussed the problem with Dr. Anderson, and he suggested I bring War Drum over and start him on "The Basics." His idea was that the problem was the horse was not really broke.

Since we started working him in late May, he is now doing Basic #1 and Basic #2 pretty reliably, and is starting on Basic #3. He has also learned to back quietly, to stand quietly with no rein control, and to bring his nose to my boot toe on cue. More importantly, he is working quietly and willingly. His jumping has become remarkably brave and reliable, and he is working around hounds and other horses very well.

Early in his basics training War Drum successfully went out with our hounds and 30 or so other riders for more than two hours, even leaving the other riders to round up an errant pup; the following week he went on a long trail ride with even more riders at a ranch in Kansas, where the year before he had demonstrated, more than once, his complete nuttiness. Both times he was quiet and willing, with no sign of his old problems. In fact, at the trail ride he led much of the time through some difficult water crossings and bank descents. Many people have commented on what a changed animal he has become.

We started, of course, with Basic #1, asking the horse to cross his front legs over in the beginning of a pivot to the right or left. Surprisingly, War Drum picked this up very quickly and willingly, particularly to the right.

At the same time Dr. Anderson showed me what I call the "nose-to-toe" calming maneuver, which Dr. Anderson said is a Clinton Anderson standard move. So we incorporated that into the routine, and we also began to work on #2.

In my understanding of Basic #2, we use a lot of leg and the softest hands to push him into the bit and ask him to soften to the hands. Here is where it gets much harder to describe than to demonstrate: Dr. Anderson describes the technique as "aggravating" the horse in a way that there is only one acceptable way for him to relieve the aggravation, and so that the instant he does the desired behavior, he obtains relief.

So the hands take the reins softly, but firmly enough that the horse cannot pull them through the rider's fingers. The wrists are straight, and the elbows are locked into the rider's side. Now we ask War Drum to move against the fence formed by the hands and the reins.

At first he would thrust his muzzle out, flip his head, or twist his head left or right. No relief there. The locked elbows and straight wrists stay firm, the legs continue to drive him forward. Finally, the horse himself drops his head and flexes his poll--ahhh, relief at last, and he did it himself. The beginning of Basic #2.

Then, as we worked, the periods of walking quietly in this "soft" posture got longer, and before very long, as soon as I picked up on the reins and applied leg, his head dropped and he flexed at the poll. Not every time, but usually. Now we are working on getting him to do it continuously. It's coming, even at a trot or a canter.

Early on I asked Dr. Anderson how I could continue the progress we were seeing, since I did not have a schooling ring at home and his farm was too far away for me to travel there more than once a week or so. He told me I didn't need an arena, just to add the basic exercises in with his usual conditioning and over-fences riding. I tried it at home in my open-pasture environment, and it worked just fine.

After the first few sessions we added the stop and back to his routine. This is where it got really interesting, because after learning the rudiments of #1 and #2, it seemed that War Drum really picked this up quickly. Just to show off a little at a recent hunter-jumper schooling show, after taking the last fence, instead of continuing around the arena to the exit, I quietly asked him for his stop and backup. With the lightest of touch he did a very credible, straight-ahead stop and began backing straight back. I allowed him to do this a few strides, then continued out of the arena. We didn't take any ribbons, but I was pleased that after eight or so fences, he was still under control.

Now we are working on Basic #3, the right or left lateral yield to the leg. I'll confess that I'm not sure I'm really doing it right. Sometimes War Drum seems to be quite willing, but other times he seems confused, not sure if I'm asking for #3 or a backup.

Still, the progress this horse has made is nothing short of remarkable. In the field now, I can generally stop him, drop the reins, and ask him to stand quietly without restraint, while the other horses move past him and start to leave. Sometimes he gets anxious and I have to ask him to give me his nose, sometimes he just stands quietly. When things get busy, he canters quietly, listening to my hands, and even when he gets a little hot, he is never so far gone that I cannot bring him down with one or more of the basics.

I guess for me the most remarkable change in this horse has been that he has gone from a fearful, frantic, neurotic horse to a quiet, sane mount, though still with a tremendous athletic drive and desire. I'm very much looking forward to hunting him this coming season.

Obviously, it's too early to believe that all his old goblins have been banished, but so far, his "Basic Training" has turned him into a joy to ride. He is a long way from being finished; Dr. Anderson would say he is not even "broke" yet. But at least he is no longer a candidate for the killer sale.


Before writing this article, I took War Drum back to Dr. Anderson to get some pictures. It was obvious right away that he had regressed from the last time we were there--and that my own application of Basic #1 was incorrect. So we spent some time retraining me.

Today War Drum and I went out with 20 riders and 14 hounds for two hours. Though he had moments when he was jigging and snatching at my hands, he stayed for the most part sensible and obedient, even on the couple of occasions I had to ask him to "crank it up" to go after a breakaway hound. So the progress seems to be continuing, even though it looks like I'm the one needing schooling.

About the Author

Mack Braly

Mack Braley is an attorney who has played polo and foxhunted extensively--he's a Master at Harvard Fox Hounds in Tulsa, and he and his wife also hunt with Coal Valley Hounds in southeastern Kansas. The Bralys live on acreage east of Broken Arrow, Okla., with six horses, three cats, and two terriers.

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