From Ranch Horse to Sport Horse — A Challenging Journey

Written by Sarah Crampton

The five-year journey of training Montana was an unhurried one that at times required some detours along the road to becoming a successful sport horse. Montana was found tied to a hitching post with other ranch horses in – you guessed it – Montana, by Julie William’s husband while he was on a horse buying trip for himself. Montana, whose show name is Dark Horse, is a Quarter/Thoroughbred cross with something else thrown in. Williams’s husband liked him and thought he might work for his wife, and brought him home. Montana’s journey transformed him from a timid, distrusting horse into one who looks forward to learning more everyday. His recent successful show season exceeded all expectations. 

Mary Burke is a 4-Star Event rider and USDF dressage rider. At her own Burkeridge Farm in Ellensburg, Washington, she trains both event and dressage riders. Amateur adult rider Julie Williams aboard Montana was coached by Burke in 2021 to win first place in both the Region 7 Training Level Eventing Championships at Aspen Farms, and the following weekend the Region 6 USDF Amateur Dressage Championships at Second Level. 

Transforming a ranch horse into a winning champion in two completely separate associations is quite a feat. Especially with Montana. Although he was a typical working ranch horse that roped calves in the branding pen, gathered and sorted cattle and other typical ranch horse duties, there were some definite training challenges. 

Burke comments, “Montana was standoffish and suspicious of humans for the first several years. He mistrusted people to the point that he would not let you catch him if he was in a paddock. Every day you had to reconfirm to him he was in a safe place with consistent training. He did not trust any fast movements on the ground or in the saddle.” 

Award photo by Jasmine Bradley for Shannon Brinkman Photo // Cross country photo by Alison Green for Shannon Brinkman Photo

Burke went on to explain that Montana braced and startled at the rider’s leg pressure in the early days. He also curled behind the bit and chomped on the bit when nervous under saddle. He frequently shied and startled easily from distractions in or around the arena. If people walked up to him even when Williams was in the saddle, he became fearful. And he exhibited back weakness on the left side. 

“Within the first few weeks of helping Williams with her new partner Montana, I told her that he was going to be a horse that would require a slow and consistent process because of his personality. He showed great potential for both dressage or jumping, but could easily be ruined if training was not done in a supportive and positive minded way.” 

Burke’s former career was as a sports and orthopedic physical therapist. This knowledge of gait analysis, biomechanics, anatomy, strengthening and balance applies to the horse’s movement and the rider’s performance. She explains, “Physical therapy uses techniques to restrengthen weak structures, stretch tight tissues and develop treatment strategies to restore normal movement patterns. This is the overall mission of a physical therapist. When applied to horse training techniques, it has to be looked at with an attention to detail.” With Montana, Burke addressed his back weakness and the shutting down of key muscles. 

“Working with horses that have anxiety and tension always starts with groundwork,” explains Burke. “Thankfully for Montana, Julie has excellent basic groundwork skills and worked with him daily.” 

Williams remarked, “Groundwork for me is working the horse from the halter and lead and getting him to yield both physically and mentally in a soft and respectful manner and to be able to direct the movements of the feet with both control and effort. I have studied groundwork extensively and consider it to be an essential part of my program. We just worked from where Montana was each day, at that moment, and sometimes that meant changing things up five minutes into a session. But it was ok. Montana would show us where to start each day and from there we would progress. It has paid off in a very happy rider and most importantly a happy confident horse!” 

Burke also introduced ‘In-hand’ work to Montana. “This training has long been used to help develop the dressage horse to condition and supply his body while at the same time preparing his mind to grasp the movements that may eventually be expected. Montana responded very well to the in-hand work,” Burke commented. “It helped him develop trust, correct movement patterns, strengthened his anatomy, improved his cadence, collection and thoroughness.” 

Photo by Alison Green for Shannon Brinkman Photo

To work a horse in the classical ‘In-hand’ tradition from the ground, the horse is often tacked up with surcingle and side reins, which can be placed over the saddle if desired. The rider stands near the horse’s shoulder with one hand on a short rein close to the bit, and the other hand has the rein that crosses over the wither and also holds the whip. This way you can control the horse’s straightness, bend, and move the horse forward with gentle taps of the whip near the girth, rump or hind leg depending on the reaction to the whip. The horse needs to remain calm and relaxed, and patience is required as the horse begins to understand what you are asking. It’s important to reward even small steps in the right direction and take breaks to insure relaxation. 

In addition to the basic in-hand work, lungeing was added with low elastic side reins to develop stretch through the back and to seek the bit in a positive way, instead of curling behind the bit or bracing against it. “It develops strength in the abdomen and core and encourages the horse to breathe and relax by keeping an eye on the rhythm, connection, straightness and impulsion with every transition,” states Burke. 

“Montana is a typical Quarter horse mover so we had to help develop and accentuate his rhythm, lift and impulsion. In a nutshell, we helped him understand and develop cadence. The gold standard to a horse’s development is the dressage training triangle developed to bring focus to the horse’s rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection. This training triangle is nothing more than a template to develop correct movement patterns, strength, and enhance the horse’s balance. Keeping these concepts a priority when utilizing training techniques is equine physical therapy.”

With Montana, Burke kept the following in the forefront of her road map to her training: 

– Establish a safe learning environment by breaking larger components down into separate small pieces to enhance the overall learning of a movement for the horse. 

Allow a few extra moments to understand or mentally process changes around him. Use an interval training approach with frequent walk breaks for relaxation between work sets.

Don’t demand too much all at one time. Sometimes you have to sacrifice in some areas to gain understanding and confidence in other areas for the horse. As the horse gains confidence with something new, then you can add the next layer of information or peace to the movement. This helps them build confidence rather than feeling overwhelmed. 

Ensure the rider’s body biomechanics, position and balance is correct so the horse is set up for success when asking for a transition or movement. The line of communication has to be accurate and clear so the horse can build confidence in the rider’s skills. 

Be an active listener to the horse. If the horse is not responding correctly and displaying tension, it is crucial to check that you are giving the correct aids. Be patient and give the horse processing time to figure out what you’re trying to communicate. 

“With coaching riders or training horses, timing is everything,” Burke explains. “You can’t let horses or riders move on to the next layer of training until they are really confident with the basics. As they demonstrate confidence in simple movements like downward transition from trot – walk two steps – upward transition to trot without losing rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion and straightness, then they are ready to start working on the next layer of training. That next layer may be starting the basics of collection or starting some shoulder fore or shoulder in. 

“You know the basic level of training is understood when you add new layers and you can continue to keep the basics at the same time. Riding is like a juggling act. You have to be able to multitask. It is the art of trying to keep the six training triangle components all going at the same time during your ride. The clearer you can be about the components the more the horse starts to appreciate and trust the communication, and that is when we feel the joy of real communication with our horses.”

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