You Can't Do That

           My horse Hondo and I had a lot in common—neither one of us knew very much about a lot of things.  He was raised on a goat farm, and didn’t know anything about cattle.  He was afraid of cattle actually.  I wanted him to be a rope horse but I didn’t know anything about training a horse to be a rope horse or anything else.  All I knew was that I had a horse I loved, and loved to ride, and he loved to travel and I felt he liked me also, so we had all those things in common, except that I did know a few things about cattle.  A few. 

            I was able to solve the problem about his fear of cattle, sort of by accident.  I bought a young Holstein steer to raise for beef and put him in the pasture with Hondo.  Hondo stayed as far away from him as possible.  I was putting out hay in two separate piles a distance from each other, so Hondo could always feed at which ever pile was not occupied by Mr. Steer.  Things went fine for a while, but I was getting tired of lugging hay bales so far from the stack, for the second pile.  One day the thought occurred to me that this was foolishness and Hondo wasn’t learning a thing.  So I just fed from one pile-knowing Hondo was just going to get the dregs, and the steer was going to dominate at the dinner table, I thought well, after a few days of eating the stems and left overs, Hondo would just have to decide who was going to be the boss, him, or the steer.  It worked like a charm.  It wasn’t long till Hondo was just plain mad about the eating arrangement and stood side by side with the steer to get his fair share of the good stuff.  It wasn’t long till he lost his fear of Mr. Steer, and then started getting bossy with him and learned he could get away with it.  From then on Hondo was in charge.  Problem solved.

            The second problem, how to train Hondo to be a rope horse.  I didn’t know the first thing about how to do that.  One day, in the local tack and feed store, I noticed a display rack of “how to” booklets on about every subject that pertained to horses.  Sure enough, there was one on “How to train the roping horse” for two bucks.  Best two dollars I think I ever spent.  I took it back to my apartment in Provo and started to read.

            A day or two later I was in Frank Millers saddle shop in Springville getting a few things and talking to Frank.  I told him my plans.  He said, “Oh you can’t do that”.  I said why not?  He said “It takes a lot of know how to train a horse to the rope, and if you don’t know how to do it, you’ll just spoil him, then he won’t be any good to you or anybody else.  Best thing to do is find a good horse trainer and pay him to do it right, you won’t be sorry.”  Well I knew Frank was a first-rate saddle maker and friend.  I knew his advice was good.  He didn’t want me making a bunch of mistakes with my only horse, and teaching him all wrong.  He was tryin’ to help me.  When I left the saddle shop I was hiding it, but I was down.  Blue, discouraged.  It had seemed so simple to me, I had a two-dollar book, just follow instructions.  But Frank, and he was a cowboy, had told me “you can’t do that”.  He knew I didn’t have the experience, the knowledge.  He was just being frank and honest.

            I pondered the situation on the way back home.  I don’t have the money to pay a professional trainer I thought, I just don’t have it.  What to do?  I came to the conclusion that if I did “spoil” my horse, or in other words wasn’t able to teach him right, and he ended up learning a lot of bad habits that would be hard to un-learn, maybe impossible to un-learn, then that would have to be the way it was going to be, but I had the book, the time, the desire.  I’d just have to depend on the book to give me the “knowhow”.  Why do they even print books like that if people can’t learn from them and do it?  Well it’s gonna have to be that way or no way because I couldn’t hire a professional.  Two dollars was gonna have to do.

    I started going down to the pasture almost    every day except Sunday.  I didn’t paint on Sunday    either.  So, Monday through Saturday, after painting all day, I’d grab my tack and head for Springville.  I took page number one and sorta read it out loud to Hondo, then I’d start doing what it told me to do. Introduce your horse to the rope. Show it to him, first off, then let him smell it. Animals have to smell everything. We really aren’t much different.  When he knows the smell and it ain’t gonna bite, let him feel it.  Rub it a little on his nose while he’s smellin’ it. Rub it a little on his cheek, neck, shoulders, withers, legs, back, rump. When he’s used to the feel let him see it move and hear it. Un-coil it, then coil it. Do this till he gets used to that. Let him hear the sound it makes rubbing against itself. Let him see it fall to the ground, drag it a little, see it move in the dirt, sorta slither like a snake.  Hondo got nervous at that, but I did it till he knew it wasn’t gonna hurt him. Well that was lesson number one. That was all for the day. Not too much at a time, main thing was teach him it wasn’t going to hurt him. Nothing to fear. A pat and a rub on the neck, some “good boys”, a little treat, see ya tomorrow.

            This procedure when on every afternoon after work, each day a new step was introduced until he got used to it and it didn’t bother him.  Each step would be re-introduced each day to re-mind and build confidence.  “Always build confidence” never fear, never confusion.  Be consistent.  Be kind, never get angry, or impatient…DO NOT RUSH. Go slow and easy, always, do not “punish” or “threaten”.  Always reward correct desirable behavior, let him feel your love and approval, repeat or rehearse steps in succession every day beginning from step one and so on.  Do not let the lesson go too long.  Do not stress the horse, take him at his speed, he will let you know when he “gets it” you’ll know when he gets it.  If he doesn’t and time is up—there’s always tomorrow, always end on a good note.  I kinda thought it sounded like a good way a child should be trained or maybe even an adult.  Amazing what animals and humans can learn together—from each other.

            I followed the book each day.  It was easy to understand, not complicated, not hard.  When horses, or other animals are treated this way and they start to learn a skill, they become eager to perform their “ability”, to “show” they can do it.  It becomes fun for them.  And they want to please their trainer.  Never go faster than they can confidently perform.  Always demonstrate appreciation and satisfaction.  Seeing, and smelling, and feeling the rope demonstrated from the ground continued, lightly cast the rope against his front leg.  His other front leg-his back legs etc.  Toss it on his back, let him feel it slither on his body, do this till he gets bored.  Let him see you twirl the rope over your head and throw it at something, pull the slack and tighten the noose.  Let him see and understand that whole process till he “savvy’s” what’s going on.  Toss a loop, onto his head.  Repeat, repeat.  When he doesn’t shy, or just lets you do it-he’s got it.  Move on.

            Sitting on the horse-let him see the rope in your hands, twirl it, toss it to the ground etc. till he gets used to it being thrown from his back by you.  Retrieve it, dragging it along the ground toward him etc. step by step.

            Well this is probably boring now.  So pretty soon you’re riding on a run and throwing the rope, retrieved on a run, coiling on the run.  He gets it. Now roping targets. Stationary targets, then moving targets. Teaching the dally—how that looks and feels and sounds.  Dragging weight with the rope dallied to the horn.  Light weight, medium, then heavy.  Dragging it forward, dragging it in the reverse.

            Rate cattle, follow them, get in proper position for the throw-not too far back, not too far forward, not too far to the side.  Rope small stuff, calves at first then small steers or yearlings, then full grown etc. etc.

            When I roped my first steer from Hondo’s back, dallied and drug the steer for my heeler and we stretched that steer out, I was definitely on cloud 10.  Over the many years that followed I roped a heap of critters with Hondo, calves, cows, steers, bulls, horses, mules, even people.  He was a darn good dependable rope horse and we enjoyed each other and understood each other.  It was a joy and a privilege to have trained him, and to count on him to do the job at hand.  One of my life’s real pleasures. 


  • I have been breaking horses since I was 12 and now I am a senior citizen, still riding young horses. No feeling is greater than a young colt learning what it means to be a working horse from roping to sorting cattle all the jobs so that one day he just does it.

    Larry Bentley
  • Great life story, I used to have germanshorthair pointer dogs for quail hunting. The training is constant repetition and reward for a good job done.
    I get to enjoy the painting titled Claim Jumper that you did for Gladys and me. Have a good day Clark.

    Andy Simon
  • Great post Clark! Really enjoyed it. Also love your artwork.

    Kelly Miller

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