Trouble figuring out “cowboy” broke western horse

As some know I recently brought my new horse home. He is amazing. Impeccable ground manners, very calm, stoic, and even tempered. Our riding needs some work though. And by “our” I mean me!

He is a finished Western horse that was broke by cowboys and put to work moving cattle and checking fences. He neck reins and is rather sensitive. He does not appreciate direct reining. I mostly rode gaited horses prior and always rode with 2 hands and direct reining. Even in horse lessons this past year it was always 2 hands. I “understand” neck reining and think it’s amazing but I seem to have a hard time steering him. To change direction I simply hold on with 1 hand and lay the outside rein on his neck, look where I want to go and naturally have my body follow, and give slight pressure with the outside leg to push him over (unless we’re turning around/going around an object: I disengage the hindquarters). I’m careful to leave slack and not accidentally pull on the outside rein, that would give conflicting cues. When I do this he seems very confused and I can’t get him to turn unless I start really pushing the shoulder over. I know this horse can move on a dime so any tips, tricks, things to try would be appreciated!

He also is very “backwards” on the ground. Throws himself in reverse with a glance. He seems uncomfortable if he is loose and I’m standing at his sides petting him. He will always reverse himself so his head is in front of me instead of his side. He doesn’t want to leave. He likes my company but doesn’t want me at his side. Curious what he’s trying to tell me?

Regarding standing in front of you, he could have been taught from his previous owners. My horse likes to use his back feet a little too much, not really dangerous but he often bucks when he begins a gallop . My trainer taught him to face me when he’s standing because it’s more safe. If he’s loose and for some reason he takes a flight it’s safer for me not being at his side. No problems while lunging or if I’m tacking him probably because in that moment he’s working (even if I have to be careful with giving him pressure anyway because he would buck and kick the air).
For the steering part my older horse was trained the same way than yours, maybe you move your hand first and then the rest of your body? Mine steers only using body weight and look, the neck rein comes last and only if needed. You have to let reins loose, maybe you uncounsciously look for contact when you are going to steer?

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Cowboy broke horses mean generally a horse ridden by the seat of your pants, not finesse to aids, just get him where you want to any one way, tight reins, kicking, hauling off.

Horses learn on the job, don’t do dry work first to learn how to move or carry a rider or listen to one, other than when they are already doing something and then the job determines what that is more than listening to the rider, they anticipate and generally are right there for you.

Because of all that, each cowboy rides the way it works best for them and so each horse rides the way it best figured what they have to do, there is no real standard.

Cross training today is becoming more popular, cowboys are trying to learn the technical basis to riding, leads, carriage, have a bit of a made mouth, some feel and give, etc.
If you are lucky you have a horse that had some of that, you are ahead in trying to find a good way to communicate with that horse until you both agree on how that will work best.

Now a finished ranch horse is a specialist, but is not a fancy cutting, reining or arena roping horse.
Then, when you are driving cattle it will know when to make faces at a cow lagging a bit before she decides to try to run off, or move over a bit to keep another moving on, or put you in the right place to catch a sick critter, throwing that loop is all you have to do, all without your help.

I would have a trainer evaluate your horse, see what it knows and make a plan to get you both on the same page.


I’m not a trainer or an instructor, so I don’t necessarily know what I’m talking about. That said, I do have a couple of thoughts that might help.

First, what type of reins and bit are you using? Is it the same tack that the previous owners used, or are you using tack that is new to your horse? For neck reining you need reins that are heavy enough for the horse to feel. I use heavy Weaver Working Cowboy split reins, but other type reins are fine as long as they have enough weight for the horse to feel.

Are you using a snaffle bit or a curb bit? Depending on how they’re made, some curb bits don’t give clear cues for direct reining. When I got my horse, I went through several bits before I found one we both like. Long story short, I finally settled on a Myler shanked bit with the MB33 mouthpiece. This bit swivels on both sides and in the middle of the mouthpiece, so you can lift a shoulder and direct rein. When I started using this bit it was like I had installed power steering on my horse, because he started responding to the lightest touch. I also have a snaffle with the MB04 mouthpiece. It’s a nice bit, but my horse goes better and seems more comfortable in the shanked bit.

As for steering, I do it like cilla1–body weight and leg, then apply the reins if needed. One easy exercise to improve steering is to steer to objects in the arena (or even your yard) using only leg and body weight. When you’re good at going in a straight line, try going around objects. Or if you’re out trail riding, serpentine down the road using only leg pressure.

You and your horse are in the early stages of getting to know one another. In time he’ll learn what you expect him to do and you’ll learn how he needs to be ridden.


Right now I have him in a dog bone Jr. cow horse bit. I don’t know a ton about bits, but it’s a pretty mild curb bit to my knowledge. I’m also using heavy, knotted rope reins. All of this is new to him so we’re getting used to everything all at once!

Generally neck reined horses are “steered” using your weight and legs :woman_shrugging: touch of finger in the reins.

I have not found “cowboy” broke horses to respond well to tight reins jerking them where you need to go.


When it comes to bits, he may not really have a made mouth, may just have been winging it with any kind of inconsistent contact and figured what to do by the situation at hand, or the weight and leg aids of the rider.

If that is so, maybe you could start by teaching him to respond to a snaffle like you would a colt, but it should go much faster.
That is what we did restarting ranch horses for the general public, with the basics so anyone could get along with them as they learned to respond to aids in a standard way.

Once he realizes that a light touch means something and the same every time, he should start responding consistently.

Or, if it is the bit you are using he doesn’t like or understands, changing bits is another option.

What kind of riding are you doing with him?

As for on the ground, ranch horses are not petted much, some rarely ever have their feet picked up, so they seem polite because they are watchy, not that broke, respectful out of not being sure what the human is going to do next and have learned to look out for themselves.
Now yours may not be like that at all and not every cowboy broke horse is the same, some have had family cowboy broke experience, kids bombing around on them and are really very quiet and patient with human foibles.

With new horses, part of the fun is figuring them out and finding ways to both of you learn to get along.
Glad that you like him, appreciate him for how he is and are trying to find new ways to both of you become comfortable with each other.


What kind of cowboy broke are we talking about? Rough and quick old west style or traditional Vaquero cowboy? Both very different. Both give you immensely different results. Try putting your hand down and asking for everything with seat and leg, you may have a horse that knows how to guide around, but doesn’t appreciate the extra ‘help’. Also, I don’t know if it has been brought up yet, but have you asked the previous owners?


I don’t neck rein but if I remember the horses I rode in the past might have responded to your inside leg on them lightly when laying the reins across the neck. So that they kind of curve around your leg, not away from it ( or off your leg) as is customary when 2 handing.

I taught my mare to neck rein and I can’t tell you what I do when I ask her. It just comes without me thinking about it. I 2 hand it normally.

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The moving backwards/always facing you on the ground thing seems like natural horsemanship training gone excessive/awry. Many of the games/methods of various NH trainers teach the horse to back up with a slight wiggle of the lead rope and to always face toward/turn the butt away from the trainer.


A JR cowhorse is not a great choice of bits. Especially on a horse you don’t know and are trying to figure out. Because of the physics of a JR cowhorse, your horse is probably confused and trying to figure YOU out!
The bit is a gag bit and it acts by the reins slipping up the rings on the bridle bit, then the curb strap is engaged and the bit begins to turn over. The trouble with a gag bit is that the poll pressure from the leverage of the bit are telling the horse to drop his neck to relieve pressure while the mouth piece slides up the shank of the bit, pinching the lips and giving the horse the cue to raise up. He may listen to that bit but it’s probably due to pain and learning when the discomfort stops.
A good starting point for you would be a lozenge loose ring and see how your pony responds to that.
If you want to try leverage, get a billy Allen on short shanks. Since the bars move independent of each other, it makes it a great bit to transition back and forth between one and two handed.

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Can you ask the cowboy who broke him, and ask about taking some lessons from this guy? Even if they’re working lessons and not traditional arena lessons. If, as another poster said, this cowboy taught this horse his individual way, maybe it would be best for your to learn this guy’s way?

Just a thought …