Expert horseman Phil Haugen explains the steps he takes to prepare a colt for the perfect start, and how he also got started training horses for the public.
More than 1,000 horses and 30 years of training experience has laid a solid foundation for proven success in the Phil Haugen Horsemanship program. Haugen was raised in western North Dakota, and has spent his entire life riding horses. Now residing in Weatherford, Oklahoma with his family, Haugen continues pursuing his passion of horse training today. As well as sharing his knowledge with aspiring trainers and horsemen a like to improve their craft.
It may surprise some people to hear that his journey in training horses comes from a humble beginning.
“People have thought I grew up on a big place and ranched all my life, but that’s really not the case. I grew up on a place that was an acre or two,” Haugen explained, “I rode all the time, but we essentially had back yard horses that we rode, and my father started and trained horses occasionally alongside the full time job he worked.”
Regardless of not starting out in a prolific ranching or rodeo family, Haugen rode the horses they had and rode them a lot! His father would often buy a project horse to train, and it was those experiences that shaped hHaugen’s early horse training days. “We never had a lot of money to spend on horses,” Haugen recalled, “we weren’t poor by any means, but with a family of 6 there wasn’t a ton of extra money laying around to spend on them. So we had to make what we had work, and knowing what I know now, I wish I could go back and have some of those horses again.”
“I would help my dad when he was starting colts, and that’s how I got started riding colts myself. At that point in my life though I sure wasn’t a trainer,” Haugen laughed, “I was just along for the ride then. When we are young we’re blessed with ability and athleticism, no fear, and some impatience too. I was just getting started on my horsemanship journey and I wasn’t thinking about communicating with my horse; I hadn’t learned that part yet.”
Haugen would continue riding and developing his skills throughout his life, progressing from his small circle training colts at home with his father as a young kid, to climbing the ranks of rodeo and competing at collegiate rodeos for Casper College in, Casper, Wyoming on a rodeo scholarship. He would stay at Casper College for two years, then attended University of Wyoming at Laramie where he continued to compete and also started taking a few outside horses for the public.
Haugen went on to ride in calf roping, team roping, and saddle bronc riding in the PRCA for 20 years, and is now a PRCA Gold Card member. He has qualified for the PRCA Badlands Circuit Finals and the Prairie Circuit Finals in these respective events. Winning at both ends of the arena led Phil to win the coveted Linderman Award in 1989. In 2021, Haugen was inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.
“Looking back on all of it, all the horses and all the time I spent with them, those experiences I had were really valuable. Those young horses, all those hours in the saddle early on, are what I learned the most from. Those experiences in the very beginning are what really shaped my career to be a better communicator and leader today. Because that’s what horsemanship is; communication and leadership.”
A good foundation paves the way for success.
Haugen goes into detail about the foundation he expects his horses to have before the first ride.
“Your ground work in preparation for your first ride on a colt is very important. The big thing to remember is to present everything to them as a question, so you can ask them for a response. Then, when you get the response you need to be really good with the release.”
“What this does is it lets them understand when they feel something uncomfortable, and they try to find the right answer, they respond and get a release.The release is the reward. What the release does is stimulate a response from the thinking side of the horse’s brain, and not the reacting side of the brain. If a horse is reacting (bucking, kicking, running off) it is not using the thinking side of its brain.”
“If I go to move my horse off in a round pen, or on the ground on a lead line, and they rear up, or buck, or try to run off or over me; that is a reaction. That’s not what we want. We want to pick up the lead rope, or work them in the round pen, and ask them to change directions and leave softly. They need to stay soft in their body, and they need to keep their eye on me; that’s a positive response from the thinking side of the brain. And we want to make using the thinking side of their brain a habit.”
“Until we get the horses soft in their mind, they won’t be soft in their body; because it’s the mind that is telling a horse what to do. Even introducing them to the saddle becomes part of this process. When I am working them and they’re soft in their body and mind, and we get to a stopping point, I will introduce the saddle pad and saddle to them. Then they start associating being saddled with the release. Stopping and getting saddled becomes a reward.”
“You continue from that point as the main building block for everything else you teach and ask of that horse; we are developing the thinking side of the brain before we ever step on them.”
“Before the first ride I will pony them, or work them on the ground with a lead rope. When we come to a stopping point, they get the reward of the release, and that’s when I’ll start stepping up in the saddle for the first time. It’s all about associating the things we ask them to do as part of the release and reward, and creating a habit of getting that horse to think and not react. I am a big believer that this initial foundation and teaching the release, and using the thinking side of their brain, will stay with a horse for life.”
“These are things that can even affect your older, finished horses later. When you step up on your horse, it shouldn’t be a stimulation of anxiety or fear. When you step up on them, you want your horse to be confident and ready to use the thinking side of their brain. It’s really important to reinforce that fundamental every time you step into the saddle. Habits for horses are just like habits for people, if you don’t reinforce using the thinking side of the brain every ride, you will lose that habit. It’s something that you develop every day, every ride, for the lifetime of that horse.”
Thoughts on facing failure; in the saddle and life.
Training horses for a career isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a demanding job in a fast paced, intense environment in an industry that is growing at an exponential rate. For those chasing excellence in the saddle, failure can sometimes seem like a black mark for a horse trainer. Haugen argues that could not be further from the truth, and reminds those up and coming trainers that failure is just a part of the process.
“Every time you face a major challenge or failure, understand that those are the things you have to face to get better, those are the things you learn from. Sometimes we let the failures put out our fires; instead, let those fires build you!” Haugen encouraged.
“When you are facing a lot of adversity, put more logs on the fire and build that flame. When you have those moments you’re ready to quit and throw in the towel, you push through them, and those will be the moments that change your life forever. Don’t let them put your fire out!”
“Why do we call it a failure when we learn so much from it? Those are the times when I’ve learned the most as a horse trainer, and in life. Failure is not losing, it’s learning! Does it sting when it happens? Absolutely, but that’s part of life. And when you’re competing that’s the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t; champions look at failures as opportunities to learn and get better. It adds motivation to keep fighting forward. It fuels the fire!”
Haugen also reminds riders of all levels, trainers and hobbyist a like, that we need to be more mindful when we ride.
“Be more intentional when you ride, approach each horse with a growth mindset and try to be one percent better every day, and you will always set yourself up for success. Whether that’s achieving goals in the saddle, or anything else in life you are trying to achieve. Always be your best!”
For more information about Phil Haugen’s training program, or to find out about his horsemanship clinic schedules, please visit www.philhaugenhorsemanship.com
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