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Trainer Talk; with Rickie Engesser

For Rickie Engesser, the National Finals Breakaway Roping qualifier, her training program revolves around one thing: building confidence. Placing a solid foundation on colts ensures that they can one day be trusted to know their job in high-pressure situations.

Engesser finished her first NFBR in 2022 within the top 10, Having competed professionally for several years and nearly making the Finals twice in recent seasons, she knows what she needs out of her horses to win.

The Engesser siblings (Taylor, Rickie, and Jace) have trained their own horses since childhood, mostly from their home in Spearfish, South Dakota, when not attending college. This winter, the three of them decided to rent a place in Stephenville, Texas in order to be able to train more horses. While Rickie has taken outside horses in the past, she is focusing mainly on training her own colts this winter. 

Engesser’s key ingredients

One major part of her formula to making the best breakaway horse is encouraging horses to keep their front feet moving through the stop. “I have a hard time roping on horses that punch on the front end. If they’re moving front feed forward and staying underneath me, it allows me to get up out of my saddle and stand up and rope. The horses that hit on the front end are really hard because it jars me back and my tip goes everywhere and I get rocked out of balance,” she says. Preventing them from getting “front-endy” has been the best tactic for Engesser.

Engesser knows what she likes in a horse, and selects her colts to her specifications. “The way they’re built is a big thing. Will they handle the running and stopping?” she says. She prefers horses with a short back, long underline, and strong hip. Though she owns horses in a range of heights, she prefers the smaller horses because of her smaller stature. How does Engesser start a colt in the breakaway? Engesser’s overall process of training a breakaway horse is gradual, with every step building on the last. First, if the colt is not broke to a level that she needs, she will ensure they have the basics to proceed.

Then, Engesser does a lot of tracking and slow dummy work. Her main goal with dummy work is teaching the horse to find their position behind the dummy. The next step is pen roping, usually with the slowest calves possible. “I do a lot of tracking around the arena. Wherever the calf goes, they go,” she says. A simplified version of pen roping that Engesser might employ is tracking calves up and down the lead up or alleyway. Finally, Engesser begins roping slow calves out of the box. Her box work is patient, with lots of walking out of the box. A focus in this step is to make sure horses are leaving off of her hand and nothing else. As the colts progress, she may begin to rope faster calves in the practice pen. “I like to take it slow, because it makes it easier in the long run. Once they get comfortable with their spot, I keep adding speed,” she says.

Depending on her location, there may be novice horse jackpots or jackpots with slower calves nearby. This winter, she’s been able to haul her young ones to jackpots in the vicinity of Stephenville without worrying about giving the colts too much to handle.

How does Engesser keep horses wanting to stop?

“You don’t have to ask them to stop every single time–like drag their butt in the ground,” she says. “When people get those horses that do stop, they want to stop them all the time, and I think they get sore eventually. We keep a collected stop, but also keep our feet moving, so we’re not punching.” Even on very stoppy horses, one can increase longevity by allowing them to not stop hard every single run. On her young horses, she’ll allow them to trickle their front feet and then ask them to stop. She then will pause, sit, and let them think about the run they just made.

How does Engesser tune her competition horses?

Many will know Engesser’s main mount, Rolo, a 21 year old, one-eyed bay gelding. Though this horse is as solid as they come and needs little training while at home, Engesser’s “B-Team” horse sometimes does. Last summer, Engesser won the Greeley Stampede on her then-six-year-old gray gelding, Copper, which was his first big rodeo and when he came to the attention of the public.

To compete at such a high level takes years of solidifying confidence, and Engesser continues to do so in the practice pen with Copper. “In practice, I’ll make a few good runs to start to see what feels good and see what we need to work on. Yesterday, I made two good runs, and figured I needed to work on him rating off at his stop and crossing over. We tracked a few calves and showed him what we needed to do, then roped a good one and got off of him […] 

The little things you do with your young ones, your seasoned ones still need those reminders,” she says. As a competitor, she also needs to be able to switch from trainer mode to competition mode. She says, “You have to retrain your mind to say, ‘I’m not here to train, I’m here to win.’ And you have to do whatever it takes to win. You have to be confident that your horse reacts to you and your calf. You want to have that muscle memory kick in. I do train on my younger competition horse, but when I get to a rodeo I know he’s going to function.”

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