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Twister Heller’s Clinic for Cowboys at the C O Bar

Article by Mike Laughlin   
Photos by Lee Raine

            The phone rang at our winter camp in Congress, Arizona.  Twister Heller, horse trainer and good hand, was on the line asking if we would like to attend a Cowboys’ Clinic at the Babbitts’ C O Bar Ranch headquarters north of Flagstaff, Arizona.  Lee & I have known Twister for several years.  Twister said he would be giving a four-day clinic to the ranch personnel and we were invited.  After the call, Lee and I discussed what we had just heard.  Twister was going to give a two-part clinic on colt starting and horsemanship to ranch cowboys, members of a closed horseback society that make their daily living on horseback.  Twister Heller has worked on most of the major cow outfits in northern Arizona so his reputation as a horse trainer and as a cowboy himself is well known in that area.  But for Twister to be invited to give that kind of a clinic showed that his expertise must command a great deal of respect from people who are horseback professionals.  How the C O Bar cowboys would receive Twister was going to be interesting to watch.

            C O Bar Ranch near Flagstaff, ArizonaLee & I loaded up our trailer and bedrolls, and arrived at the C O Bar Ranch headquarters on a Monday evening.  We unloaded our gear and beds for the night.  The next morning pickups and horse trailers loaded with saddle horses and bedrolls began to pull into the ranch compound.  Cowboys with their families appeared.  It began to look like a “gatherin’.”

We were introduced to Vic Howell, general manager of the C O Bar, who had grown up on the ranch.  Vic’s dad, Bill Howell, had previously been in charge there for many years.  We also met the crew and looked over the outfit.  The bunkhouse where the single men stayed had a used look, as well it should, since the Babbitts have been in the cow business since 1883.  Their outfit is one of the largest ranches in northern Arizona.  An excellent article by Kathy McCraine called “A Century of Good Horses,” covering the history of the ranch and its horse breeding program was included in the April, 1999 issue of Western Horseman.The cowboys of the C O Bar with the San Francisco Peaks in the background.

            Once everyone had arrived and unloaded their favorite saddle horses, the horses that would be used for the horsemanship portion of the clinic, we proceeded to the corrals.  We visited with the cowboys in attendance:  Vic Howell, ranch manager; Harvey Howell, who manages the west end of the ranch; Everett Ashurst; Clay Rodgers; Jack Rodgers; Tad Dent; Brian Krumm; Kenny Haught; Dennis Hall; Lee Sterritt and Tim Howell, a visitor.  Most of these men were camp men, meaning they live in remote cow camps scattered out on the vast Babbitt range.

            Vic had gathered seven two-year old filly colts and two two-year old stud colts for the colt-starting portion of the clinic.  Each man was assigned a colt.  The fillies had not been ridden, but had been haltered.  The stud colts had a couple of rides on them.

            C O Bar Ranch remudaThe C O Bar runs six stud bands outside on their rangeland.  The horses learn to travel outside, in the rocks, and build stamina trailing back and forth to water and feed.  Mares and their offspring are monitored.  Vic Howell likes to have all the filly colts started under saddle to see how well they respond and to assess their disposition.  Some of the fillies will be used as replacement brood mares.  He also starts the stud prospects.  Some of these stud colts will remain as stud prospects and some will be gelded and used as mounts for the ranch.  The ranch working cavvy is made up only of geldings.  The ranch will not keep cranky mares or stallions.  The main idea behind the ranch’s breeding program is to breed cow horses with the leg and endurance to make the big circles and have the speed and quick intelligent response necessary for arena and corral work.  There is no place for broncs or horses that do not respond to training.  Vic’s philosophy is “If you give a man a better horse, he can do a better job.”

The C O Bar Ranch has a colt sale each July and sell a number of their fillies and stud colt prospects.   For more information on their sale call Vic Howell at 928-679-2317, Harvey Howell at 928-635-2906, or visit their web site at .

Colt Starting

            The colts were caught, haltered, and tied up.  Twister took the first colt into the round pen and began to demonstrate what he likes to do to start a colt.  Twister prefers 60 foot diameter round pen for his work, but the C O Bar pen was 40 feet in diameter.  A person often has to work with whatever facilities are available.Twister working a colt in the round pen.

            Twister snapped a long longe line to the colt’s halter and, using a buggy whip, he began to get the colt to move around him in a circle.  He prefers to use a longe line rather that turning the horse loose in the pen, because he can control the speed and direction more easily.  He believes that you can accomplish the same things without a line, but it takes longer and is less efficient.  The main reason for the line is to maintain control of the horse before the first saddling, so he doesn’t panic and hurt himself during the first saddling.

In order for a colt to begin to pay attention, Twister says you first need to get the edge off the animal and get it to move around you.  He says to start watching the colt’s eyes.  If it looks out away from you, bump it toward the inside with the longe line.  Work the colt until it starts to break a sweat.  Soon it will begin smoothing out and you can make it break into a lope around the pen.  When asking a colt to stop, Twister likes the colt to stop parallel to the fence, and does not pull the colt toward himself.  His reason for this is that you want a colt to stop in a straight line later on when you are riding it.  When asking the colt to stop, Twister would move ahead of the animal’s shoulder, stop applying forward pressure, and say “Whoa.”

This filly soon began to understand what was wanted of her and would stop when checked.  She began to lower her head and started licking her lips.  Because of the time constraints in this clinic, all the colts were started in the same manner.  At home, you should allow the horse to tell you how much it can understand during a session.  Often Twister longes a particular horse for a few sessions before it is ready to proceed with the rest of the saddle training.  Twister says, “All training is based on pressure.  How much is needed depends upon the horse.  You don’t want the horse to train you; you want to train the horse.”

If the colt refuses to move, Twister says you should place enough pressure on the animal to make it move off.  Some horses figure this out quickly; others take a while before they figure out what you want.  Cowboy works his colt in the round pen.Some horses pick up staying in the correct lead right from the start.  Most horses, like people, have a dominant side and a weak side.  Many horses are left handed, which means that they will go better to the left in a circle than to the right.  That means you should spend about twice the amount of time on the weaker side, but do not forget about the better side when training.  The weak side can become as good or better than the dominant side, if trained properly.  When you get the colts moving smoothly in the correct lead, don’t overdo it.  Quit on a good note, not on a bad one.  There is always another day in horse training.

Vic Howell wanted to have all the colts hobbled, front and back.  He believes every horse should be trained to know and respect hobbles.  In this part of Arizona, there is not much to tie up to, so a horse needs to stand hobbled instead of being restrained by the head.  Most of these camp men work alone, so a man must have a horse he can rely on when he gets off to doctor cattle, fix fence, or any other chore.  Hobbling also saves a wreck if the horse gets its feet caught in wire or some other object.

To teach hobbling, Twister likes to use a soft braided cotton rope hobble.  He reminded the cowboys to apply their first hobbling lessons in a confined area with a soft bottom surface, like a round pen.

He tied the colt to a sturdy post; accustomed it to having a rope around its legs, hobbled it front and back, and began to sack it out using a saddle blanket.  He said that when you are working with the colt, you could untie its lead rope after it is hobbled and it will not be as apt to fight and go down.   Rub the blanket all over the colt on both sides.  If it starts to “booger” don’t step back.  Keep up or increase the pressure.  If you pull back when the horse “boogers” at something you do, it will think that it has made the correct response to eliminate your pressure.  If you keep steadily working with the sacking out, the horse will soon get over being upset.  Twister believes “If you have a horse looking for trouble, find out about it right away.”  This will save you a wreck later on.

Getting on a colt bare back.Next, Twister tied the colt back up to the post.  It was still hobbled front and back.   He leaned across the colt from both sides, rubbed it all over, and then climbed up on it bareback.  He got up on both sides and patted it all over while on its back.  The important idea here is not to let the horse buck, if possible.  He believes that if a horse learns to buck at this point, it may continue to do so later on.  If you do things right at this time in the early training, most well bred horses will not buck.

Step 1:  Saddling.  Throw the saddle on the colt.  Twister says, “Don’t sneak around a colt.”  Start right out by throwing your saddle on the horse like you would a trained horse.  Secure the cinch and make sure the saddle will stay put.  If you use a double rigged saddle, pull the rear cinch up not tightly, but where the horse knows that it is there.  Take the hobbles off, starting with the back ones.  Attach the longe line and let the horse think about what is going on.  Take the front hobbles off.  Let the horse realize it is no longer hobbled.  Don’t push the horse at this time.  A few steps with the saddle are good.  When it had relaxed a bit with the saddle, Twister got the colt to move its feet.  Either direction is fine.  It makes no difference; you just want the colt to move out with the saddle on.  The point here is to get the colt to learn to go around you in the round pen before you attempt to get in the saddle.

Step 2:  Bridling.  Twister placed a snaffle bit in the colt’s mouth.  He likes to adjust the snaffle at first so that there is one small wrinkle showing on each corner of the mouth.  Most colts will chew on the snaffle to start, and some will get their tongue over the bit. That is okay to start with, but only for the first two or three days.  Then Twister hooked the longe line into the snaffle ring and started the colt around the pen.  If the colt was looking out, he bumped it to the inside with the line.  Soon the colt started licking its lips and its head came down, a good sign that it was beginning to pay attention to the training

            Step 3:  “Pull the horse around.”  This is a very important step because a colt learns to give to the bit pressure.  When you finally ride the colt, you will have some control and be able to pull its head around if the horse starts to run off or buck.  The longe line was snapped into the snaffle ring and the line placed either around the saddle horn or behind the cantle of the saddle from the same side as it was snapped.  Twister gently pulled the line until the horse came around in the direction it was pulled.  Colts learn to give to the bit quickly with this exercise.  He says to remember not to force them.  Let them figure it out.  Again, with most horses there is a weak side and a better side.  You will need to work twice as much on the weak side, but remember not to forget the good side.  Twister had each man pull their colts around at least three times on each side.  All of this tells you how quickly your horse can learn and its attitude toward learning.

First saddlingEach cowboy took his colt individually into the round pen and Twister helped him with longeing, hobbling, saddling, bridling, pulling around, and getting their horse to move around the round pen with the saddle on.

The first day, all the colts were longed, hobbled, sacked out, saddled, bridled, and pulled around.  No rides.  This approach is a much safer way than just getting on and hoping for the best.  At home, you could take as many days with these steps as is comfortable for you and your horse.  Twister says the first day is always the hardest and each succeeding day will become easier.

Working the colts with the cowboys.On the second day, the colts were again each, longed, hobbled, saddled, bridled, and pulled around.  There was a big improvement in how each horse responded.  Many of the colts started to anticipate the pull around and started around with almost no pressure on the longe line.  Some of the colts were somewhat reluctant to give to the bit pressure.  Those colts should be pulled around for another day or two.  When they understand the pull, they can have their head tied around if you wish.  To tie their head around, you may use a snap to the snaffle and a line back to the rear flank cinch buckle of the saddle.    The colts soon learn to give to the bit pressure in a circle.  Soon the colt will realize that if it bends its neck, the pressure is off its mouth. Twister only liked to do this for a few minutes at a time and made sure it was closely supervised.  This step is the start of being able to “double” your horse if it wants to run off or buck.

The colts were then hobbled in the front and the saddle tightened.  The cowboys stepped up and down on the stirrup, placing weight in the stirrup, and eventually swinging their other leg over the saddle.  By hobbling the horse in the front, it learns not to walk off when the rider is getting on.  The cowboys were advised not to wear spurs for the first couple of rides on these colts because it is too easy to overuse spurs at first when they are not actually needed.

When the colts were comfortable with pressure in the stirrup on both sides, the hobbles were removed.  The man stepped up on his colt and rode around the round pen.  There was no bucking.  Twister suggested, after the first couple of days, the men should ride outside on these two year olds so they wouldn’t become bored with the round pen.  He said they should be ridden every day for ten or twelve days.  If a horse gets mad or tries to run off, go back to the round pen for a session.  After each session you should tie the colt up for a while and let them “soak” and absorb what has taken place.  Twister said “Very few colts run or buck with a rider using this system of colt starting.  From my experience, only about three percent may run or buck.”Colt stands quietly after the first saddling

The cowboys were all amazed at how easily the colts started and how they responded to the program Twister had set up.  Most of them had some background in starting colts and were impressed in how much more efficient Twister’s methods were.

Twister Heller has refined his methods over a period of 40 years and hundreds of horses.  He likes to start colts with the program he used here, but told the clinic participants that they could use the same steps to check out a new or unknown horse to assess its training level or problems.


Explaining to the cowboysDuring the afternoons of the clinic, the cowboys each caught and saddled their favorite saddle horse.  The riders then all moved to a large arena for the horsemanship sessions.  To begin on the first day, Twister had each man lope in a circle away from the other horses.  If the horses started in the wrong lead, they were held up and started again.  Twister explained the first thing a trained horse needs to do is to be able to gallop in a 360-degree circle without falling out.  If a horse will not lope a circle without falling out, or dropping in, the rider should begin by trotting the horse in the circle until the horse begins to understand what is expected of it.  He says to keep the horse’s nose to the inside and show the horse the pattern you expect, before you ask it to gallop.  Correct the dropping in or out of the horse’s rib with your feet.

Next Twister demonstrated an exercise called a “curl.”  The purpose of a curl is to put the horse’s rib in place to keep the horse from falling out or dropping in when traveling in a circle.  A curl, he explained, is suppleling a horse to the right or left, meaning pulling his head to the right, while at the same time holding the right spur on his right rib cage, while we are moving in a small circle to the right.  Doing this causes the horse to curl around our right leg, yielding to the pressure on the right side of his mouth and to the pressure of the right spur on his rib cage, while he is moving in the circle.  If there is any resistance to the pressure points, with repetition, continue to exercise with short periods of rest between the maneuvers.  Doing this gives the horse time to think.  This is a good suppleling exercise for the beginner horse. Vic Howell quickly learns the techniques that Twister teaches. He had each man trot around their inside leg.    Then each man galloped a circle again.  If a horse sticks its nose out, Twister says to make contact with the bit to encourage the horse to break at the poll.  He explained that this is what is referred to as “riding up into the bridle.”  This is all in preparation to teach a horse to make a turn around.

If a particular horse or rider had problems, Twister spent extra time with the man and would even step off his horse and mount up on the participant’s horse to help the horse understand the exercises.  Most of the horses used were ranch horses out of the remuda that have made their living working cattle in the rocks and brush.  The exercises were a new experience for both the horses and the cowboys.

The second afternoon, the primary saddle horse exercise was a counter-flex or counter-arc.  He described this exercise as moving our horse to the right circle with our spur, and at the same time pulling easily on his nose to the left.  This exercise really helps a horse to cross over in the front.  The main thing with this exercise is be sure that the horse is moving forward enough that we can say his hind feet are actually stepping forward.  A true turn-around is a forward motion giving the horse the ability to turn around fast.  If he is back too far on his hindquarters it will inhibit a good, fast, fluent turn-a-round. The counter flex encourages a horse to keep forward motion and cross over nicely in front, clearing his front legs so he is less apt to bang himself or tangle up his front legs.  The horse begins to learn to place his feet correctly.  When doing the curl or counter-flex, expect the horse to remain soft in the mouth or you can go back to the basics again and help the horse to remember to be soft to the pressure on his mouth.

Cowboys on their favorite saddle horses at the C O Bar ClinicOn the third day, the cowboys used their saddle horses to do some cow work using the fundamentals that Twister had taught them.  On the fourth day, all colts were again saddled and ridden outside in a group.  All colts responded well and there was no bucking.

Vic Howell’s comments on the clinic summed up his reactions and those of the cowboys to the clinic.  “I have always been able to take my horse up to a point and then I did not know what to do next.  I felt the horse lacked something in their basic training, but I really did not understand the basics.  I have been searching for about 20 years on how and when to cue a horse.  Twister Heller has helped me more than any person on the basics of horsemanship.  Now, I have a foundation of what I am looking for.  Every other clinic I have participated in, it seems like they wanted to show me how handy they were with a horse and less interested in really taking the time to work with me.”
C O Bar Cowboys

Lee and I have to agree.  Twister Heller knows about horses, but more importantly, he is willing to share his knowledge and can explain to horsemen what he knows in a manner that they can understand and use.

For more information concerning Twister Heller’s horse training and clinics you can call 928-427-6335, write P.O. Box 747, Congress, AZ 85332, or visit their web site at

A version of this article appears in the April, 2002 issue of Western Horseman Magazine


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