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Twister's Philosophy
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Twister's Philosophy on Horse Training:

In His Words: 2001

Through the years there has been a group of terms, or words that have always caught my attention. I've had a real drawing or desire towards words like horseman, horse hand, trainer, cutting horses, reining horses, stock horses, performance horses anything to do with riding a well broke, well trained horse with good manners.

Through my life it seems like my everyday activities in one way or another had a connection with horses and cattle, also I might add, I was raised on ranches in Northern Nevada where we used the horses to do the never ending work with the cattle. I have been in Arizona now for 29 years, making me 52 years old this year. In my early years in Nevada and Arizona as I rode my horse I mostly thought of him as a tool to do the work with the cattle, but there was always something inside me that said, this horse ought to be able to do better than this. He should be able to do this job a lot easier, he should be a better performer, he should have much more class in his maneuvers and on and on.

I used to think to myself, I need to learn how to improve this horse. I need to have knowledge to help him. I always felt any common horse ought to be able to out maneuver a cow. He should be better to ride through the country, for example not to get excited when he finds himself in a rough practically impassable place on the trail. He should keep calm and alert at the same time.

Well, I MUST SAY: Not all the horses I rode in those days would be classified in that category. We would brand calves by roping them and drag'in to the fire.

We would work the herd at various times through the year, meaning we would separate certain types of cattle from the main herd, we would gather cattle and move them from one place to another and so on, for various reasons. The horse was the main tool we used to perform these activities.

Even though I rode some really well trained ranch horses, I still was not satisfied that this horse was doing his best. I just could not get that thought out of my mind. To confirm this, I saw other people riding their horses and realized their horses were doing the job a lot easier with much more finesse than most of the horses that I rode. This is what motivated me on a life long search for better ways, better techniques and smoother ways of teaching my horses to perform. I set out to try and perfect what I believed in. I tried a lot of experiments with my horses especially in the early years. I would get an idea and try it. Being I was only 12 years old when I started and trained my first horses, I didn't have much experience in reading a horse, or understanding how their thinking patterns went. This led to a couple of messed up long yearling colts that I was attempting to train. There really wasn't anyone who had the time or patience to train me, so those horses didn't turn out to the best of their potential. They were OK ranch horses but nothing special. I continued on in this horse training career the next year with a couple more, had a some better results this year because by what I had learned on the first two through trial and error. These two colts were of better quality than the first two. I had a couple of previous projects the year before, so with that combination they turned out relatively OK. On and on I could go with my 38 years of horsemanship experiences and probably write a book but for the sake of this article I'll cut it short to say it's been really fun to ride and train horses all these years. A lot of good results and of course some bad happenings.

We must realize that sometimes I didn't have the horse figured out quite accurately and I've been bucked off, I've been fallen on, I've been kicked, run away with, pawed at etc., however, most of the times it's been a great venture and I wouldn't trade if for anything.

To show a horse in the show ring is something that I did a little of but it was not quite the life style I wanted or could afford. Another factor that helped influence me was I wasn't really driven to be a competitive person in the sense of going to horse shows on a permanent basis. I do believe that showing horses is great and exciting, however, I also believe that not all the great horsemen are people who are in the lime light of society. There are some all time great trainers who never attained national recognition, but do have the ability to produce well trained horses that could be very competitive. These people just did not care about showing to strive in that direction.

My personal thought on this is to continue to train and do some showing now as opportunity arises. My main focus or niche in the horse world is to continue to start colts and bring them along in their training in reining, cutting, trail riding, roping, etc. and produce a finished horse that could be shown by me or someone else.

I really enjoy helping people in general to learn to train their own horse, helping them overcome some of the hurdles in this career I had to overcome.

It's much easier and quicker to work with another trainer and glean from his experiences than muttling through the whole ordeal by yourself. Horse training can be very complex and intense. In the early years of my career I really had a wrong attitude about other trainers and learned the hard way that I really did need them if I wanted to be successful in horse training.

Today I have a completely different attitude and would very much like to help someone who really wants to learn more about how to do this or that with horses. I certainly don't claim to know it all by any means, but I'm a much better trainer that I was 30 years ago or 20 even 10 years ago for that matter. The big turn around for me was getting aquatinted with some all time good trainers and people in the state of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Texas. I really appreciate those who have helped me through the years and to these individuals I am forever grateful. I'm not all hipped up on mentioning names but you know who you are and again I thank you.

I always believed if I could build a good foundation on a horse that was solid and consistent, I was then equipped to go on and finish this horse either as a good all-around horse or an event horse, a horse that specializes in cutting, reining, roping, trail riding, team penning, etc., for example.

First thing I had to learn was, "What is a good foundation?" I must be a dense person and believe me, what I know today did not come natural. I wasn't gifted with a car load of natural ability. I really had to work at what I know now. Foundation - foundation to me means a lot in fact, it means everything.

An old friend once said, "If we don't take the time to build a foundation now, the horse will make us take time later." How true this is. Because a horse has a mind to agree or disagree, and a real live body to react to what we do to them, it's much more of a challenge to train a horse than to run a piece of equipment.

My interpretation of a good foundation includes several things. Trained horses need to lope or gallop small or large circles at a rated speed. Rated means to stay at the speed they are told to go in whether it be a jig, trot, lope, gallop, run and to stay in that speed until cued to do differently. Horses need to wait for their cues and not anticipate the next move. They need to yield or give to all pressure, whether it be pulling on the reins or legging them or putting a spur on them.

We start our young horses by teaching them to give to the pull on the reins. As the horse learns to give to the pressure on his mouth when we pull a rein, we release it. When the horse gives, we release.

If we consistently practice this concept, the horse will generally become lighter as time goes on.

Horses have various levels of sensitivity. Some are very sensitive, some average, some are plain dull, and so on. We adjust our program according to the type of horse we are training. We use various types of bits depending on what the horse likes and what he responds well with.

Usually, we start at the front of the horse and work back. We will then begin to apply leg pressure to certain areas of the body and teach the horse to give to that pressure.

Most of the leg pressure is applied to the barrel of the horse. Pressure applied to the front part of the barrel moves the front part of the horse. Middle part of the barrel moves the middle part of the horse. Rear-barrel pressure moves the rear of the horse.

Again, leg pressure is applied according to how sensitive the horse is. Spurs will nearly always be used, but moderately and with good judgment.

Horses normally will defend themselves when we start to use spurs on them a little. To do this, they brace and become tense in their rib cage. All we have to do is not force the issue as this happens, but simply outlast them, and when they finally give to the pressure, reward them by taking the spur completely away. Soon, they will learn to give to the pressure to avoid the spur, rather than bracing into the spur on defense against the pressure. As horses become better at giving to pressure, we begin to use what they have learned to advance their training.

When galloping circles, we can use the pressure lessons in three areas.

  1. There will be a part of the circle, generally closest to the gate, where he tries to fade out by hanging his rib cage out toward the gate.
  2. At the part of the circle farthest from the gate, he may drop his rib cage and his shoulder inward to flatten the circle. He's still thinking about the gate. In both these cases, we will use leg and spur pressure if necessary to keep the horse (and his rib cage) in the proper arc. The leg and the spur lift and push the rib cage back where it should be. If the horse gets confused during this, we usually slow down to a trot for a couple of days until he accepts his training. Adding speed creates a whole new atmosphere.
  3. Nearly all horses will naturally accelerate when we apply leg pressure, because they don't yet understand that we are just applying one leg to their rib cage. It takes awhile for a horse to learn that pressure from one leg means to move away from that leg, not to accelerate. The more body control we have in a horse, the easier it is to train him without frustrating his mind.

It's important to try not to correct a horse of too many mistakes at one time. We usually only try to solve one problem at a time. It all depends on the disposition and temperament of the horse. We try to judge what the horse can grasp in any one training session.

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TWISTER HELLER (Article by Mike Laughlin):

My first acquaintance with Twister Heller came from a Wickenburg, Arizona newspaper ad that says "Twister Heller, Horse breaking and Training ...Honest job, Honest price, A durn good horse!" With a name like "Twister" and an ad like that, this man rose to the top of my "To Meet" list. I had heard of Twister by reputation, but had never met him personally.

I drove from my winter camp in Wickenburg to the Ox Ranch, north-east of Congress, Arizona, where Twister and his wife Sandy now live. During my visit, I found out that Twister is the son of Lope Heller, who, at one time ran several big cow outfits including the Squaw Valley Camp on Ellison Ranching Company's Spanish Ranch, north-west of Elko, Nevada and the Circle A Ranch in Paradise Valley, out of Winnemucca, Nevada. Twister was raised on the big wagon buckaroo cow outfits of Northern Nevada and broke his first ranch horses when he was 12 years old. I am well acquainted in that part of Nevada, having lived there for a number of years. We knew a lot of the same country and cowboys, and had a lot to talk about.

Twister said he left the high sagebrush desert country of north-eastern Nevada and drifted into Arizona to work on several Arizona cow outfits. I learned that Twister had been featured in a pair of articles called "Bill Owen, Twister Heller, and the R O's Horses," written for Western Horseman Magazine by Chuck King and appearing in the August and September editions of 1978, and another titled "Use of the McCarty," also by Chuck King, that appeared in June, 1981. Twister, in 1978, was the horse foreman for the R O's Ranch, one of the largest cow outfits in the state of Arizona. The R O's (as it is called locally) is near Seligman in northern Arizona. He was responsible for 150 head of their horse breeding stock-- mares, colts, and stallions. Twister's job also was to start young ranch horses, riding them until they could be put into the R O's remuda. [saddle horse geldingss for the cowboys who work the cattle]

After reading those articles, the first of which was written when Twister was 29 years old, I realized that the intervening 19 years have added numerous refinements and tricks to his extraordinary horse handling talents. It was time for the magazine to revisit Twister and his techniques for the first saddling of a colt, the uses of the McCarty, and the tricks he uses on older or problem horses, including the "Cowboy Martingale", "Cowboy Training Halter," and "Cowboy Draw Reins."

Twister has worked with a number of good trainers over the years. Among those were reining cow horse trainer Melvin Jones (deceased) of Carlin, Nevada, Mike Kevil of Cave Creek, Arizona, and Al Dunning of Scottsdale, Arizona. The trainer he credits with being the best communicator and teaching him the most was a reining horse trainer named Ray Hall of Colburn, Colorado. Twister said that some trainers can teach other people what they are doing with horses, but some cannot. Twister himself has this facility to explain to someone else exactly what he is doing.

Today, Twister trains, rides, and breeds horses for himself and the general public. He has three stallions standing at stud and has lots of horses in every level of training. He trains outside horses for working cow horse, reining, cutting, team penning, ranch work, trail riding--you name it Twister does it! Starting colts and working with problem horses are specialties. Twister's latest project is an apprenticeship program for aspiring trainers and horse owners. These individuals can spend a custom-tailored amount of time with Twister, riding horses and learning Twister's common sense training techniques. Twister says that his struggle has always been to find someone to teach him how, to express to the rider how to accomplish what the trainer was doing with a horse, and he wants to communicate that to his interns.

Twister's horse training camp sets between the Weaver Mountains and the Date Creek Mountains in the upper Sonoran desert--A country that looks like the real Arizona--rocks, cactus, mountains, and desert cattle. It is a big desert country that is ideal for riding horses outside, year around.

Mike Laughlin

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Disclaimer For Student & Trainers: Equine training can be a hazardous activity which may subject the participants to possible serious injury. Twister Heller, Sandy Heller and their associates will not assume any liability for your activities. Our schooling provides you with a supervised, professional approach ranging from general information to advanced information, instruction and techniques that may not be suitable for everyone. No warranty is given regarding the suitability of this information, the instructions, and techniques to you or other individuals acting on their own behalf.

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