You and your horse have some obstacles to overcome before you hit the trail this year.
By Debbie Bibb | January 15, 2012
You wouldn’t think that something as peaceful as a trail ride would require homework. The truth is, you have to prepare your horse for everything you are going to do with him.
You need to teach him to do what you’re asking him to do, no matter what’s going on around him. That’s why it’s crucial to begin working with your horse in a safe environment – like an arena – in the months leading up to trail-ride season. By working in a safe “classroom” environment, you allow your horse to become consistent in obeying your cues. Once your horse is consistent here, you can add distractions or move to a more challenging environment, such as a bigger arena or a trip away from home.
Ultimately, you’re not teaching a horse to cross a tarp, bridge or water; you’re teaching a horse to have enough confidence in you to do what you ask him to do.
Safety comes first for the horse and rider. That’s why we start with the emergency stop.
An emergency stop will help you control your horse and stop his feet from moving if something scares him, if he starts to buck or if he just simply decides to bolt.
To start, reach halfway down one rein and bring it to your hip until your horse swings his back end around, crosses his back legs and stops. You should feel his hips come up underneath you as the back legs cross.
Practice the emergency stop at the walk, trot and lope. Then practice it on the horse’s other side.
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It should become a habit for your horse that every time he feels you start to move your hand down the rein, he starts to slow down and gets ready to swing his hips around.
It should also become a habit for you. Anytime it feels like your horse is going to run off or buck, you need to pick up that rein and swing his hips around until he stops.
Knowing you can safely stop your horse will make you more confident on the trail.
To a horse, no two obstacles are the same. Your horse might go over a log on the ground but refuse to cross one that is higher off the ground or that has branches sticking up.
Three key philosophies are part of my “Building a Horse of a Lifetime” program: communication, relationship and performance. Together, these philosophies will help your horse tackle anyobstacle he encounters.
First, you need to communicate to your horse what you want him to do. In this case, we want him to cross the obstacle in front of him. You’ll use your rein and leg cues to explain to him what you want. If you apply your cues with the usual confidence you use in asking him to simply walk forward in the arena, you’ll tell your horse you are confident in what you want him to do.
You also need to listen to what your horse is telling you. You want the horse to cross an obstacle calmly and willingly. A horse doesn’t build confidence by rushing through obstacles. Instead, he learns that he stays safe by rushing through them, and he continues to do so until you help him learn to take things slower.
The next key is your relationship with your horse. Trust comes from mutual respect. Your horse will respond better if you ask him nice and easy first, and gradually increase the pressure as you ask him to step one foot forward. Reward him for his efforts – even if he just sniffs the obstacle. Release the pressure, praise him and give him a pat on the neck.
Say it’s the first time your horse has seen a tarp. The first step might be to get your horse to walk within 5 feet of the tarp. Then the next session, you get him to take two steps closer to the tarp. Each following session, you get your horse closer and closer to the tarp until he’s actually walking across it without being scared. Taking your time further enhances your relationship and performance.
The third key is performance. The more things you expose your horse to, his performance is going to increase because he thinks, “I’ve been safe in all these other situations. This looks different, but I’ll give it a try.”
Focusing on how and what you communicate, always building your relationship and building higher levels of performance will create a very willing horse. And it will make your day on the trail with him more enjoyable.
When it’s time to tackle obstacles, start with something simple, like a pole or log on the ground. Walk your horse up to the pole, let him sniff it and walk him over it. Once he’s comfortable with the pole, stack two or three poles or lay them in a row.
Next I’ll go to a piece of plywood that gives my horse a different sound under his feet. Walk over the plywood in one direction, then turn around and go back across the plywood from the other direction. Remember, to a horse, every obstacle looks different from a different angle.
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Dragging logs or other things prepares him in case something falls off your saddle. This is where you can also get the horse used to you putting on a rain slicker or jacket while horseback.
Try to make each obstacle slightly more difficult than the last. If you go to something that’s more difficult and your horse is really fearful, go back to something easier. It won’t hurt to go back to build his confidence back up.
Putting It Together
My husband, Mark, and I ride together on the weekends, and we’ll challenge each other and our horses with obstacles. It’s kind of like playing H-O-R-S-E with a basketball. We put a lot of different obstacles in the arena and say, “I bet I can get my horse to knock down a barrel and roll it 5 feet.”
Whoever accomplishes it gets to pick the next goofy thing to do. We’ve even had horseback squirt gun fights on a hot summer day.
The idea is to mix it up, be creative and have fun with your horse.