Last article I spoke of why it is good to teach your horse to deal calmly and confidently with obstacles he might encounter on the trail. This time I will share with you my way of teaching him this lesson. By setting up objects that represent obstacles in a safe place, I can give my horse the time he needs to learn the correct way to address and negotiate whatever may block our path.
When I teach obstacles, I like to think of them as tests to see if I have the connection with my horse that I think I have. When you send your child to school to learn to read, he must first learn the alphabet, then put the letters together to make words and eventually put the words together to make sentences and stories. The only way to see if the child has learned the lessons successfully is to test him regularly. Doing well on the test will confirm knowledge of the alphabet and their use.
So the alphabet would be connecting the left rein to the hip and to the shoulder and to the feet so you can move your horse right, left, forward and backwards on cue. They would include a great head-down cue, a go-forward cue and a send cue, etc. And when taught from the right rein, they are a whole new set of letters. When you start combining the moves, they become like words and these basics should be in place before you start working on specific obstacles. So, before we start on an object, be sure to review your controls. Then pick an easy obstacle and let’s get started.
For this article, I am going to use a tarp. Now, I would not suggest you start with a tarp if your horse is afraid of it. Start by having your horse cross a log, a piece of board or something else less frightening. Set the obstacle in a safe, preferably enclosed location so if the horse pulls away it does not get away. If you are setting up a tarp, lay it out flat and put something heavy on the corners or edges to keep it in place. Put a snaffle bit on your horse and take a lead, whip and gloves with you to the training area.
When I teach a lesson, I am always thinking of how I want it to be when I am in the saddle. So, I know I cannot lead my horse over the obstacle while on the ground and have him do as well when I am riding him. I must have a go-forward cue I can use to drive him over, under, or into the obstacle from the ground because I will be ‘driving’ him when I am on his back. I move away from the obstacle to teach this cue so my “student” can learn the new “letter” without the pressure of the test.
I secure my reins in such a way that the horse can put his head down to smell the obstacle without pulling on the bit or stepping into his reins. I will then hook a lead into the left side of his bit, place my whip on my shoulder and start the lesson. I use a “kissing” sound to cue my horse for movement so I start by ‘kissing’ to my horse with a slow steady rhythm. If he has not moved by the 2nd kiss, I start moving the whip towards his hip. By the 6th kiss, I start tapping his hip with an increasing pressure until he takes a step forward. I immediately stop kissing and return the whip to my shoulder. I repeat the steps again and again until he moves forward every time he hears the kiss and I don’t have to move the whip.
You will teach this lesson from both sides. Switch the lead to the right side of the bit. Be sure the horse steps forward, not to the side before releasing the pressure. Don’t stop kissing even when you have to add the whip or your horse will cue from the whip and not the kiss. You don’t have to use a kiss; any verbal cue is effective if you are consistent. This go-forward cue will help you the rest of the time you own this horse once it is taught correctly.
Now, pick a side, (I usually start from the left), take hold of the lead fairly close to the bit to control the horse’s direction and cue your horse towards the tarp. Keep his nose pointed towards a specific spot and cue him forward. Let him stop when he gets as close as he is comfortable, praise him for his response and then cue him forward again. If he is fairly calm, he will stop close to the edge of the tarp. If he is scared, he may stop 10 ft away. Let him stop as this is where the obstacle starts for him. It may not just be the tarp but the space around it that this horse needs to get confident in dealing with. Don’t get in a hurry or you will just add more anxiety to an already fearful setting. The lesson is the same and the emotional training has long lasting results.
Starting from where the horse stops, kiss and ask him for another step forward. Release when he takes a forward step and praise him. In the beginning, let him step back again as it helps the emotion come back down. When you think you can, ask for another step. If he gets in the habit of a step forward and then back, still release when he goes forward but cue again as soon as he starts to step back. Repeat this dance until he stays at the forward step spot. Let him relax and then go through all the steps to advance him to the tarp. If you cue him forward and he starts backing, just follow him back, continuing to kiss and tap until he takes a forward step. Release the pressure and cue him back to his starting point.
When his next step is onto the tarp, he may get nervous again. Be patient and remember why you are doing this lesson; to condition a confident response and to test your bit control. When you cue him forward, remember to keep a short hold on his lead or rein so you can guide the nose and to keep him from running over you as an escape route. He will want to smell the tarp and probably paw it to see if it is solid so you will have to adjust your hold but don’t let him have too much slack or he can knock you down before you can stop him.
The best is if he will let you baby step him onto and across the tarp. Depending on his fear level and on previous “tarp” sessions, he may step on and then back of rapidly or he may get his front feet on quietly but then bolt across with his back ones. Horses are more fearful of strange stuff under their back feet than around the front. They can’t see it as well and are therefore more guarded. So don’t try to make them walk perfectly over the tarp in the beginning. I hold my lead in such a way that when he finally goes over, I can give him slack and let him cross without running into the bit.
I will put him back and forth several times before getting more specific with speed control and foot placement. Then, by using the bit, I will start asking him to go slower and let me control his speed with the reins until I can stop him anywhere on the tarp, back him or step him forward as many steps as I want and he is relaxed and in control of his emotions during the process.
I have had to do this lesson against a fence and use both reins as if I were riding to get control of some horses that have learned to bolt through anything when they are scared but it totally changed them from then on. Again, don’t start with the scariest thing you can find; pick easy stuff and get them giving you the correct answer every time. Then the harder stuff like loading in a trailer or jumping over a log won’t be that big of a deal. Crossing water can be another tough one but this lesson is the ultimate way to teach your horse to walk through water with ease.
Until next time….ride safe and God Bless………
Ann Kirk is available for Sensible Horsemanship Clinics or Workshops in your area. For more information and other Sensible Horsemanship articles, go to www.annkirk.com. Beginning Sensible Horsemanship is available in a DVD series with a new addition – Sensible Trailer Loading.