Our snow is nearly gone and I am back in the saddle, working horses several hours per day. As the trails open up and the warmer weather arrives, I will begin riding my training loops with mini saw in hand to remove any ‘obstacles’ that have encroached during the winter. My horses have encountered water, dead-fall, mud and brush so often that I hardly even think about them refusing to let me guide them safely through whatever we come across on the trail. But it is not so with many horses that arrive at my ranch for training or tune-ups.
Trail riding and obstacles go hand-in-hand. Crossing water or bridges or negotiating a scattering of dead-fall are often an expected part of every ride. Less thought of obstacles might be pushing through thick brush, going up or down very steep terrain, dealing with muddy ground or having to jump a log that is too high to step over and too low to go under. Therefore, teaching your horse what to expect when you encounter obstacles is an important part of having a safer horse to ride.
Have you ever wondered why your horse reacts so strongly to things that seem to be so minor? When we riders approach an obstacle, we analyze it, determine its purpose and usually judge its safety fairly quickly. Things such as a puddle on the road or a boggy spot in the field don’t raise red flags to us. But a horse does not reason like we do. They do not think in terms of how badly they might get hurt when encountering an obstacle. With a prey animal, it is life and death. They are always thinking of living and not dying.
So, when we come upon something they are afraid of and we pressure them to just do it, we can do some serious damage to their trust and it makes them very anxious about obstacles in general. They may resort to extreme behaviors to avoid being forced over something they perceive as being deadly. Some people think that if they force the horse through once, then the horse will be okay with it the next time. But, adding fear to an already uncertain horse will only make them worse the next time. Soon, you will have to know your trails and avoid any rides that might have obstacles your horse won’t deal with. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Teaching your horse to calmly negotiate obstacles is a great lesson for any horse, not just the ones that are going to be shown in trail classes or going to compete in trail challenges. When done right, your horse will approach new things with an understanding of what you are going to ask him to do. He will trust that he will be guided, not pressured, through the correct steps. The horse learns to trust your request to approach new things. He gets this respect and trust from having been taught in a safe situation to go over things he is not familiar with and by learning that he did not get hurt while doing so.
The lessons are for the rider as much or more than the horse. The rider learns how to approach an unfamiliar setting in a manner that allows the horse time to negotiate it calmly and safely. The horse, in turn learns to approach the next object in a calmer, more confident manner. It will soon become apparent that it is really not about the particular obstacle you are working with but about teaching your horse a pattern for dealing with whatever obstacle or environmental setting you might come in contact with in your daily travels. Building trust is priceless and develops confidence for the future.
There are 2 types of obstacle work I like to do with all my horses. The first is working from the ground with the bridle. Teaching my horse to respond correctly to the bit letting me guide it over, under and through obstacles gives me a much closer connection and a better trained horse. I sometimes use a small board or soft flexible rubber tub and teach my horse to place its foot right on the board or into the tub. I especially like introducing water from the ground first as it reduces the trauma for the horse, is much easier on my body and I can be very specific about teaching the horse to step into the water and not jump over it.
Then I will work the obstacles from the saddle. By starting with simple things and working up to the scarier objects, I can build the correct response every time. Then, no matter what I might come across on my ride, I will know that I can trust my horse to deal with it confidently and safely. Also, it is a great way to get your horse softer and more supple as you use improved body control with the bridle to keep him going where you want him to go.
Next article, we will work on teaching obstacles from the ground. So gather some objects, set them up in a safe working environment and get ready to improve your riding times. Use your imagination as to what you will use. Poles, large rubber mats or thick sheets of plywood, trail class bridge, logs of different lengths and sizes and a large tarp. Also, gather some cardboard boxes and make a maze, make a pile of empty milk jugs or get an old mattress without springs. The options are endless.
I will be teaching obstacle lessons at my Sensible Horsemanship Spring Tune-up Clinic, April 19-21. You can register on my website and come join the fun. Until next time, God Bless and be safe….
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.