Horses Working Obstacles
Many people have problems with horses working obstacles, but when you think about it, it really shouldn’t be that big of a deal. For many of us, our love of horses developed from reading books or seeing videos of horses doing amazing things. In the wild, horses work over obstacles all the time by going through creeks, walking over deadfall, and galloping through rough terrain. So, why do we have issues?
Start with the Rider
As with most problems, they start from the top. Many riders look at an obstacle and think, “Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing if my horse did that!” Your horse sees it as simply another job he has to do until you make a big deal out of it. Horses feel our anxiety building. They feel the tension in our bodies as we approach a challenge. Whether you want to or not, you communicate to your horse there is something troubling about the challenge.
Work from the Ground to Build Confidence
Groundwork builds confidence in both you and your horse. Let’s use the dreaded tarp as an example. When I introduced my horse Scratch to the tarp I started small. The tarp was folded up and placed on the ground. We work on a series of groundwork exercises that include lungeing, backing up, and yielding exercises, so I placed the tarp on the ground. About every 5 minutes I unfolded it a bit. After thirty minutes it was an 8′ x 8′ square that had become part of our workspace.
Next, we worked towards it, away from it, and around it like it was a part of our environment. Every opportunity I gave him for rest was near the tarp. Slowly the tarp transitioned from a part of the environment to a place my horse wanted to hang out, much like horses who always yearn for the closeness of the gate.
Let Him Be a Horse Around an Obstacle
Horses have a natural curiosity and process when then encounter something they do not understand. First, they like to smell it and/or touch it with their nose. Then, they may paw it or stand on it. If something they are investigating moves away, horses will follow it out of curiosity. Once Scratch got comfortable with the tarp, I stood at the end of the lead rope, picked up the tarp and backed up. Scratch’s bravery blossomed as he followed the flapping tarp.
Once your horse gets brave on the ground and you know his responses, you can build confidence under saddle. When your horse acts nervous or unsure around something you encounter on the trail, be bold. Riding circles around an object, turning to the inside, then riding a circle the other direction is a good exercise to build confidence in your horse. Anytime he has to work around an obstacle he is too busy to be afraid of it. If I see something off in the distance that I believe might concern my horse, I head for it like I want to chase it. Of course, if it’s stationary, then I do circles.
Practice Around Objects That Don’t Scare Your Horse
People often dump trash or furniture on the trails we ride. It’s sad, but a fact of life. If we encounter a trash bag and my horse is not afraid, I’ll still do a little work around it. Working objects that DON’T scare my horse prepares him for when I work around the obstacles that do.
Don’t Flip Flop on Crossing Obstacles
Many times I see people asking their horse to cross a bridge obstacle. They square their horse up, urge him forward and the horse moves sideways to avoid the obstacle, then moves forward. The rider then turns the horse around and tries the obstacle from the other side. The horse learns all he has to do to avoid the obstacle is to step to the side. If you start from the south side of an obstacle, keep approaching from there until you get it. Remember, horses learn from the release of pressure AND they have a left and right brain. If you release them from the south side and restart your approach from the north, your horse sees it as having avoided one question and now he’s dealing with a new question.
4 Steps to Better Obstacles
- Groundwork to build confidence.
- Chasing objects builds confidence.
- Practice on obstacles that don’t scare your horse.
- Don’t flip flop on crossing obstacles