Question: I own a 6-year-old Quarter Horse gelding. Whenever we approach a log or a ditch on the trail, he'll balk, jig, and sometimes even jump over the obstacle, while I hang on for dear life. What can I do to correct this?
-Nancy Meadows, Little Rock, Arkansas
Answer: You need to desensitize your gelding to logs and ditches. But first, you need to build a solid training foundation. Your gelding would benefit from ground driving to learn to respect you, and to learn to respond to voice and pressure cues. Once he's accepted you as his leader, he'll trust you, and will be more likely to follow your cues under saddle, which will transfer to the trail. Here's how to accomplish these goals.
You'll need: A flat nylon or leather halter with side buckles; two 25-foot lines (called long lines); a surcingle (a training aid consisting of a girth strap with attached D-rings through which lines may be run) or a saddle; a secure work area, such as a round pen or training arena.
Step 1: Tack up. Outfit your gelding in a halter and surcingle or saddle. Attach one long line to the right halter buckle and the other to the left halter buckle.
Step 2: Position the lines. If you're using a surcingle, run one line through a left D-ring, and the other through the right D-ring. If you're using a saddle, run a line through each stirrup, then tie the stirrups together with twine under your gelding's girth, so they don't bounce distractingly during your training session.
Step 3: Get in driving position. Lead your gelding to your work area. Hold the left long line in your left hand and the right long line in your right hand. Stand far enough behind your gelding so that you're out of kicking range. Position each long line so that it's three to four inches above each hock.
Step 4: Cue the walk. Give one high-pitched cluck for forward motion at a walk. If your gelding balks, tap him lightly with a long line above one hock, and cluck again. Cluck and tap at exactly the same time so that he'll learn that the cluck means to move forward.
Step 5: Change direction. Ground-drive your gelding in a straight line for a few strides, then use direct long-line pressure to ask him to turn to the left or right. (That is, apply left long-line pressure for a turn to the left, etc.) Continue to drive him in this manner until he's relaxed and responsive to your cues.
Step 6: Stop. Now ask your gelding to stop. To do so, apply light, even pressure on both long lines, and give the verbal cue, "whoa." Don't jerk the long lines or apply strong pressure, or you'll likely confuse him. As soon as he stops, allow him to stand for at least two or three minutes to relax and process the lesson.
Step 7: Back up. When your gelding is stopping well, teach him to back up. From a standstill, apply light, even long-line pressure, and cluck in a low, bass tone. You might need to increase long-line pressure at first, but again, don't jerk on the lines (which could cause your gelding to rear), and keep the pressure even.
Step 8: Introduce a ground pole. When your gelding understands ground-driving basics - this may take several days or several weeks - introduce a ground pole to the work area. Use one about eight feet long and four to eight inches in diameter. Place the pole on a flat, level area, then drive your gelding toward the pole at a walk. When he reaches the pole, stop him, and allow him to sniff and paw at the pole. When he relaxes, back him up, and drive him around the pole. Repeat this step until he'll stand relaxed while facing the pole.
Step 9: Cross the pole. Now, drive your gelding over the pole. To do so, drive your gelding up to the pole, and ask him to continue forward: Give one high-pitched cluck, and tap him lightly above one hock with a long line to reinforce your verbal cue. After you apply these cues several times, he should learn that a cluck alone means to step over the pole. When he willingly crosses the pole, reward him with pats and soothing words. End the session on a good note.
Step 10: Add another ground pole. When your gelding is comfortable crossing one ground pole, add another pole of a larger diameter, so he learns to pay attention to obstacles he's asked to cross.
Now that you've taught your gelding to respond to your cues on the ground, continue the work under saddle. Begin in the arena, set up with a ground pole.
Step 1: Tack up. Saddle up, then outfit your gelding in a smooth snaffle bit, with either a looped rein or leather split reins so that you can apply both lateral and vertical rein pressure without causing him discomfort or pain.
Step 2: Cross a ground pole. Ride your gelding at a walk toward the ground pole. Just before the pole, cue him to go over it: Simultaneously cluck once, squeeze lightly with both calves, and lightly lift your reins. He'll learn that these cues means you want him to cross an obstacle. Be patient; when he does well, reward him with a pat, soothing words, and a break in the training session. End the session on a good note.
Crossing a Trail Obstacle
Now you're ready to ride your gelding over a trail obstacle; start with a ditch. If possible, use a ditch in a familiar area, so he can better concentrate on your cues. Also, find one narrow enough for him to comfortably cross at a walk.
Step 1: Approach the ditch. Ride your gelding up to the ditch, but stop him a few feet from the edge. To ask him to stop, apply light, consistent rearward rein pressure, shift your weight rearward, and say "whoa." When he stops, release the rein pressure, let him relax, and reward him with pats and soothing words.
Step 2: Get closer. Circle, then approach the ditch's edge once again. At the very edge, stop your gelding, and allow him to relax. Do this several times.
Step 3: Cross the ditch. When you feel your gelding is completely relaxed and trusts you, cue him to cross the ditch with even leg pressure and a cluck. Reward him for crossing the obstacle calmly and willingly. End the session on a good note.
If your gelding continues to balk at a trail obstacle, go back to your ground work to reinforce the foundation you've built. Even well-trained horses will revert at times. If this happens, don't get frustrated. Be patient, and go back to the level at which your gelding will work calmly and willingly.