Driving Road Safety Series: Training for the Road

Joanne Bellion-Povenski says that her purpose in this series is to help you prepare to drive in the most ?non horse friendly? environment you can imagine: the public roads. When she was asked during her professional carriage-driving career what it is like to drive in city traffic, she described it as similar to navigating a sailboat in a crowded harbor of power boats.
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Joanne Bellion-Povenski says that her purpose in this series is to help you prepare to drive in the most ?non horse friendly? environment you can imagine: the public roads. When she was asked during her professional carriage-driving career what it is like to drive in city traffic, she described it as similar to navigating a sailboat in a crowded harbor of power boats.

Control

Working well in long lines is an important step in training most horses to harness; working perfectly in long lines before being hitched to a vehicle for driving on the road is paramount. Therefore, it may be necessary for you to revisit this stage of your horse's training before the two of you can play safely in traffic. Your goal is to establish control from the ground, as you work your way through simulations of ?terrors? you may encounter on the road, before trying it in a carriage. Schedule your work sessions when there is the most commotion going on at the farm and enlist help from friends or fellow boarders.

First, ensure that your horse has a rock-solid ?whoa button,? a must on all good driving horses. Your safety depends on his standing completely still in EVERY situation, until he is told to move on! Some breeds are taught to ?stand up? (standing with all four feet placed squarely underneath them) or ?park out? (standing with the rear legs placed slightly behind the vertical but with all four feet evenly placed). The horse must step out of the ?park out? position?by bringing his hind legs up underneath himself?before he can move off, and you therefore have a chance to make a correction before he moves. For this reason, I suggest you teach your horse to ?stand up? squarely or to ?park out.? (I am told that when women rode aside, the horse was taught to stretch out to lower his back for easier mounting.) The ?park/stand? position, in addition to providing a ?whoa button? for safety purposes, is useful for keeping your horse quiet for mounting, hitching, photographs and many other purposes.

Finally, your ability to read your horse's body language is key to safe driving because it equips you to anticipate his actions and prevent problems before they happen. When mounted, a rider can feel the horse and know what to expect. Seated in the box we must learn to recognize what the horse is telling us with his body language. Everything the horse feels and thinks is revealed in this way, creating a unique understanding between human and horse.

Desensitization

Can you desensitize your horse to street noises and sights at home? It's impossible to reproduce all, or even most, of the potentially frightening sounds and sights he'll encounter on the open road, but by exposing him to a wide variety of stimuli?and calmly handling his reaction?you can help him learn to expect the unexpected and to know it's not the end of the world because he can rely on you.

Give him a chance to hear fireworks, loud music, yelling, clapping, a chain saw?anything you can think of. It sometimes works best to lead him to locations where he can hear such things as a flag snapping in a strong wind (which sounds like a gun shot), a dragging muffler on the pavement, a branch chipper or jackhammers at work?all noises that can cause him to orbit the moon if he hears them for the first time in harness and on the road.

Soundtracks designed to desensitize a horse to unusual noises are available, The theory is that, if you play the tape or CD in the barn while grooming your horse and outside when schooling him, he will eventually become accustomed to the sounds on the recording. You can find these sound tracks in tack shops and online. One source is www.rickpelicano.com.?Rick Pelicano is the author of Bombproof Your Horse, a book on desensitizing, and his Web site offers the ?Spook Less Sound Conditioning? CD. Before buying these or other products, however, talk to someone who has used them and can tell you about the results.

Your horse can be just as scared of something he sees as he can of a sound, especially when away from the security of the farm. The bottom line is that the more you expose him to, the better. Make items such as a beach ball, an umbrella, a tricycle or anything else you can think of normal parts of his landscape.

Desensitizing Exercises

Drive your horse in long lines for these exercises. I recommend using a round pen whenever possible.

?Sacking Out?

Your goal is to help your horse understand that almost anything can touch his head, ears, legs?his entire body?without hurting him. Start by attaching a plastic bag to the end of a whip. (Store your horse's favorite treat in the bag for a few days before ?introducing? it to him. Take the treats out of the bag for the exercise.) Keep your body at a 45-degree angle to his shoulder, which removes you from the danger zone. Allow him to smell the bag first and explore it with his nose. Gently rub the bag on his body, paying particular attention to his legs. When he moves away from you, go with him. Do not chase him, but move with him until he stops. Watch for signs of relaxation such as licking his lips or a cocked foot. These will be signals that he is no longer afraid of this item. If he shows any signs of being afraid, such as becoming a bug-eyed statue, stop and take the ?booger? away. Keep sessions short.

Blowing Leaves

Have a friend stand outside the round pen while you drive your horse around the inside perimeter in both directions. Ask her to toss a handful of leaves in the air as the horse approaches, changing her location frequently so the horse will not learn to anticipate the flying leaves in the same spot. Your horse will probably react by raising his head, shying away from the leaves and moving toward the center of the pen. Anticipate this reaction: begin to speak soothingly to him and give him strong signals to stay as close to the rail as possible before the leaves fly and he spooks. ?Tickle? the bit in the horse's mouth to encourage him to direct his attention away from the scarey thing and toward you. When you become the leader of the herd, he will look to you for security and not try to think for himself.

Overhanging Branches

At some point, when you are driving him on a road with low-hanging foliage, your horse may need to go underneath low-hanging branches that touch his body. You can create the same effect using an obstacle I once saw; it consisted of strips of fabric hanging from a high clothesline. The horses had to pass through the strips. Construct a similar obstacle by using pieces of thick cotton or canvas fabric that are the same length?except for one section in the middle, which is shorter. Your horse can poke his nose through this ?hole? and decide if it is safe to go forward . . . or not. Begin going through this exercise with the ?clothes? short enough for him to pass under without their touching him, lowering the fabric a bit more each time. Keep your horse moving forward in any direction, just as long as it's forward.

Water

Train your horse in all kinds of weather, daytime as well as night. When you're out driving, the perfect day can turn ugly with little warning and darkness?or rain? can come sooner than anticipated. Which brings me to the subject of water on the road. A horse can be fearless with a puddle, pond or creek in his pasture, but on the road? Now that is totally different. Standing water on the road is in his blind spot when he is up close to it.. Work on teaching him to walk over a black plastic tarp on the ground, or make your own puddle. If he refuses, walk him toward the puddle or tarp and turn him away before getting to it (so that you are directing him before he has a chance to stop). Work closer and closer each time, until he puts a foot into the water or onto the tarp. Continue this and eventually he will walk through it. Don?t make the mistake of trying to coax him through the water from a standstill; that just makes matters worse. For the same reason a person ?heading? him through the water won?t help. You want the horse to do this of his own free will. A header is leading him, therefore he is not doing it on his own. To follow another horse would be much more successful than using a helper. He must do this unassisted by a human other than the driver. Again, keep the horse moving and paying attention to your commands rather than his fears.

Avoiding Slip-Ups

When the pavement is wet, any horse?even when shod with street shoes?can fall if his driver does not support him properly. Think of the support you give him with the reins as being like taking a person?s elbow to help them cross the street?not too slight and not too strong. You are supporting, not pulling, allowing the ?person? to walk on their own. Make your transitions as smooth as possible and focus on keeping your horse from falling on his forehand, lurching forward or going too fast around corners. Wet bricks, flat stones and road markings painted on the pavement are all extremely slippery; bring your horse to a walk or avoid them altogether. If driving a pair, try to keep one horse on a dry and/or safer surface, if at all possible.

No Baby Talk!

Many drivers make the mistake of constantly talking to their horse. In the wild, however, horses only ?speak? to each other when there is something meaningful to convey. If (for instance), when he is trotting, you keep saying, ?trot-trot-trot-trot-trot,? sooner or later your horse?will begin to view this constant verbiage as meaningless noise and tune it out. He will stay sharp and responsive when your commands are kept short and consistent. Tone of voice when speaking to your horse is also important. The equivalent of a soft nicker means one thing, and a loud whinny means something else to a horse. When a faster trot is wanted say, ?trot ON,? each and every time. When you want to slow down say, ?SLOW now,? or whatever you want, as long as you have a downward tone to your voice. Preface every command using the horse's name. The horse will give the driver his attention in anticipation of the next command.

Teaching the Park/Stand Position

Working the horse with halter, lead and riding crop: Stand the horse perfectly still, then push the lead rope under his chin, toward his chest so he will take a step back. Do this ever so slightly to get his rear feet evenly placed. You will have to work hard on this by asking him to come forward a step or backward a step to get his back feet even with each other. When this is done, give him a pat and a ?Good Boy.? Do this several times until he understands what you are asking. The next step to teach is how to move his front feet. Square up his rear legs, put your right hand on his withers and push away from you.

This will shift his weight off the near leg you are trying to move. With your left foot, tap the fetlock until the horse moves it, then push it forward with your foot and tell the horse to ?come-up,? ?stand-up? or any other word you want to use, as long as it is the same every time. You can also tap him on the shoulder with your crop as part of this command; later, you will be able to use the same aid and voice command from the carriage as a signal for your horse to stand or park. (Remember: Consistency is key.) If he keeps placing his foot back in the same spot, when his leg is in the air, pull his withers toward you to encourage him to put weight on it. As soon as he places his foot forward, even if it is only a half-inch, pull his withers toward you to move his weight onto the near leg and off the far leg. Do the same thing with his off leg as you did with the near leg and withers. When both legs are forward, command, ?Stand? and give lots of praise. If he does not understand what you are asking with the tap of your foot, tap harder or use the butt end of a crop so you don't break your toes.

From the American Driving Society.