One of the most common reasons riders are leery of heading out of the ring is the fear of shying. But, just as you train to perfect your jog or trot, you can train your horse to accept surprises without the ”flight” response. Your reward will be a relaxing trail ride that breaks up intense training programs and helps your horse return to the arena fresher.
Even the calmest horse can be startled by something — a covey of dove flushing out of the hedgerow, a plastic bag billowing out of the bushes or an ATV barreling around the bend. If you familiarize your horse with the potential ”monsters” he might meet on the trail, you can minimize the danger of being surprised and maybe dumped off. If you’re not sure what your horse might do, slow down and do some things to prepare it for what he might encounter on even the most leisurely walk in the woods.
Things that are the norm to us can unnerve a horse. That simple plastic grocery bag is an everyday item for us, but not for a horse — and certainly not when it’s bouncing and blowing across a field. It looks like a predator, and in the face of danger a horse’s instinct is to whirl and flee — fast! Horses don’t take the time to analyze the situation. If it looks weird, they’re outta there.
Even the best of riders can be caught off guard. Horses don’t always recognize that a bicycle as just a human being on wheels. Same thing goes for a hiker padded out of the familiar ”people” shape by a backpack. Might look more like a bear to a horse. You might be heading back to the barn in a drizzle and encounter a couple walking with an umbrella--a strangely-shaped creature with four legs that terrifies your horse.
One of the first lines of defense when encountering hikers and bikers on the trail is to call out to the person and ask him or her to speak so your horse will recognize that it is a human being. The familiar sound of a human voice is often enough to quell a horse’s fears. Many times people you meet on the trail don’t speak either because it’s not their thing, or for fear of spooking the horse. Call out in a friendly voice, ”Hi, How are you' Would you please say something so my horse will realize that you are a person'”
Crossing streams and puddles, walking over bridges, negotiating downed trees???all of these things will come up down the trail. Some prep work at home can help minimize the horse’s fear when he encounters them. The greatest confidence builder, of course, is to ride behind an experienced trail horse the first couple of times. Horses take their cues from each other and if that soggy bottom doesn’t bother the horse in front of you, there’s a good chance your horse will slog right through it behind him.
What Can You Do'
Before going out on your first trail ride, make sure your horse will go forward, stop and back up on cue. Practice getting control of the hindquarters and moving them to the left or right whenever you want. Develop a cue to get your horse’s attention refocused on you when needed — could be a jiggle in one rein, a half-halt, a ”head down” cue — whatever works. Being able to get your horse’s attention and direct his body helps you control his fears if something pops up on the trail.
Then do a little groundwork to familiarize your horse ahead of time with sights and sounds it might encounter. You can’t cover everything, but you can stack the odds in your favor. If the horse has seen blowing plastic bags and bouncing baseballs before, is used to the sound of a lawnmower, a chainsaw, motorcycles and gunfire — if it has been exposed to things fluttering around its legs and crunching underfoot, then there is that much less chance such things will cause a serious spook. Anything that happens suddenly can cause a horse to set off an alarm, but if it has seen or heard it before — and the rider keeps a relaxed, alert, confident seat — chances are the horse will relax and move on without too much fuss.
Plot A Plan At Home
Start your desensitizing program by setting up a few scenarios in your roundpen or riding arena at home. Scatter a few items around that might spook a horse: a collapsed lawn chair, some pieces of lumber, a pile of rags, a blue plastic tarp, some milk jugs, a beach ball . . . the dreaded bicycle. Make a bridge with a piece of thick plywood on the ground. Make a small depression, line it with a piece of black plastic and fill it with water. Spread out some logs and make a pile of tree branches.
With a halter and lead rope take the horse into the pen in hand. Walk confidently past all of the objects. If the horse balks don’t punish, admonish or shove his nose at it. Don’t turn and stare the horse down — just wait until the horse calms down, then continue walking. Lead the horse past the objects without you looking at them. A horse will take its cues from you and if you skirt around an object, the horse is going to follow your lead and give it a wide berth, too. Walk over the log and through the branches.
Walk up onto the bridge and down into the water. Remember that horses don’t use much verbal communication among themselves, so those seemingly, soothing things you often hear from people like: ”Whoa, big fella! Easy, baby! . . . It won’t hurt you! . . . Take it easy” are more likely to sound to the horse like, ”Warning! Caution! Danger ahead! Watch out!” Instead, just sigh, look away from the object, look in the direction you want to go and walk on. Without a caution cue from you, his leader, the horse is likely to follow you past the object. And that’s the exact response you want when you’re out on the trail.
Stepping Up The Pressure
If your horse is reasonably calm it might be no time before he’s walking quietly past everything on your little obstacle course. Then it’s time to put some things in motion. A plastic bag lying on the ground might only be a momentary distraction, but when it’s moving, the horse’s reaction can change dramatically. You want to arouse curiosity about the object rather than fear. You do that, not by walking toward the horse and sticking the thing in its face (and doing the ”Easy there, fella” bit), but by walking away with it.
With a plastic grocery bag, try tying it to a stick and walking off ahead of the horse with the stick and bag out in front of you. When the horse follows calmly and starts to show an interest in the bag, you can try dragging it on the ground behind you (but well ahead of the horse). Let the horse follow you and the bag as you walk around the pen. Do the same thing with a tarp, an umbrella and anything else that might spook your horse.
Have a friend drag the tarp on the ground as you follow it leading the horse. This will usually peak the horse’s curiosity and he will soon want to catc h up to it to get a closer look. Pretty soon he’ll probably be pawing at it and finally standing on it. Spread the tarp out on the ground and lead the horse across it. It’s an easy way to help prepare a horse for crossing water and bridges later.
Don’t forget about a jacket or slicker. If the first time your horse sees a slicker is on the trail when you pull it out of the saddlebag and start whipping it around in the air to put it on, you could end up walking home in the rain. Get the horse used to it at home, tying it on the saddle and taking it off many times from the ground, then doing it while in the saddle.
The Bad And The Ugly
Barking dogs can be a problem for some horses, so try to expose your horse in advance to dogs other than your own — ones that will bark (but not bite, of course). Neighbors’ dogs are good — particularly if they are in kennels.
One thing you want to practice for sure is flicking a soft rope around the horses feet and legs. Get the horse used to standing quiet with the rope loosely wound around its fetlocks and remaining still while you unwind it. This lesson will pay you back a hundred fold if your horse ever gets tangled in wire out on the trail.
The Power Of A Sigh
While all of the gimmicks and groundwork you can do at home to desensitize your horse help, nothing can make your horse totally ”bombproof.” You can’t practice every sight, sound and situation, and things are going to happen that might startle or unnerve your horse.
The main ingredient that can keep you from having a wreck on the trail is you. If you establish yourself as the leader in your partnership, when a scary situation presents itself, the horse is going to look to you for guidance. Clamping up tight in the ”monkey position” and shakily calling out, ”Easy! Calm down,” isn’t a vote of confidence to a horse.
What can help is to keep your body relaxed and balanced and to sigh deeply and out loud, apply your control cues and look in the direction you want the horse to go. Horses sigh when they are relaxing and your horse will hear, and feel, you relaxing and take its cue from you and usually relax, too.
If you practice desensitizing your horse to loud or unusual noises and you keep yourself calm and in control, you should start seeing magical results on the trail.