Trail Riding Problems & Solutions
Bob Jeffreys & Suzanne Sheppard
Common Trail Riding Problems: Solutions to Refusals, Rushing Home and Other Undesirable Behaviors: Part 1
By Bob Jeffreys & Suzanne Sheppard
“Help! My horse is fine on the trail until we canter, lope or gallop; then he’s wired and hard to control for the rest of the ride.”
“My horse won’t cross streams/gulleys/bridges/logs/etc; how do I get him to go where I ask?”
“My horse starts to jig as soon as I get on and fights me for the whole ride! What can I do?”
“My horse doesn’t want to leave the barn area at all!”
“My horse spooks at almost everything we see out there.”
“I can’t ride my horse unless his buddy is right beside him. I want to go out alone sometimes but it’s just too hard to control him!”
” I can’t stop my horse on the trail. We stop pretty well in the arena, and I don’t know what to do. I like to go fast out there, but it doesn’t feel safe!”
Do any of the above sound familiar? If so, please know that you’re not alone. The problems cited above are some of the most common issues that people have with their horses. And although some horses can be unusually brave, many horse owners experience these challenges and want to resolve them. They believe that their horses have the potential to behave better, become braver and be the trusted friend that they dreamed about when they bought them. And they are right, but how?
In this three part series we’ll address why these problems occur, and show you effective techniques and exercises to resolve them. The “fixes” that follow work on all breeds of horses.
Many people initially are drawn to horses because they are “adorable” or “pretty”, and therefore assume that they are easy to control, pull around or stop. When we hear comments like these, we tell people that, however cute they may be, all horses have prey animal instincts, herd mentalities, and perhaps most importantly, are very fast and strong. They must be taught the skills that we want them to have.
Now you may know that, in some countries, there may be only a few natural predators (other than man!), but we’re in America, the land of cougars, bears, coyotes, etc, and your horses are smart enough to fear predators even if they’ve not seen them before. Just think about it; if we humans came across a tiger in the woods, it would scare us even if we’ve never see none before. Maybe especially because we’d never seen it before.
We are going to address one very important problem mentioned above, and the balance in the next two issue. So, let’s begin with crossing streams. As some of you know, many horses who are very confident may balk at crossing unfamiliar footing. Why? Because they know that crossing only safe, secure footing is a key to survival. Crossing streams can be a huge problem with horses because they do not have the depth perception that we do, so even though we see that the stream or creek or puddle is a only about three inches deep, our equine friend might perceive it as “the abyss”.
Usually the horse will notice the stream somewhere around fifteen to twenty feet ahead and try to stop at this distance. We should let them stop and relax here for a minute or two. The horse is telling us what distance from the stream his comfort zone ends, and caution, or even fear sets in. If you push right here you may end up wit ha fight on your hands, so instead, let him relax for awhile, and when you think you have a reasonable chance for succeeding in getting forward motion, then ask for it. You may only get a step or two, but possibly three or four before he stops again. This is great, as you’ve increased his comfort zone towards the creek. Let him relax again for a minute as before; keep on repeating this step without rushing, until you get to the creek.
Once there if you ask your horse to go forward he will choose to either go backwards, or to the left or right- anywhere but the creek! If he goes backwards you need to start bumping him lightly with your legs or a whip, increasing the speed and intensity of the bumps or taps if he continues to back. Stop the instant he stops backing. Then simply ask him to go to the stream again. Eventually he will understand that backing away is an option that has been closed to him, because when he tries he experiences increasing discomfort the further back he goes!
He will then try the remaining options of going either right or left. Horses also have the option of rearing or throwing themselves on the ground. (If this happens to you it’s probably because you skipped the steps that allow the horse to relax. If you didn’t skip that part and he does rear or “throw down”, he probably needs professional training). Let’s say he chooses to go right; you must quit using the “˜go cue”, but also must keep his nose pointed at the exact spot you wish to cross. We don’t want to let him get away by allowing him to turn away, even if you circle back to the stream. If you allow this your horse will think, “I almost made it!” and try harder to escape the next time. It doesn’t matter if he moved right or left at this point in your lesson as long as his nose stays pointed at your specific crossing spot. He’ll go side to side for awhile but will start to narrow down this movement sideways until eventually one of two things happen: he may either paw at the water with his hooves, or he may drop his head down to take a closer look. Either movement is a sign that your horse is thinking about crossing. Although only some will paw, all will eventually drop their heads to the ground to sniff and look at the water. Accept this as movement forward and release all pressure, rewarding him for the progress made.
Now we play the “minute game”. If he leaves his head down for 2 seconds when you ask him to move, accept this as forward motion and then let him relax with his head up for 58 seconds, the balance of one minute. Ask nothing of him ““ just leave him be as a reward for his courage. Then ask him again for movement and this time he might leave his head down for 5 seconds. When he brings it up he’s allowed to rest for only 55 seconds. Then we ask again and he’ll leave his head down even longer- maybe for 10 seconds, so we ask nothing of him for 50 seconds, and so on. This continues until we’ve reversed the action of the minute game so that this head stays down for 58 seconds and up for only 2 seconds.
The next time you ask him to go, continue to ask until he moves forward; by this time he’s ready. A word of caution here; if the creek is less than about four feet wide, hold on! He will jump it! When he lands the creek is obviously right behind him and he might think it’s chasing him. If so, let him go until he reaches a point that is equivalent to the edge of his original comfort zone from the creek (usually 15 ““ 20 feet). Then turn him around and cross the stream again. Usually you don’t have to repeat these steps to the same degree, but you may get a few side to side moves before he paws or looks down. However, it won’t be long until he jumps it again. Keep repeating but gradually decrease the distance you allow him to travel until it’s only a foot or two on either side of the stream. He’ll now be jumping with less vigor, and when you feel safe enough, turn him as he jumps so that he lands in the water. Walk him up and down while praising his bravery; if he wants to drink (and the water is clear), let him. Then take him out of the stream and begin walking through it from both sides. Progress to trotting, or even cantering if the footing allows and you feel up to it.
This lesson will take anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours to teach, with the average time being around two hours. The same lesson can be taught at the bridge, or the tarp, or wherever. If it takes two hours the first time, your second obstacle crossing will only take about one hour, and the third about twenty minutes. Then every time you ask your horse to cross over something for the rest of his life it should never take more than t n minutes or so because he will recognize the process and know that you are consistent and persistent in your requests.
Well, that’s it for this month. Next time we’ll talk about jigging horses and spooky horses. Until then, stay warm and ride safe!
© Bob Jeffreys 2/09. Bob Jeffreys and Suzanne Sheppard travel nationwide teaching people how to bring out the best in their horses. horsesenseandcents.com/