I recently had a lovely follower ask for some ideas for helping her horse to cope with ‘Monsters’ out on the trail near her home. Check out my 3 strategies here!
"Help! I want to get my TB confident/comfortable about hacking out but he doesn't have much experience with life, especially outside his paddock. My biggest challenge is trying to introduce this scary big world to him in the least confronting way possible - very hard as once I get out the gate all manner of obstacles and 'monsters' can be thrown our way. What can I do?"
I totally understand this! It is so easy for our horses to go over threshold when there are a lot of new things to see and it can be really scary for us if it becomes all too much for them to cope with when you are miles away from home!
Taking your inexperienced horse straight out into a busy environment is very likely to put him over threshold and create a fight or flight response in a potentially dangerous situation by the roadside far from home. Not cool! I’m really glad you don’t plan to do that. So what can we do we help prepare our horse to be calm and confident in the busy world outside the front gate, without just taking him out into that world?
I offer 3 strategies here:
1. Taking a Peek
Do any monsters go past your front gate? One way to increase his exposure safely could be to hang out on the inside of your gate and watch the world go by together. Let him graze or eat a hay net whilst you hang out together. If he gets worried and wants to be further from the gate, let him move away so he can increase the distance and keep his stress levels down. This will increase his exposure to some of the monsters you will encounter on your rides and help him learn they are not really monsters.
What’s important here is that the horse gets to set the distance from the gate and any monsters that turn up. This is a slow burn strategy called habituation. It works over time, so my tip is to try and work this into a regular routine somehow, even if its only for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. Alternatively, if you could put him in a paddock near the front gate that was large enough for him to get far enough away from any monsters to feel safe, this could work without you having to be there!
2. Home-Style Monsters
How is your horse with approaching flags, bicycles, rubbish bins and dogs (on leads or behind fences), or going through puddles of water, narrow gaps and over ditches? Is he comfortable around any vehicles you have such as a quad bike or ride on mower? Does this comfort level change depending on whether the horse is in his paddock, being led or being ridden?
Getting your horse as comfortable as possible with as big a variety of things that you might encounter out and about, whilst you are at home. Making sure he is comfortable not only when being led, but also under saddle and from different directions is a great start.
Horses have evolved to be fearful of anything new in their environment and that fear is very real, even for our domesticated horses who aren’t actually at risk of being eaten. They also don’t generalise very well, which means that whilst they might learn that people on bicycles are ok to approach when being led, they also have to learn it is ok to have the bicycles go past, and to approach them or stand for them to go past when being ridden and then when being ridden in different areas. Once they can approach, or have individuals or groups of people on bicycles go past in different areas from different angles and gaits at home, then they are more likely (not guaranteed!) to be confident if they encounter people riding bicycles when out on a trail ride.
The key with this one is to go slowly. Start with the bicycles at a distance away and gradually get closer or increase the difficulty but stay within the horses’ comfort level. If you notice any stress signs in your horse like the eyes getting wide or the head going up high then take your horse further away until he relaxes and build up slowly again.
This process is called systematic desensitisation and it works really well when paired with positive reinforcement like treats, scratches (if your horse enjoys them) or the opportunity to graze.
3. One Monster at a Time
If your horse is a good traveller, taking him somewhere that you know will have very few monsters is a great way to start out. Pick a calm, sunny day at a time when there wont be many other people out and about driving or riding bikes and generally being monsterish. Go with a friend who has a calm, experienced horse. Keep the ride or in hand walk short and stay in walk. What we want to practice here is going for an uneventful trail ride with a calm horse. Gradually with repetition you can increase the length of the ride and the number of monsters. Try and control the monsters where you can and pick one thing to work on. Road signs maybe, or gates, or bridges, or ditches, or trotting.
Gradually building up the skill of trail riding like this is called shaping and it works best when we do it in really small steps.
These are my 3 strategies for helping a horse to cope with monsters on trail rides. Enjoy training this, it is lots of fun!
© 2021 Sara Jackson