Have you ever been out enjoying a peaceful morning trail ride only to have the pristine quiet shattered by the sharp crack of gunfire? At the very least, your horse probably jumped a foot off the ground in fright. Or, even worse, he may have bolted headlong down the trail in a panic.
Anyone who has ridden out of the home pasture has probably experienced the sound of gunfire while in the saddle. Hunters, target shooters, trap enthusiasts, property owners scaring off predators, or, heck, even just the neighborhood kids shooting fireworks can cause a commotion that may unnerve your horse. You might even encounter the sound of gunfire at a horse show or expo where a mounted shooting demonstration is taking place.
Not surprisingly, most horses have a natural fear of loud noise, especially when they don’t expect it and can’t readily pinpoint its source. Their hearing is highly acute to help them locate predators, and their large, radar-like ears can “fix” on a source of dangerous sound in a split second. So it’s instinctive for most horses to react instantly and without thought when they hear a loud, unnatural sound, such as gunfire. Unfortunately this puts the rider in a dangerous situation if the horse reacts by bolting, bucking, or rearing when he hears a shot ring out.
There’s nothing like a few good training sessions to help your horse keep his wits about him when things around him start to pop. The following points will help you de-spook your horse to the sound of gunfire and give you additional “safety ammo” so he learns to plant his feet on the ground when he hears the crack of that pistol or rifle.
Although mounted shooting is growing in popularity, the purpose of this lesson isn’t to train your horse so you can fire a gun off his back. Rather, the goal is to teach your horse to accept the sound of gunfire from a short distance away without reacting in a dangerous manner. In this exercise, the safety of humans and horses is of utmost importance.
You’ll use a child’s cap gun to start. As your horse progresses through the training, you may want something that makes a louder noise. A .22-caliber starter pistol is a good choice, or you can use a .22-caliber gun with blank ammunition. Keep the following safety points in mind as you prepare for this exercise:
• Don’t fire a real gun in a training session unless the person handling the weapon has had gun-safety instruction.
• Ear and eye protection for the person handling the gun is mandatory.
• You’ll need an adult assistant who’s well-versed in handling guns and, preferably, is also experienced around horses.
Before You Begin
Begin this lesson in a round pen or small arena if you have access to one. If available, ask a friend who has a horse who’s trained to accept gunfire calmly to join you for the first lesson or two. Having a calm buddy who’s accustomed to gunfire in the same arena seems to have a positive impact on a horse learning to accept this new lesson
Find an experienced adult assistant who’ll follow your direction as to when you want the gun to be fired. A friend or relative who hunts might be happy to help you with this training session. Instruct your assistant to fire the gun only in the air above his or her head, never toward you and your horse. Never fire a gun near your horse’s head in a training session or he may become unable to adapt to the noise.
You’ll need a child’s cap gun and a .22- caliber starter pistol or a .22-caliber pistol with blanks. (Both can be purchased in any sporting goods section of your local discount department store.)
Step One: Prepare Your Horse
If you warm up your horse by riding for 20 minutes or so before you begin this session, he’ll be more relaxed and will likely have a milder reaction when the noises start.
During this warm-up time, ask your horse to focus on you by disengaging his hips in both directions (John Lyons’ hips-over maneuver). Also, practice your one-rein stop from both directions. This could be crucial to both your safety and that of your horse if the situation should escalate when the noise starts. Getting your horse to give his face and move his hip over is the key to getting an effective stop.
Begin by walking your horse in a medium-sized circle about 30 feet away from the assistant handling the cap gun. Take a deep, confident seat in your saddle and sit up straight but don’t tense up. When you feel ready, ask your assistant to fire one round from the cap gun.
If your horse bolts or moves his feet more than a few yards, do a one-rein stop and reposition him on the circle. Then add another 10 feet of distance away from the assistant. After you reposition your horse, continue walking and have your assistant fire another round. Continue this procedure until your horse doesn’t react to the noise of the cap gun. Move him farther out on the circle if necessary until he stops reacting to the noise.
Keep in mind that some horses may always twitch or startle at the sound of gunfire. That’s fine. Your goal is to reach a place where your horse may twitch but maintains a consistent speed at the walk. This is acceptable for this lesson, as many horses may never completely overcome their fear of the noise, but can be trained to accept it without a dangerous reaction.
The Big Bang
- Sounds that mirror gunfire can come from all around us-hunters, property owners scaring off predators, and even kids playing with firecrackers.
- As prey animals, horses react instinctively to unnatural sounds.
- Safety of humans and horses is crucial, so start this lesson in a confined or fenced-in area with a horse- and gun-savvy assistant.
- Warm up your horse, then start the lesson at the farthest distance with the least reaction.
- Move to the trail only after your horse tolerates the noises in the arena.
As your horse becomes accustomed to the sound, position him closer and closer to the assistant until the cap gun is being fired 10 feet away. When your horse doesn’t react to the noise at 10 feet, ask your assistant to continue to fire the cap gun at random intervals until your horse seems to pay no attention at all. Note: It typically takes approximately 200 repetitions to de-spook a horse for one training session.
Step Two: Raise the Bar
When your horse seems comfortable with the sound of the cap gun and doesn’t move his feet faster than the walk in which you started, it’s time to test his noise sensitivity.
Have your assistant switch to the starter pistol or the .22-caliber pistol. Then position your horse back on the circle at a walk at the same distance at which he was most comfortable with the cap gun in the beginning of the session.
Ask your assistant to fire the starter pistol one time. This louder noise may startle your horse even though he seemed accustomed to the cap gun. If he increases his speed, repeat the same procedure as with the cap gun, moving him away from your assistant, until you find a distance at which he doesn’t react by speeding up. Then gradually move him closer to your assistant until you’re 10 feet from the noise while maintaining a walk around him or her.
After your horse seems completely accustomed to the noise of the .22 pistol, engage in random repetitions as you have ammunition. (You’ll note that the ammo for a starter pistol is significantly more expensive than the cap gun, so these repetitions may be much fewer.)
Repeat this training session several times before testing it on the trail. If you’ve had two or three training sessions in which your horse doesn’t increase his speed at the walk when he hears the .22 pistol, you may be ready to test him on the trail. Move outside of your arena only if you have a safe and private trail to work on. Don’t train on a trail frequented by other riders, as you may cause an accident with their untrained horses.
Step Three: Test It on the Trail
On the trail, first ride your horse toward the sound of the gunfire, but out of sight of your assistant. To do so, position your horse around a bend approximately 50 yards away. Ask your assistant to fire one shot from the cap gun. If your horse accepts this noise calmly without increasing his speed, have your assistant repeat the shot until you feel that your horse is ignoring the sound.
If your horse increases his speed at the walk or tries to bolt, use a one-rein stop to slow him down and return his focus to you. Begin again farther from your assistant. Continue at the safer distance until your horse accepts the noise. Then gradually move closer until he’s comfortable with the sound at a range of 20 or 30 feet.
After your horse accepts the noise of the gun in the woods out of sight of your assistant, have your assistant repeat the procedure with the .22-caliber pistol or starter pistol. Continue with the exercise until your horse calmly accepts the louder noise from close range without increasing his speed at the walk.
If you’d like to accustom your horse to a louder noise, firecrackers, or even a black powder discharge, make sure your assistant uses blanks. Follow all the steps you used with the smaller guns prior to firing a bigger, louder one. It shouldn’t be necessary to fire a gun closer than 10 feet from your horse for any purpose in this training lesson.
The End Result
After several sessions and hundreds of repetitions with the starter pistol on the trail, your horse should be ready. Then, the next time you’re on a beautiful trail ride in the fall of the year and the sudden crack of a hunter’s gunfire splits the silent air, or your unsuspecting neighbor sets off firecrackers nearby, your horse should be ready to stand his ground.
Even if you’re at a large horse show and a mounted-shooting demonstration in the next arena causes chaos among the other horses, your perfect horse should do no more than twitch an ear or a muscle at the sound