Overcoming Fear on the Trail

There are several training tips horse owners can use to help their trail horse overcome fears on the trail. John Lyons goes through several useful techniques designed to get your horse to trust your guidance on the trail.

Have you ever been on a trail ride with someone who was riding a nervous horse? Maybe the horse was insecure and easily frightened. Maybe he was unused to being away from his familiar home turf. Or maybe he’d just never learned how to keep his emotions (and body) in check when encountering various surprises on the trail-monster-shaped rocks, deer running through the woods, a boisterous group of riders coming into sight. Possibly the rider wasn’t focused enough on her horse, letting him react (and overreact), instead of giving him reassuring directions and requests.

Regardless of the reason, it’s likely that the horse wasn’t enjoying the experience.

Imagine going on a nice hike yourself and having something startle you enough to make your heart race every few hundred yards. Instead of getting to relax and appreciate your friends and the scenery, you probably wouldn’t be having much fun.

If your own horse has a tendency to be jumpy on the trail, take heart. You don’t have to head off on a ride anticipating resistance, spooking, crow-hopping and shying, or worrying that your horse might bolt. You can work on various techniques, both on the trail and back home, to gain better control of your horse, increase his confidence, and turn him into a more relaxed, steady trail companion.

We’ll break the process down by focusing on these three basic questions:
• What should you do if your horse spooks or starts to panic on the trail?
• What can you do when you ride your horse on the trail to minimize the chances that he will spook?
• What can you work on at home to help reduce his fearfulness and help him develop emotional control?

Defusing a Bad Situation
Do you remember the last time you were truly startled? Maybe there was an unexpected loud noise behind you, or someone suddenly popped out of a doorway and into your path late at night. Think about your physical reaction-did you jump sideways, get ready to run, back up quickly? Did you freeze momentarily as you tried to make sense of what was happening before reacting?

Now pretend that it’s your horse who’s just been startled. Maybe he’ll shy, or jig, or plant his feet and stand frozen for a second. All of those responses give you time to take control of the situation. In fact, your horse usually gives you some sign that he’s about to blow up before he does, and that’s the moment for you to intervene and try to channel his reactions.

At the very least, you want to occupy him with a request-some small job to do that will help pull his attention away from what scared him and start getting his focus back on you. If he’s on the verge of full-blown panic, you’ll also want that request to help keep him from bucking or running off with you.

One of the best, all-purpose techniques in this type of situation is connecting the rein to the hip. Remember, you don’t have to control the entire horse-only one part of him. In this case, you want to “disengage” his hips-sort of like taking the transmission out of gear. To make that happen, firmly pull back on one rein toward your hip and hold pressure until he moves his hindquarters over. Once he steps sideways with his hind end, release the pressure. You may need to repeat the process a few times, alternating sides, until you feel him start to relax.

Why does this work? First, you’re putting yourself back on your horse’s radar. He may have forgotten about you completely if he’s really frightened. Second, by taking his hindquarters out of gear, you’ve reduced his ability to drive himself forward. And third, when he steps over with his hind feet, he’ll be facing in a different direction. You’ve effectively turned him. If you repeat the process, turning him to one side and then the other by having him move his hindquarters, he’ll have a tough time gathering any momentum.

If your horse takes off before you have a chance to preempt him, the same technique can bring him back under control. Just be sure to pay attention to your hand speed when moving the hip over. Don’t be too quick-you don’t want to yank back on the rein and possibly throw him off balance. Pull the rein toward your hip and hold pressure until you feel him move his hindquarters over. Remember that moving the hips is essential. If all you’re doing is pulling his nose around, he may not slow down. It’s hard to believe, but your horse may be able to keep running forward even with his nose cranked around to your stirrup.

When you feel him move his hips over, release the rein pressure. If he speeds up again, let him have a few strides, pick up the other rein, and move the hips over from that side. You can keep up this alternating series of hips-over requests as long as necessary until he finally slows down for good.

Reducing the Chances of a Bad Situation

Out on the trail, away from any commotion, stress, or competition, it can be tempting to kick back and let your horse drive himself. Fresh air, pretty scenery, wildlife, and conversation with other riders can all distract you from riding as actively as you should-until something startles your horse out from under you.

You can relax and have fun as you ride along, but you should still maintain your focus on your horse. Not only will this help you spot early signs of anxiety or uncertainty that could lead to preventable problems, but it will also give you opportunities to work on training.

Paying attention to what’s going on with your horse is one of the key ways to avoid trouble. It might just be a matter of seeing that he’s edging up on the horse in front of you. Instead of reacting after he’s gotten too close, you can work on establishing and maintaining the following distance you want. Even if something happens out of the blue-say, a dog comes flying at you out of nowhere-if your mind is on your horse, you’ll be able to react more quickly to keep him under control.

As you ride along, work on a few exercises. For instance, you can practice the hips-over technique we described earlier. The more you reinforce it in an unemotional situation, the easier it will be to have your horse respond to it when he’s scared or excited. Other techniques to work on include slowing down and speeding up, moving his shoulders over in one direction and then the other, halting and backing up, and lowering his head in response to the “calm down cue.”

You can invent all sorts of educational games as you negotiate the terrain, asking him to sidepass toward a gate, pick up a trot when you reach a certain landmark, or slow down when he wants to fly up a hill. You don’t have to nag him incessantly all the way down the trail, but just asking him to respond to a cue here and there will help keep his focus on you and lessen his concern about the surroundings.

Training opportunities on the trail are really unlimited and the benefits are tremendous. After all, you’re asking him to obey your cues in a stimulating situation away from home-and that’s asking a lot. So the more little successes you can rack up as you head down the trail, the more confident he’ll become (and the more confident you’ll become, too).

Training at Home to Prevent Trouble on the Trail
The third component of developing a steadier trail horse is the foundation work you can do at home. Some of this training isn’t strictly designed for trail rides. For example, you’ll want to work on speed control and getting a smooth, balanced halt no matter where you ride.

But once your horse is responding well to your cues, you can turn those exercises into trail ride preparation by practicing them in increasingly exciting situations. (“Exciting” doesn’t mean in the middle of a parade, by the way; traveling a few yards down the driveway, or slightly increasing your speed, may be more than enough to turn up the mental pressure.) As we’ll see in a minute, you can also work on trail-specific lessons by simulating certain situations or conditions.

Let’s look first at some exercises to work on for all-purpose control techniques. You’ll want to start by practicing these lessons in a safe, enclosed environment where you know your horse can relax and learn. Once he responds to your cues consistently and correctly, you can move the lesson a little bit outside his comfort zone.

Remember to take things slowly. You can gradually increase the excitement level by moving farther away from his home base when he’s equal to it-but you may be moving in increments of just a few yards at first. If he becomes too nervous and distracted to obey your cues, just move back to the point where he was able to handle the level of excitement.

Trail Prep Exercises
In addition to working on basic techniques like those described above, you can give your horse some practice in dealing with some of the gremlins he’s likely to run into on the trail. Of course, you can’t desensitize your horse to every scary thing he’s going to encounter-but you can teach him to maintain his focus on your cues and to respond to them even when something frightening or disconcerting is occupying some of his attention.

One good way to practice this is to have a friend introduce a mildly scary object from a distance. You don’t want to overwhelm your horse with something that’s too scary-maybe just have your friend bang the handle of a bucket repeatedly. Your job is to simply conduct business as usual, riding your horse in a circle and making various requests, such as moving his shoulders over, lowering his head, changing speeds, halting.

If your horse wants to look at your friend, bring his attention back to you by keeping him busy with your requests. Work your circle in both directions and gradually move the circle closer to the noisy bucket. Once your horse is relaxed and responding to your cues in the new location, you can move closer still. Eventually, you’ll be able to ride him by the scary spot and he won’t be worried about it at all.

After you’ve succeeded with this lesson, you can gradually introduce scarier objects. You might consider things like a waving towel, a flapping poncho, an umbrella, or a soda bottle with some rattling rocks inside it. You may need to work through these lessons over a period of several days, but it will greatly improve your horse’s ability to respond to your cues in the face of something unexpected or scary. Above all, make sure you don’t push him into genuine panic. The key to this technique is to bring him to the point of concern without going past it-and to maintain good control at all times. If he starts to get wound up, you can practice moving his hips over and having him lower his head.

Another way to help build your horse’s confidence for the trail is to expose him to various objects and challenges he’s likely to encounter. You can’t replicate the trail ride experience in your backyard, but you can set up some obstacles and let him practice negotiating them. It doesn’t matter so much what the obstacles are supposed to represent. (After all, it would be difficult to faithfully re-create a waterfall or a slippery creek bed.) The important thing is to show him something unfamiliar and develop his willingness to approach it and respond to your cues to go over, around, or under it.

Your obstacle course might include logs, tarps, a simulated bridge, items hanging from tree branches, and so forth. As you introduce your horse to these objects, remember the previous lesson. You may need to work at some distance before your horse is responding well enough to get close to that log or tarp. Remember to focus on your horse, not the object. You can’t expect him to keep his mind on your cues if your own mind is telling you, “Uh-oh, get ready, here comes that log… he’s going to shy!”

Steady as She Goes
Trail riding is supposed to be a time to enjoy your horse, nature, and the company of friends-but that may not happen if your horse can’t relax and you’re braced for a succession of skittish moment. If you pay attention to your horse on the trail and know how to deflect or control possible meltdowns, and if you reinforce his ability to respond to your cues under stress by practicing at home, you’ll develop a far more confident and responsive trail horse. As his security builds, so will yours-and so will his, in turn. And so on!

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