You dream of riding with friends through meadows, streams and forests under a clear blue sky, but your horse gets bug-eyed at new surroundings and you are really nervous about how he will handle “real life” outside the fence. If only you could rehearse the scary stuff beforehand!
John Lyons Certified Trainer Debbie Bibb and her husband, Mark, have designed a series of obstacles to develop the “ultimate trail horse.” These are safe, versatile, affordable tools that can be built with commonly available materials and minimal carpentry or construction skills. We will give you dimensions, material lists, construction tips, training points, safety points, and some possible pitfalls. Costs vary greatly depending on your location. Prices given are rounded off, and local averages are supplied for approximating a budget. But before you get out your hammer, it’s important to identify your goals.
Why Do Obstacles?
Just the word “obstacle” can be intimidating to many people. Pretty much by definition, it creates an image of something that is hard to get through-and who wants to do something that’s hard? But as Debbie Bibb notes, “Starting with simple obstacles, then building difficulty once those are accomplished, teaches trust and gets the horse to accept you as leader. The horse learns to step where we ask no matter where we ask because we teach him it will be safe. Do enough obstacles safely, and your horse gets the idea that he is going to go through and will get to the other side.” Obstacles can also get to be fun puzzles that you and your horse can both come to enjoy as a game.
A Centered, Safe Position for the Rider
Safety always comes first. As Bibb cautions, “There’s no sense when playing with this stuff to fall off and get hurt. People tend to want to lean forward when their horse puts his head down to look at something. This puts you out of position. You don’t know how he’s going to balance himself as he goes through, so it’s best to be prepared.
“In a western saddle, put one hand on the horn or swell, in an English saddle put your hand on the pommel, when showing your horse something new. Keep your heels down, your shoulders back and your head up. Wear a helmet, especially if you are around rocks,” Debbie advises.
Getting Through Obstacles
The key to working obstacles is to take your time. Go through calmly, with control, step by step. “Be very precise, slow and methodical and your horse will be the same way,” says Bibb. Your confidence in your horse and your horse’s confidence in you are both developed by knowing that the horse will go forward, turn, go sideways, around, back or through on command. “Does the horse listen to your cues and walk where you want him to walk? That’s a huge trust thing.
“If your horse is tense or reluctant to go forward,” she adds, “let him relax. Wait until your horse is ready to go and wants to try. A light leg bump or verbal encouragement is okay, but you should never have to spur or whip your horse to get across an obstacle. If you get to that point, your horse does not understand ‘go forward.'”
When ready to move over or through the obstacle, Bibb advises that “Wherever the horse stands to look is okay. We don’t want him to think, ‘There’s no way. We’re leaving!’ We want to create confidence in the horse to go forward.”
The idea is to keep the horse’s nose over where you want to cross, according to Debbie. You’ll keep control of the horse’s shoulders, by aligning them with the nose, and keeping the shoulders straight. Remember that just because the nose is pointed where you want to go doesn’t mean the rest of the horse will follow to that spot!
Let the horse settle and look at the obstacle. He could be 10 feet away, but keep him looking at it. When he stands nicely and relaxes, that’s when you should ask him to step forward again. Give him the space he needs, let him settle, then bring him forward a little past his comfort zone.
“If the horse has made progress and is trying hard, it’s okay to take a break from the obstacle,” Debbie instructs. “However, don’t let him think he can just walk around it.”
When you’re ready to take a break, Bibb recommends backing away from the obstacle rather than turning away-and don’t let your horse just sidle alongside it either. Give the horse clear direction that you’re ending the session and then go on to do something else.
If you feel more comfortable presenting obstacles to your horse from the ground, follow the same procedures, but be careful. Stand well to the side. You don’t want to get jumped on if the horse decides to get the request over in a hurry.
Many people think they have to “conquer” an obstacle in one session, or somehow they have “lost” or done a poor job. This is not the case.
“You might not get the entire obstacle completed at once,” Bibb notes. “That’s fine. Go out there and give it 10 minutes. How far can you get in 10 minutes? Who cares as long as you finish on a positive step? If your horse would not approach an obstacle willingly at the start and now he will stand and look at it, that’s good. Or maybe you get one foot on the tarp or the bridge. That’s great, too.”
You don’t want to overpressure the horse and create a lot of anxiety, but Bibb points out that it’s important to ask the horse to reach a bit beyond his comfort level.
“If you never take the horse out of his comfort zone, he’ll never progress,” she reminds. “When you get to a point where your horse is calm and some progress has been made, then he’s learned something. At that point, you can end the session.”
It’s perfectly fine to scale back your goal on any given day and with any given obstacle. It also helps to make a game of teaching your horse that it’s okay if you drop something, wave something, jump toward them, or whatever. People can be too careful around their horses, afraid to make any inadvertent moves or noises.
“Horses become more relaxed when they realize that every little thing is not directed at them,” she explains.
“Don’t force your horse to do anything, but if the horse jumps to one side or gets snorty while you are training, that can actually be a good thing,” Bibb emphasizes. “It can give you practice and experience in dealing with such problems while you are in a controlled situation.”
In the end, she chuckles and reminds us of one of the most important tools in training: “If your horse shifts or spooks or whatever, it is okay to laugh.”
An improbable looking tool, but very useful.
Why Build It?
? General de-spooking
? Exposure to weird sounds, movements and anything that might touch the horse’s head, neck, hips, shoulders, etc.
? Accuracy and steering; training to pass through narrow spot, wide spot, pushing through moveable branches
? Obedience and trust
Roughly 10 1/2-foot square allows safe clearance for mounted rider.
Materials and Costs:
Three 10′ sections of 2″ PVC pipe (2 for uprights, 1 for crossbar) @ $7.00 each = $21.00
Two 90-degree elbows for 2″ PVC pipe @ $2.00 each = $4.00
Two 1 1/2″ PVC pipes cut to 18″; Your hardware store might cut this for you, or you might have to buy an entire length. 10′ of 1_” PVC pipe is approx. $4.00
One sack of Quik Crete concrete or equivalent @ $7.00
Eight (or so)foam pool toy “water noodles” @ $2.50 each = $20.00
Generally on Hand or Easily Scrounged:
Two 5-gallon buckets (decorated or not to your pleasure)
Duct tape, baling twine, water
A stick to stir the cement and a knife to cut the twine.
To Make the Bases:
Center the 18″ long 1 1/2″ PVC pipe, touching the bottom of a bucket. Surround this with concrete to a depth of about 4 1/2″. (More than this gets too heavy for most people to carry.) Repeat with other bucket. As concrete firms up, fill the pipes with concrete as well. Let dry and set. Safety point: Do not substitute sand for concrete. Sand would let the pipes shift.
Putting the Jungle Together:
1. Set the three big 2″ PVC pipes into an approximate “U” shape. Connect by sliding PVC elbows onto the pipes to form the top corners.
2. Tie baling twine to each noodle. Do not drill, poke or in any way cut into the noodle, which would make it very easy to tear later. Tie the other end of the twine in a loop around the 10′ crosspiece, leaving some loops firm and others loose. Big loops can be used to move noodles to create wide openings, clusters, etc. Tighter loops keep placements steadier. Safety point: Allow 6″ to 10″ of string “dangle.” This is long enough for the noodles to hang down and twirl about, but not long enough for the horse to get its head tangled in the strings.
This can be done by one person. Honest.
1. After noodles are tied to crosspiece and the two uprights are connected to that with the elbows, tie about 10′ of hay string toward the bottom of each elbow, just above the upright pipe.
2. Set buckets on sides, tops toward arch.
3. Dig out a few inches of dirt behind each bucket and flatten a small area behind that where the bucket will eventually rest. The goal is for the heavy buckets to tip up as the edges dig in so the buckets don’t just keep sliding toward you as the jungle goes up.
4. Elevate the front end of the buckets with some of the dirt you removed from behind it. Slide the bottoms of the long pipes onto the 1 1/2″ PVC while the buckets are on their sides.
5. Gather both long strings, stand between the buckets and start walking backward, pulling as you go. The heavy-bottomed buckets will tip up as their bottom edges dig in.
6. Once the arch is up, fill the buckets to the top with water for even more weight and stability.
7. Tie the long strings to the bottoms of the uprights to keep them from flapping or tangling.
How exciting this obstacle will be depends on how much air is moving. You can also adjust the degree of difficulty by precisely closing or opening gaps in the noodles. Do not pressure the horse. Bibb strongly advises, “Wait until your horse is ready to go and wants to try! It is okay for him to stop and look, even if he is 10 feet away. Unsure steps are also okay. Keep his nose facing the obstacle, however. When he relaxes again, then give your forward cue.”
Mark Bibb notes, “Let the horse check out the noodles, but not the uprights or buckets. It is too easy for the horse to tip it over.” He also cautions not be tempted to anchor this to the ground. Anchor ties can create a trap for nervous horse feet.
Substantial enough to hold a draft horse safely.
Why Build It?
? Preparation for handling a variety of trail bridges
? Getting horses used to the hollow sound of wood under their hooves on bridges or trailers.
? Noodle add-ons can simulate signs, hanging branches, railings, weird plants or rocks.
? Obedience and trust
Approx. 4′ x 4′ boxed square with 4″ sides.
Materials and Costs:
Please note that a 2″ x 4″ is not really 2 inches by 4 inches. Wood shrinks after it is kiln dried. A 2″ x 4″ is usually closer to 1 1/2″ x 3 1/2″. If you are making precise fits, measure the specific piece of wood you are cutting. Also, allow for the width of the saw blade’s cut. This will be a bit wider than the blade’s actual width.
One 1/2″ thick 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood cut in half to make two 4′ x 4′ pieces @ approx. $14.00
Five 2″ x 4″ boards. Four are 4′ long, one is cut to 44 1/2″ to form center support = $11.00 for treated pine.
Decking screws @ $4.00/box
Foam noodle @ $2.50
Mountain bike elastomer shock absorber (the red kind) 3/4″ x 7 1/2″ = approx. $6.00 at your local bike shop or on www.ebay.com, or could use soft 3/4″ hose. Safety point: Do not use rebar or a wood dowel or stick to secure the noodle to the platform! If the horse steps on these, serious injury is possible.
Wood glue if desired
Paint or stain if desired
Saw (Some hardware stores might make these simple cuts for you)
Power drill with 3/4″ auger and bits to drill and drive decking screws
To Make the Platform:
1. Make a simple box of the 4 foot 2″ x 4″s with 2 decking screws on each corner.
2. Fit center board down middle and attach with 2 screws at each end. Safety point: This center board is necessary to give the platform strength and stability. The goal is to teach the horse that whatever you ask is safe. This will not happen if his hoof crashes through the middle of an unsupported platform and he gets hurt and/or stuck.
3. Set both pieces of plywood on top. Align edges. Secure with 4 screws down center board and 5 along each edge.
4. Use 3/4″ auger to make holes in the middle and at least one corner of platform. Can put holes on each corner to simulate railings later if you wish.
5. The 3/4″ x 7 1/2″ elastomer is just the right size to insert into the hole in the middle of the foam noodle. Leave about half sticking out to insert into the hole in the platform.
This can be as simple or as challenging as you choose to make it. With a timid horse, start by teaching him to step onto, then stand, then step off the open platform. Placing the noodle on the corner simulates a sign at the corner of a bridge. Placing it in the center makes this even more of a challenge. (Debbie put a smiling “piranha” cap on hers. Humor helps us all.) You can also set up rails to simulate narrow bridge railings, put tarps on one or each side to simulate water (which you really can fill with water), attach helium balloons, etc. For a real challenge, attach bubble wrap to platform. Safety point: Do not try that one alone and be very careful the first few times through.
This is structurally similar to the platform in that three base boards give enormous stability, making it strong enough to support a draft horse. The length lets the horse actually walk across it, not just step up and step down. 1″ gaps between treads are similar to most real trail bridges.
Approx. 12 feet long by 3 feet wide.
Materials and Costs:
92″ x 6″ x 12′ pressure-treated boards (3 full lengths for base support, 6 boards cut into 23 three-ft. lengths for the treads) @ $16.00 each = $144.00
Decking screws $4.00/box
Deck paint or stain if desired
Preferably a power saw
Power drill with bits and drivers
Yardstick or chalk line
1. To set slope, measure 3 feet in from each end of all 3 base boards. Mark 1 3/4″ up from the bottom edge. Mark straight line between these points, either with yardstick or with chalk line. Cut.
2. Cut 23 three-foot treads from the remaining boards.
3. Fasten treads to top of the three equally spaced base boards with screws, leaving about a 1″ gap between the boards. Safety point: Do not set the treads farther apart. One inch is close enough that a toe or shoe is unlikely to get caught between the boards.
The base boards can be set underneath the treads to allow for as much as a 3″ overhang or they can be set flush to the edges. The more overhang, the greater the possibility that the horse might tip the bridge by stepping on the edge, adding a “wobbly trail bridge” component to your training, which you may or may not wish to do. “Shimmying” the bridge into soft arena footing will provide more stability. Placing the treads flush with the base boards will make the bridge more stable, but wood tends to split when screws are attached close to its end.
Make real water crossings a breeze.
Why Build It?
? Many horses (and riders) become nervous at water crossings
? Obedience and trust
The size, shape and costs of this one can be determined by what you have on hand. The obstacle shown is an 8′ square as substantial fence posts of that size were available. This makes for an inviting entrance, with adequate maneuvering room.
Materials and Costs:
We’ll give costs for one as shown.
38′ fence posts or equivalent. (Heavy posts, logs or timbers will keep everything in place and will be less likely to move if a horse steps on them.) 6″ x 8′ treated posts @ $13.00 each = $39.00
111′ x 15′ (larger on all sides than the area you intend to enclose) double-sided silver/brown tarp @ $23.00.
Safety point: Do not be tempted to use an old tarp for this or any other training work involving hoof contact. Horses can catch feet in existing holes and/or rapidly create new ones in material that is not at original strength, creating a dangerous and terrifying tangle.
Four or more bags of sand or soft dirt to establish berms on both sides of the posts
If you have sand or soft dirt, all you need is boots that can scrape and form a berm to the side and a hose to fill your obstacle with water.
Putting it Together:
1. Place logs in “U” shape.
2. Make sure your tarp will drape over logs with room to spare.
3. Scrape dirt from the middle to make a berm to the inside of each log, with a matching one at the non-log “entrance.”
4. Roll logs slightly back.
5. Arrange tarp so it drapes well over the outside of the berm. (Brown side up in this case)
6. Roll log back over the tarp, against the berm.
7. Make second berm on the outside of each log to prevent rolling, making sure to cover the edges of the tarp so horse does not catch feet.
8. Be sure tarp draping over berm at entrance is also well buried.
9. Use hose to fill with just a few inches of water. This does not need to be deep to be effective!
When a horse snorts or blows on the tarp, it can create a startling sound, so be prepared for his reaction.
The Bibbs find that some horses who will readily cross a water obstacle made with a blue tarp are reluctant to cross one made with a brown tarp. Give him time and space to look, while keeping his nose pointed at the obstacle. Slowly build trust and obedience so you can go through calmly and with control. As your horse becomes more relaxed at this obstacle, you can increase the difficulty by securing the hose so that it runs a continuous stream into the pool, creating movement. For a real test, set a sprinkler to go under or through, as if it were raining.
Training Devices That Require No Tools or Construction Whatsoever!
“If you can get a horse to walk across a tarp, you can get him to walk across nearly anything.” -Debbie Bibb
Tarps can be walked over, splashed through, waved about like slickers or flags or crinkled for sound effects. Remember to always use a new tarp for ground work. Holes or weaknesses in the fabric can be disastrous if a horse gets a foot caught.
Tarps can run from less than $5 to about $25 to the equivalent of a mortgage. The light ones make a great crackling effect. Heavier ones are better for walking on.
Thick, Capped 10′ PVC Pipes (2 1/2″ or more) or Ground Poles
PVC pipes can be filled with sand for stability and are extremely visible. Either pipes or wooden ground poles can be used to define a large box that can teach your horse to lengthen or shorten stride. They can also be arranged as walking or trotting poles, can simulate downed branches or make an “L” shape to practice backing. Most PVC pipe comes in standard 10′ lengths. Cut with a saw to suit your needs.
3″ x 10′ PVC pipe = $15, 23″ slip caps @ $4 each = $8
Many a horse has been spooked when its rider suddenly unfolded a map. Waving and crinkling newspaper around your horse’s neck, over his back, behind his head, over his head, above or behind his tail, around his legs and belly can be an inexpensive and excellent first step in bomb-proofing.
Call it recycling.
This can be an excellent introduction to bridges, platforms, trailer loading or any other activity which might come up that could create a spooky “hollow” sound when a horse puts his foot on wood. Hay bales on two sides can further “define” a bridge and encourage accuracy and obedience.
A new 4′ x 8′ sheet of 1/2″ plywood = $14.
Two of the most important tools in any horseman’s workbox are imagination and a sense of humor. Have fun!