Negotiating Obstacles; A Timeline
In my day job, I spend much of my time negotiating obstacles. This is because I mainly ride young or tricky horses, neither of which fully understand “forward”. Therefore, when we come across something that they don’t want to go over (or past/ under/ through), nine times out of ten, they follow the same pattern of behaviours and stages that I have to manage in order to get them over. There are a number of relevant video lessons and blogs on Your Horsemanship Online (such as Ditch Training), but I hope this article is useful to break it down into the stages that the horse and rider go through. Remember; in order for your horse to learn from the process, it has to be their decision to go over, not yours!
The Timeline – It takes as long as it takes!
Horse: Spots the scary object and their flight instinct kicks in; they want to turn and run.
Rider Response: Use one direct rein to gain control left and right. Once he is facing the object, give with your hands to avoid blocking with the rein away, and encourage forward movement by applying leg aids (see photo).
Horse: Stops trying to run and starts to investigate by stretching his neck towards the object, and giving it a sniff.
Rider Response: Stop asking for forward and let your horse pause for thought.
These stages need to be repeated with the rider recognizing every “try” the horse makes, be it a step forward, a sniff, or just a shift in bodyweight. Feel and timing are key; you need to input and take away the correct amount of energy at the right time for your horse to gain confidence in going forward.
Horse: At some point in this repetition, your horse will investigate further by nosing, biting or pawing at the object. This may result in giving himself a fright and a return of the flight instinct (it may be a big “explosion”!). This will be the last major resistance before he decides to go over/ past/ under.
Rider Response: Return to controlling with one rein, and once he has settled and facing the object again, return to giving with both hands and inputting energy.
Horse: Looks beyond the scary object and out the other side. This is when they are making the decision to go over.
Rider: Do not make any contact on the rein as your horse must feel that he can go forward without restrictions. Your horse is more likely to leap if he feels that he doesn’t have enough freedom to go forwards. Once he has gone over, you can regain control by putting him on a circle with one rein.
Ideally, you should repeat the process until he is going over without hesitation. Don’t be in a hurry as if done correctly, you will find that the process will be a lot shorter the next time you meet something scary on your ride!