Anybody can do sunny day rides on a calm horse, but can you and your horse handle galloping herd mates, flapping tarps, noisy motorcycles, gunshots, leaving to ride on your own, or being left behind? If you can't do those things, do you wish you could? If you answered "yes," but don't know how or don't believe your horse could ever get there, then keep reading. If you answered "no," then trust me when I say, I hold no judgment against you. Horses are supposed to be fun for us, and taking that next step into what I call "stressful situation training," can be challenging.
For those curious minds who'd like to see some solutions for riding "into the fray," so to speak, read on...
Step one: Identify your horses triggers. What set's her off to the point where she stops paying attention to you and devotes her attention to that thing, leaving you out of control?
Step two: On the ground, linger near those triggered spaces, even in those spaces. Don't avoid them. No pressure at first, just hang out. Don't allow him/her to step into your space or pull away. Wait there until you have a calm, quiet horse. This could take a while, don't be in a hurry or expect anything grand in one day or even one week. A horse's progress is generally best measured in months, not days.
Step three: Ask for normal things you'd ask for in a normal, quiet space. Things like hind quarter yields, friendly desensitizing games to a flag or stick, circles, backing and turning, or touching hand yields. Keep asking until you get the same quality response you'd get in a quiet training area in spite of the extra noise.
Step four: Hang out some more just to prove your horse is truly becoming calm in that triggered environment.
Step five: Come back each day and repeat, until finally, one day, you feel you can move from ground to riding in that space.
Blackberry: Blackberry couldn't handle going off on his own. He would do okay if you stayed close to the other horses, but going off on his own triggered a highly explosive horse, even to the point of bucking. So what we did for him, was get on the ground and lead him away from the others. Then we played with basic ground skills in that new space, day after day after day, until one day... it became apparent he just wasn't reactive anymore. On that day, we rode off into the sunset, away from the others, without any hiccups.
Grace: Grace couldn't handle riding past other horses in a field or when other horses around her started running or jumping. Not great for a competition environment where that kind of thing happens all the time. So what we did for Grace was step into open fields with other horses. On the ground we'd hang out for ten or twenty minutes just correcting boundaries and keeping the other horses at bay. (Remember... no pushing or pulling.) Then, we'd play some basic skill games on the ground until she was quiet and responsive just like in the quiet places. Day after day we'd go to new spaces until one day she stopped reacting to the other horses. Now we can ride out into new herds of horses, or cows, or anything and boss them all around because Grace doesn't react at all to what they're doing.
Rudy: Rudy couldn't handle tarps and flags moving quickly. If you kept everything slow he'd seem confident but if something flashed quickly, especially from behind, he'd loose his marbles, even if he knew what it was. So what we did was teach Rudy to stand in a box. We call that box training, you can learn more here: video link. Whenever Rudy left the box we quickly brought him back and rewarded him. After a while he wouldn't leave the box for anything. You could have a parade going behind him and he just didn't care because his focus was on the leader and the job his leader gave him, instead of on the parade. Now, Rudy can ride safely without the fear of losing control if something spooks him.
Raspberry: Raspberry bucked every time you asked him to canter and it got worse on windy or cold days. So what we did was get on the ground and ask him to improve the quality of his transitions. Walk, trot, canter, buck. That was his model. Each time he bucked, we stopped him by literally getting in his face with the lead rope wiggling up and down to say, "DONT DO THAT!" until he would backup, look at us and think, "What did I do wrong?" At which point, we'd try again. Each time he bucked, we told him not to. Each time he cantered without bucking he got a reward. Not a treat, but a nice calm walk and a soft rewarding grooming session after he walked. It's important to walk after cantering for horses like this. Don't just canter and stop. Walk it out a few steps, then stop. There's more to that I'll talk about in another article. Anyway... after many days of correcting the canter/buck thing, in many different spaces, and temperature ranges, he simply stopped doing it. Now, it's been about six months since he's even tried bucking when you canter. We still check to be sure, but now we can ride in stressful situations without the fear of overreaction, and that's the key to a great partnership.
I believe, if you can't ride in a stressful situation, you can't get to that next level of horsemanship. We could map your progressive confidence this way:
Level 1: You can work on the ground and sit on your horse in a calm, neutral space.
Level 2: You can ride in new places but with the support of easy going company. Always taking things slowly.
Level 3: You can ride in new spaces with easy company and speed things up a bit. Challenging each other to up your game.
Level 4: You can ride in new spaces, trusting you can manage your horses reactions in spite of the groups or environmental pressures. Perhaps you can't work at every speed yet, but you can work in every place.
Level 5: You can ride anywhere with any company at any speed, and "own the ride" so to speak, because your horse is always giving you his or her attention instead of giving it to the environment. This is the horse your kid can take to the 4H classes and win every class. This is the horse you can trust will listen completely, regardless of the pressures around.
Currently, in my herd of horses, I have, one horse at level 2, two horses at level 3 but close to 4, two at level 4, and one at level 5. What level are you at with your horse? Comment below.
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