We have all heard of ‘trail monsters’ and probably experienced them too, they can be anything from a shadow to a kangaroo jumping out in front of you; the result can be scary, funny or both. Let’s see what we can do about them.
Being away from the secure home environment, our horse can encounter all sorts of ‘monsters’ – and he will learn that not everything that is new or unusual will eat him. Being in the company of other horses, many of them the ‘been there, done that’ type, will give him security and the opportunity to investigate instead of run. You will find that the more you take him out of his comfort zone, the more he will learn and adapt to new things. You will end up with a more relaxed reliable horse that learns to trust you, as long as you don’t worry about what he might do. I know some people might not like to hear this and I also know it is very hard to avoid, but fear from the rider transfers to the horse, and it doesn’t matter what the rider is afraid of, the horse will pick up on it and think: my rider is scared so there must be something scary here. He doesn’t know you are afraid of him doing something, he just knows you are afraid. Relax, and he will relax – to a point. If you are worried about anything, tell the others in your group and they will put their quietest horse next to yours until the ‘danger’ is over – nothing calms a horse better than a buddy or two.
This turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are tense and reluctant your horse will be the same. I’m not saying you should be reckless and just run into anything in the hope it will work out, but being too tentative will not get you there. By all means if you are really worried about something, you can get off your horse and let him investigate, that will give him time to check out the ‘monster’ and you will feel more relaxed because you don’t have to worry about falling off or being run away with. I found the best way of approaching a scary object is to guide the horse to it as close he is willing to go, let him sniff it – even from a distance, let him pull back as far as he wants to go, let him approach it again but NEVER pull him. By all means encourage him to have another go, but don’t force him (you can’t anyway – he is stronger than you). You will find that after a few approach and retreats he will get much closer by himself and eventually say: I’m not sure what all the fuss was about – this is no problem. As with everything with a horse, you need patience and more patience. Take your time once and it will be easy the next time. Rush, and you will have a problem every time. And just remember, just because he negotiated that creek once, to the horse it will be a different creek on the way back. You might know it’s the same harmless bit of water but to your horse it’s a completely new danger that has to be approached with caution. Eventually he will just have a quick sniff at a water crossing and take you through it, but it will take some time. The same of course goes for all sorts of obstacles and trail monsters, never underestimate your horse’s ability to see danger lurking in everything – we had a little pony once that was afraid of butterflies, pineapples and his own tail!
This goes not only for trail monsters, but for any concerns, questions etc. you might have, ask your fellow riders. We have all been there and no question is silly, and most of us are only too happy to help with advice and deed – so don’t be shy. We are a very approachable bunch and want everyone to enjoy themselves the way we do.
Apart from the stationary monsters of course there are also the moving and flying monsters; the ubiquitous plastic bag comes to mind, but even the occasional goanna or bird can startle even the calmest horse. You can prepare him at home by playing with all sorts of items, like a plastic bag on a stick, an opening umbrella, a garden hose moved over the ground, anything and everything that moves. Start slowly without movement at first, allow him to get curious and sniff it, make it move from further away, slowly getting closer as he starts to accept it until you can move it quite vigorously close to him. If he gets scared start again from the previous step where he was still comfortable. Never go on for too long, 10 minutes is probably enough for most horses, but repeat often, like a session in the morning and another one in the afternoon. It will take time, more with some horses less with others, but it will be time well spent. Well, any time spent interacting with your horse is good for both of you as you get to know each other better. You will not make him ‘bombproof’ – there is no such thing, but you will know him and his reactions better and he will learn to trust you more as nothing bad happens to him while you are with him.
So, the next time you are out on the trail and he looks at that tree stump with some trepidation – take the opportunity to show him what a courageous horse he is!
See you on the trail!