Preparing your horse for their first off-the-property ride can be a big step.
Have you been considering participating in a fun, new activity with your horse? Perhaps you’d like to compete in a local show for the first time or trailer out to an educational clinic. Or, maybe you’d simply like to go for a leisurely walk through the neighbor’s field down the street.
Sounds pretty easy, right?
Not necessarily. Any of these tasks, as simple as they may sound to some, could prove to be a challenge if you or your horse are not mentally prepared before the first attempt. This is why preparing your horse (and yourself) ahead of time is a vital part of the training process.
Where to begin?
Firstly, evaluate your horse’s current training level and how comfortable they are when you take them into a new area away from their stall or friends. If there is any question of safety when you attempt these tasks on the lead line, such as unexpected spooking or high levels of anxiety, do not rush into trying this from the saddle.
Nanette Levin, former horse trainer and the author of Preparing Your Horse for the First Off-the-Property Ride, advises starting with groundwork.
“I highly encourage people to build a relationship with the horse on the ground before they throw tack on and try to build a relationship under the saddle,” she says. “All prep work should be done from the ground until you are confident that your horse is ready for the next step.”
Keep training sessions short and sweet.
To begin, assess which areas your horse needs improvement on. Make a list and decide which area of training you’d like to tackle first. Do not try to cram all of these lessons into one session or rush through them the day of your planned outing. To assist you with this process, we’ve outlined a few common problem areas along with a brief groundwork lesson plan below. (Note: These exercises can also be done from the saddle if you consider yourself a more advanced rider or if your horse has graduated to the next level.)
1. Barn Sour
Description of the Problem:
- Your horse doesn’t want to leave the premises (plants its feet, continuously tries to turn around)
- Your horse rushes back to the barn (can be anywhere from a fast walk to an unsafe run)
Practice walking your horse out on its lead line from the ground. When he starts to resist the direction you are asking him to go, ask him to work. The goal is to make the barn area (or wherever your horse is rushing to get back to) a more difficult place to be than your destination.
As you ask your horse to work, we recommend disengaging the hindquarters while keeping his mind focused on you. Keep the horse busy any time it attempts to return to the barn and reward him with a release from the exercise as soon as you see even the smallest progress in the right direction. Your horse should soon begin to recognize that your request is actually easier than trying to return to the barn.
“Taking your time early on and immediately acknowledging that the horse has done something – anything – you’ve asked for will save you tons of time in the overall training under saddle process,” says Levin. “It will also create a much more reliable and safe mount that retains these lessons longterm.”
2. Buddy Sour / Separation Anxiety
Description of the Problem:
- Your horse becomes very anxious when separated from other horses
- Responses include refusing to leave the other horse(s) and/or excessive whinnying when apart
The exercises for a buddy sour horse are similar to that of the barn sour horse above and may be better practiced in a nearby pasture or arena to begin.
A horse with separation anxiety will easily shut you out while they focus on everyone but you (i.e. their friends). Your goal should be to first practice getting your horse to turn their attention to you.
Turn your horse out in the arena or a small pasture and use an item such as a training flag to make a minor sound that turns their attention away from their buddy and back to you. This item should not be something that scares the horse, but instead piques their curiosity. When they give you even a moment of their focus, halt the action or sound, and stand silently. Continue practicing this exercise in a few lessons and watch as your horse’s focus begins to stay on you for longer periods of time.
3. Spooking / Startling Easily
Description of the Problem:
- Unusual sounds or noises cause your horse’s flight instinct to kick in (jumps or bolts unexpectedly)
Desensitization will be your primary objective when dealing with a spooky horse. The last thing you want to do is fall out of the saddle when your horse unexpectedly leaps sideways when a wild animal pops out of the bushes on your quiet trail ride, or when the loudspeaker at your horseshow accidentally screeches.
In a safe place at home, introduce your horse to foreign items and noises at a simple pace. Depending on the level of sensitivity your horse exhibits, you may want to start at the very beginning with simple items such as a flag or saddle blanket. (If your horse is more at an intermediate level, items such as tarps, plastic bags, umbrellas, pool inflatables, or big rubber balls are safe items for desensitization that anyone can have at home.)
As you apply “pressure” with your item, wait for a response of relaxation such as dropping the head, a lick and chew, or a sigh. Immediately release the pressure (stop the activity) and reward your horse by standing quietly.
Remember, your horse can feel a nervous rider
These exercises are especially important to master on the ground FIRST if you struggle with nerves in the saddle.
Levin says, “Too often, a rider’s first instinct is to stiffen or tighten up and that is the worst thing you can do, particularly on a nervous horse. That always transmits to the horse. It also makes it harder for you to stay on in a bad situation.”
Download Nanette Levin’s Preparing Your Horse for its First Off-the-Property Ride
As you practice these lessons from the ground, you will gain confidence in your horse that will help you from the saddle. Remember to pay more attention to what the horse is trying to tell you and immediately reward the try. If in doubt, take a step back and continue to practice from the ground until you are ready to mount up.
RELATED: How to Defy the Horse Show Jitters