The Scenario: You are out on the trail for a nice, peaceful ride and a biker rounds a bend in the distance, heading in your direction. Your horse spots the biker and his head pops up, he begins to get ansty and as the biker gets closer, he pivots and bolts for home.
The Fix: Regardless of the cause, it is never a feeling that we like to experience when our horse turns tail and heads for home. Thankfully, when this action is brought on by something man-made, it is generally easy enough to fix with a little training.
To deal with a horse who spins and/or bolts when presented with something scary, start in a controlled enviroment. If you don’t have an arena available, a small paddock will do just fine.
The first step is to get the horse listening to you while you are riding. Before introducing the scary object or individual, warm your horse up, asking him for leg-yields and haunches in. If you don’t know how to do these elements, find someone who does and have them give you a short lesson because they will be incredibly useful. These are good tools to get your horse in tune with and focused on you.
The second step is to introduce the scary thing in the controlled environment from the ground. Starting from the ground, have someone slowly ride a bike, push a buggy or jog towards you and your horse, leaving a wide gap. If your horse gets too worked up and makes you nervous from the ground, ask your helper to stop and allow your horse to observe and investigate the scary object. Give him as much time as he needs to calm down and then ask your helper to continue on, slowly(<–this is the key, if you go flying past the horse, you will do nothing to help him see that the object will not hurt him.) It is important that you give your horse a long rope and that you, yourself, remain calm. You horse will pick up on your emotions, so if you tense up because you think he is going to react poorly to a situation, it is far more likely that your horse will feel stressed and act out. When you relax and act like the bike/jogger/buggy is nothing to worry about, your horse may be more inclined to have a calmer reaction. Remember though that you need to remain attentive. ‘Relaxed’ does not mean ‘inattentive.’ Be ready to move with your horse as he reacts. Pass the horse as many times as it takes until he has no negative reaction to the object or person passing him on either side. Then repeat the whole process as you walk alongside your horse.
[Quick tip: If you are standing on the left side of your horse, have your helper also pass on that side. If you are standing as a barrier between your horse and the scary thing, his reaction may not be as negative.]
Once your horse allows the scary object to pass him with no reaction while you’re on the ground, it’s time to get on him. While you keep him halted, allow your helper to pass your horse. Hopefully the ground training has helped him realize that the object coming at him is not quite as scary as he thought. This doesn’t mean that he won’t react however, because now you are not there to act as a barrier. From his back, you can act as a barrier in a different way. Remember the leg yields and haunches in from step one? Now those are coming into play. As the scary object comes toward your horse, ask him to tilt his nose away from it. Don’t take his eye completely off of it, but don’t let it be the center of his vision. By giving your horse a job to do (turn his head), you are giving him something to think about other than how scary that thing coming at him seems. When he will stand for your helper to pass with the scary thing on both sides, move him into a walk. With the movement, you can ask him for a haunches in (which, assuming the scary thing is the ‘inside’, will put the thing farther from his line of sight), turn his nose or leg yield away from the object. It is your choice if you want to practice this at a trot, but to make things easier and safer on the actual trail, you should always be walking to pass someone else during the ride.
Once your horse is comfortable in the arena, its time to take what you’ve been working on to the trail. To start, pick a quiet time of day and/or a more secluded path to practice on and have your helper come along again. Have your helper move up the trail a ways and then come back towards you. Think about the relaxed movements that you used in the arena. Going out on the trail may seem a little stressful at first, so remember to keep breathing and stay as relaxed, yet alert, as possible in the saddle. When you and your horse are relaxed on the quiet path, you should be ready to try something a little more crowded.
- Safety first! Your horse may learn to accept the ‘trail monster’ quickly or it may take a bit of time. Don’t take shortcuts in getting to the end result because it will never give you the results you hope to achieve and can get both you and your horse hurt.
- Never be ashamed to admit you moved on too quickly. No step is ever finished. If you feel you rushed any part, go back a step or two until you and your horse are truly comfortable.
- You may have setbacks. Things may be going well and then a biker may come flying around a turn and frighten your horse, causing his old behavior to surface to some degree. Go back to the start and work through it again.
- For horses, the faster something occurs, the scarier it is likely to seem to them. If your horse is getting worked up, ask him to slow down either within the gait or through a down transition.