The Scenario: You are out on a lovely trail ride or coming back to the barn after riding in the field and all of a sudden there is a (very scary) ditch/grate/crack that your horse thinks will come alive and eat him if he tries to cross it. This results in a dead stop or backing or something worse. For my horse, GQ, this occurred when we tried to take a different route back to the barn from the field than we normally do. While walking along the sidewalk, we came to a drainage grate that seemed like the scariest thing in the world and he stopped dead in his tracks, snorting, and wouldn’t budge an inch towards it.
The Fix: To fix this problem, you have two options. The first is to work through it from your horse’s back. ONLY do this if you are a strong, confident rider. The second is to get off, work with him from the ground and THEN get on and tackle it from the saddle.
The most important part of this fix is that you have to be confident, but also patient. Your horse is nervous, so if you are also nervous or timid, nothing will get accomplished. You need to allow your horse to assess the situation for himself, so get him to a distance away from it where he can focus on it, but he will stand still. When he lowers his head and relaxes his muscles, ask him to take a step forward. As soon as he moves even a step towards the object, stop asking him to go forward and allow him to readjust to the new distance. Take it slowly — one step at a time and then relax. If he freaks out and tries to go backward while you are riding him for this, release pressure on the bridle and keep using leg pressure until he stops moving. If he freaks out and tries to go backwards while you are on the ground, keep light pressure on his halter/bridle and move with him until he stops. (By letting him step back a little and not inhibitting his retreat completely, you reinforce that this is not a scary place. Allow him to relax, get him perpendicular to the object again and start over. (This is why patience is so important.)
It may take more than day or session to fix a problem like this, or it could take mere minutes for your horse to realize that crossing that drain/grate/etc. is not as scary as they think. The key is to always keep it positive. Never end on a poor action. For example, you are getting tired of trying, and you get frustrated at your horse which makes him step back and snort. This would not be a good time to quit because you will just reinforce that this is a scary situation. End on a note where your horse is relaxed and happy.
If you choose to try this from his back and it ends up being more difficult than anticipated, ONLY get off when he is relaxed and has just done something worth rewarding. If he flips out and you immediately get off his back, he has won this little fight and now he knows that he can get you off if he gives a little attitude and you’ve just created extra work for yourself. Instead, ride out the stupidity (as long as it is safe, meaning no bucking/rearing/generally dangerous behaviors) and wait for him to stand calmly, facing the scary obstruction and then get off and try from the ground.
If your horse won’t budge with you on his back, try doing it from the ground. Many horses will be more willing to try something if they see someone else do it. (Thank God for the herd mentality, right?!)