Horses, as we know, have a flight instinct. At the first sign of trouble, their brain is hard-wired to have them scampering for safety.
Equally, once they’re convinced something has the potential to cause them harm, they can plant their feet and refuse to budge.
It could, of course, be something large and menacing in appearance such as a cattlebeast, or something unfamiliar such as a herd of domesticated deer. On one recent ride, I passed both with barely a batter of an equine eyelid.
However, a neighbour’s chickens pecking around the base of some trees were in a different league entirely.
Suddenly, you’re glued to the spot. There’s only one way past and your horse is in no mood to take on the killer chickens.
What do you do?
The key is not to get into a fight with your horse. It will be a battle of wills but the key is to be firm without engaging in a battle that ends with your horse rearing or spinning on the spot.
Speaking harshly and using a whip may work, but there is an even bigger risk attached at this early stage. If you fail to get the forward momentum you want, your horse will not only associate the roadside obstacle – be it chickens, cattle, deer, whatever – with fear, but punishment.
In other words, the use of the whip is almost reinforcing that he has good reason to be concerned about the animal or object in question.
You will feel the tension in your horse as it eyes up the object and this should be your gauge.
Firstly, hold your horse steady and use your outside leg to discourage any thoughts of walking sideways, particularly so if a roadway is involved.
Your first strategy is simply to stop and look at the animal or object. Try to remain relaxed – something your horse will sense – and speak reassuringly to your mount. Rub his neck.
Make no mistake. If your horse is young or is encountering something it has never seen before, its concern will be very real. Take your time. As much as the horse needs.
Eventually, you should sense the tension easing in the horse.
At this point, you can try to move forward, but be ready to react if your horse opts to go sideways or spook.
In your efforts to go forward you need to be firm but ensure you don’t give a sense you’re being harsh or punishing the horse. Use gently increasing leg pressure, ensuring you keep the reins straight. Tap him on the shoulder (the opposite one to the object) with your whip if you think a little more encouragement is needed, but be sure to keep your reins straight.
Don’t necessarily expect that your horse will simply wander past the worrying animal or object. It’s entirely possible your horse may do it in a dash. Be prepared, and consider you have won the day. Your horse finally did as you asked, even though it may have taken 10 minutes longer than you ever thought possible.
If you’re still not having success, you have to decide how far you can push the horse, especially if it’s young.
This could well be the point where you dismount and try to lead your horse past.
If other horses and riders are in the area, an even better strategy presents itself.
Turn around and seek out a pair you’re confident will have no trouble going past the object. Buddy up and away you go. There’s every chance your horse will do as you ask if its mate does so without a second thought. Do it a few times over the next few days and the horse will forget there was ever a problem.
With older and more experienced horses, you might consider there’s an element of stubbornness in its resistance. Give the horse time to assess the object, then try to push him on.
If you know the horse well, you’ll know how hard you can push things to get him going.