When you ride your horse, many trainers would have you believe that the biggest problems to overcome are plastic bags blowing in the wind, umbrellas suddenly opening and a world covered in plastic tarps.
The first thing these trainers do is frighten young horses with plastic bags, flags, tarps, umbrellas and goodness knows what else. Young horses are confronted with all sorts of paraphernalia and forced to walk over tarps and other obstacles. Frightened horses can be seen sweating, puffing and distressed as they’re subjected to this process.
Some trainers say that a horse must be frightened to some extent, in order to ‘desensitise’, ‘habituate’ or get him ‘used to’ things. There are even well documented scientific studies on the best (!) way to wave umbrellas, flags and tarps at a horse. This nonsense has become widespread and is very detrimental to horses.
There’s no need to do this to any horse. No matter what scientific term is used, a horse is either frightened or not frightened. A horse can’t be partially frightened. There’s no excuse for intentionally frightening any horse at any stage of his training. You won’t overcome any horse’s fears by flapping things around.
Here’s the thing. I’ve started well over a thousand horses under saddle and I don’t mean that I chased them for a few days while someone else did the riding. I rode each horse every day for four or five weeks, then handed them back to their owner. I’ve schooled thousands of so-called ‘problem’ horses and won campdrafts and show classes around New South Wales, including the hustle and bustle of Sydney’s Royal Easter Show. I’ve ridden thousands of miles and camped with my riding horse and pack horse in the bush. I’ve demonstrated my approach and started horses in front of crowds in Australia, New Zealand and the USA.
At no point did I ever consider that plastic bags blowing in the wind or umbrellas suddenly opening were a problem. In fact, I rarely, if ever, came across a situation where this happened. And in all the miles I’ve ridden, I’ve never seen a plastic tarp that I had to walk over.
Take a hint. Plastic bags, tarps and umbrellas aren’t your problem. Desensitisation and habituation aren’t your problem. The problem is the horse’s fear of humans. You must overcome this fear, show your horse that you’re not going to hurt him and build his confidence one step at a time. When a horse is confident and relaxed, it’s very easy to teach him to lead, handle his legs, sit on his back and introduce a saddle for the first time.
We don’t need scientific studies on the best way to frighten horses with tarps, flags or umbrellas. What we need to understand is that there is no benefit for horse or human in flapping things around in any horse’s early lessons.
It will take at least a month of daily lessons before your horse’s confidence is well enough established to introduce flapping items. You must build up in small steps and never confront any horse with frightening items or difficult obstacles, especially in his early lessons.
It’s very easy to introduce plastic bags, umbrellas, flags, raincoats, stockwhips or anything else to your horse when he’s confident and relaxed. It’s very easy to walk over tarps and other obstacles when your horse is confident and relaxed and has been taught one step at a time. Remember, you never need to frighten any horse at any stage of his training.
Neil Davies began training horses full-time in 1977. Over the next 15 years, he started more than a thousand horses under saddle and trained thousands of so-called ‘problem’ horses. [read more]
He is the author of Fear-free Horse Training – every step of the way.
Visit Neil’s website at www.fearfreehorsetraining.com.