You dream of riding with friends through meadows, streams and forests under a clear blue sky, but your horse gets bug-eyed at new surroundings and you are really nervous about how he will handle "real life" outside the fence. If only you could rehearse the scary stuff beforehand!
John Lyons Certified Trainer Debbie Bibb and her husband, Mark, have designed a series of obstacles to develop the "ultimate trail horse." These are safe, versatile, affordable tools that can be built with commonly available materials and minimal carpentry or construction skills. We will give you dimensions, material lists, construction tips, training points, safety points, and some possible pitfalls. Costs vary greatly depending on your location. Prices given are rounded off, and local averages are supplied for approximating a budget. But before you get out your hammer, it's important to identify your goals.
Why Do Obstacles?
Just the word "obstacle" can be intimidating to many people. Pretty much by definition, it creates an image of something that is hard to get through-and who wants to do something that's hard? But as Debbie Bibb notes, "Starting with simple obstacles, then building difficulty once those are accomplished, teaches trust and gets the horse to accept you as leader. The horse learns to step where we ask no matter where we ask because we teach him it will be safe. Do enough obstacles safely, and your horse gets the idea that he is going to go through and will get to the other side." Obstacles can also be fun puzzles that you and your horse can both come to enjoy as a game.
A Centered, Safe Position for the Rider
Safety always comes first. As Bibb cautions, "There's no sense when playing with this stuff to fall off and get hurt. People tend to want to lean forward when their horse puts his head down to look at something. This puts you out of position. You don't know how he's going to balance himself as he goes through, so it's best to be prepared.
"In a western saddle, put one hand on the horn or swell, in an English saddle put your hand on the pommel, when showing your horse something new. Keep your heels down, your shoulders back and your head up. Wear a helmet, especially if you are around rocks," Debbie advises.
Getting Through Obstacles
The key to working obstacles is to take your time. Go through calmly, with control, step by step. "Be very precise, slow and methodical and your horse will be the same way," says Bibb. Your confidence in your horse and your horse's confidence in you are both developed by knowing that the horse will go forward, turn, go sideways, around, back or through on command. "Does the horse listen to your cues and walk where you want him to walk? That's a huge trust thing.
"If your horse is tense or reluctant to go forward," she adds, "let him relax. Wait until your horse is ready to go and wants to try. A light leg bump or verbal encouragement is okay, but you should never have to spur or whip your horse to get across an obstacle. If you get to that point, your horse does not understand 'go forward.'"
When ready to move over or through the obstacle, Bibb advises that "Wherever the horse stands to look is okay. We don't want him to think, 'There's no way. We're leaving!' We want to create confidence in the horse to go forward."
The idea is to keep the horse's nose over where you want to cross, according to Debbie. You'll control the horse's shoulders by aligning them with the nose and keeping the shoulders straight. Remember that just because the nose is pointed where you want to go doesn't mean the rest of the horse will follow to that spot!
Let the horse settle and look at the obstacle. He could be 10 feet away, but keep him looking at it. When he stands nicely and relaxes, that's when you should ask him to step forward again. Give him the space he needs. Let him settle; then bring him forward a little past his comfort zone.
"If the horse has made progress and is trying hard, it's okay to take a break from the obstacle," Debbie instructs. "However, don't let him think he can just walk around it."
You don't want to over pressure the horse and create a lot of anxiety, but Bibb points out that it's important to ask the horse to reach a bit beyond his comfort level.
"If you never take the horse out of his comfort zone, he'll never progress," she reminds. "When you get to a point where your horse is calm and some progress has been made, then he's learned something. At that point, you can end the session."
It's perfectly fine to scale back your goal on any given day and with any given obstacle. It also helps to make a game of teaching your horse that it's okay if you drop something, wave something, jump toward them, or whatever. People can be too careful around their horses, afraid to make any inadvertent moves or noises.
"Don't force your horse to do anything, but if the horse jumps to one side or gets snorty while you are training, that can actually be a good thing," Bibb emphasizes. "It can give you practice and experience in dealing with such problems while you are in a controlled situation."In the end, she chuckles and reminds us of one of the most important tools in training: "If your horse shifts or spooks or whatever, it is okay to laugh."
Overall, patience is key when training and your horse should be allowed all the time it takes. Keep things simple and don’t try to force it. If you’re interested in trail training and would like more information from Debbie and Mark, head over to https://www.debbiebibb.com/ for more information.