Making a horse streetwise
There are many different ideas as to how a horse can be taught to cope with the modern way of liv ing. On the crowded island on which I live, if a horse is to walk along the lanes from a village to nearby open countryside then the horse must be able to cope with meeting all types of traffic. In a narrow country lane, traffic can be the bicycle coming up silently behind or barking dogs skulking behind fences, or lawnmowers cutting lawns or tractors pulling rattling trailers. Add to the cocktail, the rustle and smell of a pig, the hee-haw of a donkey and the moo of a cow. Indeed the country can be a terrifying place for a horse (and its rider).
Here in Britain it has gradually become the responsibility of the horse rider to be in full control of the horse at all times and that can be an optimistic pledge to make by any rider, especially one involved in the process of training the young horse. If we riders in Britain are seen as the cause of too many road accidents, then our right to use certain grades of road will be withdrawn by Government. I can envisage that riders will be restricted to hack only on the smaller country lanes and then only so long as both horse and rider are licensed after completing a mandatory riding test. Already the horse or rather its owner can be sued for kicking a car. Perhaps it is only because horses came before the automobile that nowadays they are still allowed on the busy road network.
How times change!
Once the basic schooling of a young horse draws to a conclusion, many of we Brits consider tackling the thorny issue of hacking out of the yard and into the community. The first stage of schooling has been for the horse to be taught in the enclosed arena the fundamentals of start, stop, stand, turn R, turn L and back up. Once the horse is showing obedience, the process of desensitising the horse to traffic and other distractions can begin. The horse will be introduced to flags, boxes, drums, plastic sheeting, cardboard, large rocks, music, dogs, poles, big round balls; indeed anything that the horse may not have seen and, importantly, has not come into close contact with previously. The list of ‘horse frighteners’ is endless - even another horse can present a problem.
The passing out test I have devised for my own horse involves plastic barrels, placed close enough to each other so that when the horse passes between them,a barrel can be knocked over by the horse and fall to the ground. The test is always that the horse must walk on calmly, despite the barrels being dislodged.
At other times I will take into the training arena the quad bike or the lawn mower. Long before I reach the stage of riding mounted around obstacles, a lot of effort will have gone into work in hand on the ground. I must help the horse to see this obstacle course as a harmless game. Unfortunately it is rarely as simple as that for so much depends upon the inherited temperament of the horse and whether or not it has some degree of trust in me.
When working the animal in hand from them the ground, I use a rope halter which acts on the nose and poll in preference to using a bridle and bit which works on the jaw. It is too easy to harden the horse’s mouth by inappropriate use of the bit. My constant aim is to exert the minimal of pressure on the lead rope but when needed I would have a better purchase with a rope halter working on the horse’s nose or poll. In times of stress I can then pull the horse’s nose down towards the ground and thereby can better control the head and neck. Ideally the horse will follow me confidently in the knowledge that I will not lead it into danger. If the horse pulls back in fear and tries to run off, then initially I must resist but not at the risk of a confrontation. Occasionally I will simply let go and then collect my mare up and try again. It is important not to reinforce any fears which the horse already has nor to overface the animal.
I use the lead rope, my voice, my shoulder, my chest and my hands to guide my mare. There will no doubt be lots of standing around with me at her head whilst we chat about the silly obstacles which represent no harm to her and which she must come to accept as part of everyday life.
Realistically in today’s world not all horses are temperamentally suitable for hacking and when the horse does prove to be unsuitable then perhaps it might be better to keep it for competition work in quiet enclosed arenas.
My dressage orientated friends get very nervous about the idea of deliberately using the training arena to acclimatise their fancy warmbloods in case it makes the horse nervous of the arena. My view is that it is better to train a horse in familiar surroundings where it can come to no harm rather than to attempt the familiarisation of hazards whilst out on the ride.
At the beginning of lane work I find that walking alongside my mare on foot with my head alongside hers helps a lot in the schooling phase. Whilst it brings rider and horse together it is very important before attempting lane work in hand that the handler feels confident to turn the horse should it decide to run. Somehow passers by either on foot or in cars seem to show more courtesy towards what is obviously a novice horse. Whilst leading the horse, I shall merrily chat nonsense in a calm voice so that the horse can see that I am not at all frightened. I might even sing. If we find a patch of leafy scrubland I most likely will let my mare have a nibble or two. Occasionally we shall meet with a villager and the three of us will stop for a chat. I plan the walks through the local village for the quietest time of day and I try to avoid weekends when there is more activity.
Ultimately it will be from my demeanour that the horse will draw courage. My objective is to negate the fears which come naturally into a young horse’s mind. Horses were born to run away from confrontation but they will stand if they feel confident (or are cornered).
I always wear a tough pair of boots, a pair of thick gloves, a riding hat and both the horse and handler will be decked out with day-glo jackets so that we can be readily seen. Sometimes, when working with a young skittish horse, it is wise to employ two handlers but the role of one of the humans is to tag along in case of need and not necessarily to handle the horse.
When eventually the time comes for me to mount up and ride my horse into the local village, we shall kick off by going along in tandem with a mature well behaved horse. Three horses are an even better grouping, with the learner placed in the middle of the string. This phase can take some time and it is when the rider finds out what is going on in the horse’s head.
Eventually the horse has to go it alone if the long term aim remains to ride out into the village as a solo horse and rider combo. It can take months of careful experimentation before the horse is deemed to be ready for such an outing. The first trip will be adrenaline soaked that’s for sure. Before attempting such an outing the rider must be sure that the horse will not whirl and bolt, neither will it shy and jump sideways.
Make no mistake, when the heavy truck is coming straight at horse and rider - the lorry has got to slow down, even if horse and rider have room to get up on the pavement. At such times the horse must stand and face the vehicle.
When the car comes screeching around the corner, the horse must continue to go forwards and follow the line of the kerb.
At the right angle junction, the horse must stand four square waiting for the traffic to pass - if it steps out too soon, then call the ambulance.
When passing through the narrow gap between the wall and the car, there is to be no kicking out, because the paint job would prove to be expensive.
Until they are bred with brakes and a throttle, I feel this schooling process to be the only way to proceed with preparing horses for the big wide world. It is hard out there and horses have no way of knowing what dwells outside of their stables until they meet up with it in the lanes. It is for the owner/rider to make their trusting steed traffic proof. Luckily most horses come to know instinctively that even a noisy mobile machine is still lifeless.
The British Police use horses for riot control. Their belief is that fundamentally the disciplined horse which is to be used in the community is born and then made. When looking for new mounts, the Police seek a stamp of horse of a certain temperament which they can train on to be a work horse. It is no easy task even for the professional horse masters and many horses fail to meet the required standard even after months of training. But those horses which pass make up the thin red line.
Often these days I am reading adverts from individuals seeking a ‘bomb proof hack’. There is in my opinion no such thing. At the end of the day what you have between your thighs is what you created through training. As the rider saddles up and sets out for the first solo outing in a semi urban environment, the thought goes through your mind that there’s no room for the horse to whirl round and bolt, whatever the frightener.
The horse must stand on command.
You won’t know if the horse will stand until you test it………..