obstacle course

Introducing Horses to Obstacles – Part 3

I’d like to introduce five of our Strategies for Success that we follow when we start working with horses on obstacles or anything new and unknown.

  1. We build it in the groundwork, then ride it in the saddle.
  2. We never force a horse to go on, over or though something they’re scared of. We do go forward when the horse is in release and following our focus.
  3. Find ground zero.  This is the position, proximity to an obstacle, or a maneuver that we know the horse can achieve.  We can always start successfully from our ground zero point.
  4. We define success as, “anytime the horse tries for us,” and reward and encourage our horse when he tries.
  5. We allow the horse the time he needs to investigate the obstacle before we continue to ask him forward.

In this article, we’re going to focus on #3.  You’ll need to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

When a horse is fearful of something, there will be a certain distance he will be comfortable standing away from it.  It likely won’t matter what direction you approach it from, that distance will be the same.

In the groundwork or riding, you’ll notice that the closer you get to the fearful object – we’ll call it an obstacle – the slower your horse will go until he stops.  This is entirely natural.  Consider that, in the prey animal’s mind, anything unknown is potentially lethal.

There will always be an invisible line beyond which the horse may attempt to leave.  He might back up or move sideways.  If you’re on the safe side of the line, or on the line itself, your horse will be able to stop.  At this point you’ll be able to ask him to release.  When he does, you can ask for another step forward.  You’ll work through this until you’re up to the obstacle.  This might take several sessions over several days.  That’s the best way to do it – don’t force it or you’ll compromise trust.  We touched on that in Part 2.

Until the horse has released to the pressure of the obstacle at the point he can stop, do not ask him to go further.  Ask him forward only once he’s in release at that point.  This is tough for many folks because we get greedy.  We want our horse to do it now.  Be patient though, if you stay in a supportive role, the horse will come to depend on you as the answer to stress and pressure for all obstacles, not just this one.

Let’s dig into this a bit deeper, referencing the image.  A horse will stop at the point where his ability to handle the pressure presented to him hits a limit.  If we push him past this limit, then he’ll resort to instinctive behaviors: flee, freeze or fight.horse fear

There are 2 things that will get the horse beyond this point:

  1. You asking him to release and go forward with you (you’ll see that in this video).
  2. His own curiosity.  This will eventually happen and he’ll go forward on his own.  I see this often on items like stuffed animals or hides.

In the image, the horse on the left is comfortable stopping 10m away from the scary rock.  The horse on the right has hit the limit of what he considers safe, and is taking action to save his life.

I like to call any point on the green circle our Ground Zero Point.  This is the distance from the obstacle that the horse can always stand and not try to escape.  Our job then, is to make that green circle smaller and smaller, until it’s gone…without hitting the red circle.

Our first job then, is to find where that green circle is.  Let’s use trailer loading as an example.  The obstacle: standing quietly in the trailer.  We lead our horse up to the trailer.  At some point he pulls back and turns away.  This is the indicator that we’ve crossed the red line.  So we start again.  This time, we’re more attentive and notice when our horse starts to become tense.  His head might go up, his jaw tighten, etc.  At this point, we stop.

If our horse can stand with us, we’re on the green line.  If not, back up a bit.  We find where that spot is that our horse can stand without moving or trying to leave.

Once we’ve found that, we ask the horse to release (again, this is letting go of tension and following your focus).  Then, we clearly focus forward and ask the horse to come with us.  Once he takes a step or two, stop.  You’ll likely notice that he becomes tense again.  Now, we’re in the space between the red and green circles – this is where we need to play.  This is the zone – as with all pressure – where your horse is not comfortable but still willing to trust you.

Stay in that spot for a bit and ask your horse to release.  When he does you might try another step forward OR you might leave.  We don’t want to push things beyond his ability, however we do need to make that green circle smaller.  When you use this tactic, you’ll notice that the next time you lead your horse up to the trailer, he can stand quietly, closer to it.

Thus, you’ve established a new Ground Zero Point.  To see an example of this as it pertains to the trailer, watch this video.

You will be able to get your horse up to any scary thing in a quiet supportive way by following these steps.  The great thing is that the horse will learn to depend on you for anything scary, because you’ve kept the experience entirely positive.

And, each time he tries, we praise him for it…which takes us to our next article!

Scott Phillips

November, 2018



This entry was posted in Horsemanship, Scott and tagged , , , , , , on by .

About admin

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, producing horsemanship webinars and podcasts, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and of course, operating Amazing Horse Country. He affectionately refers to his herd of horses as his "kids". Scott has uniquely integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

6 thoughts on “Introducing Horses to Obstacles – Part 3

  1. Brenda Gardipee

    This is what we used with Poco to get him to the rope gate ?? Good to read this again I’m sure Poco and I will put this article to good uses this year … and will need your help with getting him into the water obstacles … looking forward to the clinics

  2. Jeanne DesRochers

    Have trouble being patient at ground zero as frequently ride with people whose horses will go up to and over anything with no hesitation, frequently feel like I am riding a “chicken” so put too much pressure on him and me to “keep up with the Jones'” Takes a lot of time and patience altho I know it is the correct way to do things.

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Hi Jeanne! That is a common issue. I’m also touching on the comment you made on this post. I’ll share a story with you. A few years ago, I was riding Chip on one of his first ‘mounted’ mountain rides. We came across a little creek that was probably only 18″ across. He had some trouble with going over it, and I didn’t want him to get the idea that jumping things in fear is the way we work. So I let everyone know that I was going to work my colt for a bit and they were OK with that. I got off him, and we worked through all the pieces that we do in an obstacle course to have the horse go forward in a calm state of mind. When we were across, I got back on and resumed the ride. Everyone watched. Later someone said to me, “There are many guys who would not have got off and helped their horse. Nice job.” A whole bunch of things come to mind:

      1. If the folks you’re riding with are putting pressure on you and don’t allow you time to help your horse, have a conversation with them. Let you know you’re not comfortable with them putting pressure on you and that it’s important to you that the ride be a positive experience for your horse. If they don’t accept that, then do not ride with them anymore. It’s not fun for you or your horse; worst case, someone can get hurt. There are plenty of folks to ride with that are supportive of horsemanship, understand what you’re going through, and are willing to help in a positive way.
      2. It doesn’t take much to be able to help a horse through these things (you’ll find out in our clinics, particularly the obstacle and trail). You’ll have an audience pretty quick when people see you create positive changes and horses that will do anything for you – without a fuss.
      3. Every single horse out there understands fear in a mortal way. Some of them are better equipped to deal with it than others. But the most scared ones will come around quick, with noticeable positive changes when we start working them in this style of horsemanship. I don’t think of them as ‘chicken’, because they are simply under more pressure than they can handle. Like you observed – adding more pressure to that isn’t the best way.
      4. If folks are ‘trying to help’ and things are ‘getting worse’, then they’re not helping LOL! If anyone is putting excess pressure on YOUR horse, remember it’s YOUR horse. Obstacles are one place where human pride seems to overwhelm horsemanship excessively. Folks that ‘try to help’ without being asked, are the ones that are trying to fill their ego cup; what they’re doing is about themselves, not you and definitely not your horse. If you DO want help, look for the person who is working their horse in a calm way. Ask them for their help. The professionals are humble and willing to help with a smile.
      5. You hit the nail on the head with your comment about “building trust and leadership”. First the horse needs to recognize you are above him in the herd. Then, you can start to build trust. It’s what our obstacle courses are all about 🙂 The horse can only overcome a pressure that is less than his belief in your leadership (trust). That isn’t any different than people, when you think of it!
  3. Allyssa Yarrow

    This is exactly what I did when trying to gentle a “wrecked” horse again.
    Except I was the scary object/boogeyman.
    I would stop right before I hit her uncomfort zone. Wait for her to release, and then watch for her to invite me closer. And repeat. 1… 12…123…1234…12345 until I was eventually able to pet her again. I would retreat back to a comfort zone before she decided I was to far, which eventually made her think “well hey I wasn’t done what I was doing why are you leaving?”
    It took 3 weeks of doing so and one day I stopped at 1, and she walked across the paddock to me, stopping at 4 to reflect on her decision for a second, until she nudged my hand at 5 to pet her.
    This is such an important principle to me in horse training and exactly how I plan on halter training my new foal. It respects their space while increasing their curiosity of you.

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      You touch on a very good point. I think I’ll do an article/video on this. Predators are very ‘handsy’. We have to touch and reach. My cat does the same thing LOL! When we do though, we typically push our space out, which can cause a horse to retreat. The other piece to the 12345 technique you’re describing (great thoughts by the way) is draw. This is something we have to practice it because we don’t naturally do it. We can draw them into our space when we step back (or are motionless, or even actually step forward). There are really 3 ways to interact with space: push (feels like a beach ball is in between you and your horse – you push on the ‘ball’ and they feel it), draw (feels like a bungy cord between you and the horse, you step back or ‘stretch’ it, and they feel that pull) and neutral (awareness of space and position but not asking anything of it; contentedness).

      The way I was finally able to have my wildie in my space, by walking up to him, was this: the closer I physically got, the further back I moved my energetic space. Basically walking forwards, but really feeling backwards. This way I was not pushing him away with my space the closer I got to him.

  4. Tiffany Morin

    I can say that being in that ground zero spot requires some patience and discipline! As others have mentioned it’s hard at times not to give into peer pressure or try to rush it! I know I have been guilty of getting so excited about the horse taking an additional step or two and you get greedy and try to ask for more from the horse when they clearly aren’t ready. I definitely pay more attention to those signs of release and signs of tension to make sure I’m not moving too fast or rushing the horse, it’s a fine line and a delicate one but once you achieve that trust it’s so worth it in the end!

Leave a Reply