It’s easy to relax on trail rides and allow your horse to make his own decisions. But every time you let him make a decision, you tell him he’s the leader in your herd of two.
When your trail horse takes the initiative, making decisions on direction or speed, he exhibits disobedient behavior. Your horse’s disobedience may start small—he may walk off right as you mount up, before you give him a go-forward cue or trot down a steep hill without a trot cue.
By overlooking these signs of disobedience, you teach your horse that he’s allowed to make decisions.
When your horse makes an extreme decision about where to go and how to get there—such as jumping over a ditch he could’ve slowly picked through—it’s a wake-up call. He’s not on the path you’ve chosen to travel. He’s not listening to you; he’s making his own decisions.
Here’s why your horse probably jumps over ditches and how to fix your ditch-jumper.
A Fear Response
Your horse might rush or jump a ditch when he’s afraid. His flight response kicks in when he doesn’t feel safe.
Jumping over a ditch gets him over the scary obstacle quickly—he’s not sure what might be at the bottom. As a prey animal, he constantly watches for dangerous predators. In a fearful state, your horse can’t think through what might be the best way to cross the ditch that lies before him. He may not know if it’s safe to step into the ditch and walk calmly to the other side. It’s up to you, as his leader, to dictate the path and speed you travel together.
To correct your horse’s ditch-jumping behavior, teach him that the best thing he can do is slow down and listen to you. Here’s how.
1. Find a good location. Choose a spot where you can school your horse safely that’s close to your barn so that you can work him several days in a row.
2. Go forward. Cue your horse to walk forward. Pick up your reins, tap with your legs, and ask him to walk forward toward the ditch.
3. Stop. Cue your horse to stop just before you reach the area that triggers him to jump. You may feel his body tense or feel him suck back in preparation. Say whoa, and restrict his forward motion with your rein aids as you rock back in your seat.
4. Stand still. As soon as your horse stops, allow him to stand in place for 30 seconds. Praise him, pet him, and encourage him to relax and take a few deep breaths.
5. Go forward one step. Cue your horse to walk forward just one step.
6. Stop, walk, repeat. Ask your horse to stop for 30 seconds, and praise him. Then go forward one step and stop until he slowly steps across the ditch.
7. Quit for the day. As soon as your horse takes a step into or across the ditch without rushing, stop the training session for the day. Repeat the exercise the following day.
8. Increase the steps. Once you have complete control of how many steps your horse takes at a time, ask him to take a few more slow steps before stopping. Eventually, you’ll build up to him slowly and carefully walking across the ditch without stopping or jumping.
9. Set up an obstacle. In a safe area with good footing, set up a low cross-rail jump, cavalletti, or raised poles. Ask your horse to step over the rails with one foot and stand there. After 30 seconds or so, ask him to step over with his other front foot. Wait 30 seconds, then ask him to move his back feet over. It might take you 100 repetitions, but you’ll teach him to move calmly and step across any obstacle he previously wanted to leap across.
If your horse fidgets when you ask him to stop at a ditch, teach him it’s OK to stand still. At the barn, ask him to stop and stand, giving consistent cues.
At the ditch, don’t hold the reins too tightly; your horse may think you’re collecting him to go faster. If the terrain allows, dismount and perform ground work, so your horse knows this is a location where he has to listen rather than decide on his own to rush forward. Let him rest when he’s focused and paying attention; put him back to work when his attention wanders.
This establishes you as the leader and reminds your horse that he must wait for your directives.
Trainer and clinician Julie Goodnight, Poncha Springs, Colorado,hosts RFD-TV's, Horse Master. Her book Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding is available at EquineNet
workStore.com. Learn more about Julie's program and training methods at juliegoodnight.com.