When you camp with your horse, he’ll be exposed to fabric tents that can blow, canvas chairs that become kites in the wind, fishing rods that look like long whips, coolers that shake and rattle, hikers with backpacks, and other horse-eating monsters.
While you can desensitize your horse to your basic camping gear at home, you can’t prepare him for everything.
But you can help your horse approach new scenes without constant tension by keeping him calm and focused in situations that would otherwise cause him to turn and run for the trailer.
Here, top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight teaches you how to approach a scene that might first appear scary to your horse. You’ll do this by keeping him focused on the scary situation, then letting him rest, rather than constantly cueing him forward.
This moment of rest can calm your horse, as long as he keeps his focus. He’ll learn to become curious and less worried — and may even move forward with interest.
In this technique, Goodnight implements the horse’s instinctive curiosity to prompt him to want to move forward.
“You’ll keep your horse’s nose pointed toward the scene that first startled him,” Goodnight says of her gentle approach. “You’ll rule out turning or backing as a means for him to escape by immediately correcting him with the opposite rein. You’ll let him stop and settle only when he faces his fear. Your timing must be quick to dissuade his intention to flee.”
Goodnight notes that her technique works on most any horse. Here, she’s working with Feliciano, a Kiger Mustang. “A Mustang is much more sensitive to his environment than stock-type horses,” she points out. “He’ll notice every little change and anything unnatural.”
Feliciano was initially shocked by the camp, and wanted to flee, but his fear was easily converted to curiosity within about 10 minutes of work, which is typical with this technique.
Your horse’s conversion may be a little shorter or a little longer, depending on how well-trained and well-disciplined he is.
But once you rule out his flight response, your horse will quickly convert to investigative behavior. Conversion time is entirely dependent on your split-second timing, as well as your skill to both correct and release/reward.
“In short, once your horse knows escape isn’t an option, his focus will be on you to cue him to relax and investigate what lies ahead. You’ll allow him to stop when he’s no longer trying to get away. You’ll take a deep breath and encourage him to relax. When he shows interest in the scary thing, you’ll praise him copiously.
“When he has relaxed, you’ll ask him to take one or two steps forward. Then you’ll stop him and praise him for his obedience.
“You’ll repeat each step again and again until you feel your horse become drawn to the scary thing or even the whole campsite. Through this process, you’ll eliminate flight behavior and develop investigative behavior — which is the opposite of flight and just as instinctive in the horse.”
Here’s how to stop your horse’s instinct to flee, and help him move forward with confidence and interest.
What you’ll do: You’ll learn to correct your horse’s desire to turn and back then learn when to ask your horse to stop and when to prompt him forward toward the scary campsite.
What you’ll need: Your saddled horse and 9- or 10-foot, single loop rope reins that are easy to collect and handle.
Skills your horse will need: Your horse should accept a rider, understand rein cues, and respond to a voice and rein cue to whoa.
Tip: Setting up a camp scene is great homework before you try this on the trail.
Step 1: Turn Toward Camp
Upon seeing a camp scene that he’s never looked at before, your horse’s first reaction maybe to turn and run, acting on his basic flight and survival instincts. To get your horse’s attention on you and to help guide his focus, you must demand that he face his fears. Teach him that turning isn’t an option.
If he first pulls to the right, bump with your left rein until his nose is once again pointed at the scary object or campsite. If he begins to turn to the right, bump your left rein with the amount of pressure necessary to regain control of his nose.
Always turn your horse in the opposite direction than he chooses to go, keeping a loose rein. Even if you turn him all the way around so that he’s facing the scene again, he’ll think he won if he initially got to turn in the direction he chose.
Don’t circle. Keep his nose pointed ahead, and immediately correct his turns. If he even shifts his glance to one direction or the other, correct his nose until it’s pointed at the scary scene.
Once your horse’s nose is pointed forward, release the rein pressure, and return your hands to their neutral spot — directly in front of the saddle.
Be ready to move your reins again as needed, but release the rein pressure as soon as your horse responds.
Note: In Photo 1, I’m clearly using one rein at a time. If you pull on two reins, the pressure on your horse’s mouth is so great that he’ll tend to lean into the pressure and brace against it.
When this happens, you’re in a pound-for-pound tug-o-war with your horse, who outweighs you by a lot. Instead, apply rein pressure on one side only — to the direction you want to move his nose.
Step 2: Stop the Backing
When your horse understands that he can’t turn away from his fears, he’ll look for another means to escape — backing. Your job is to rule out backing as an option.
If your horse even shifts his weight backward, shift your body position forward to prompt forward motion. Slide your legs back, and apply rhythmic pressure with both lower legs to cue your horse forward.
Make sure to reach very far forward with your hands so that you don’t inadvertently cue your horse to back. He must have room to move forward.
“In Photo 2, note that my reins are forward and my body is canted forward,” says Goodnight. “My mount’s nose is pointed straight ahead.
“You can tell I’m clucking to Feliciano to encourage him to move on. I like to change my voice to a hiss and growl, too, to further let him know that backing isn’t the correct answer.”
Keep in mind that your horse may still attempt to turn away at this point. Be prepared to change your cues to match his attempts.
Step 3: Stop and Praise
Your horse is learning that the only answer is to be brave, trust your direction, and face the scene ahead.
After your horse has attempted to back without covering ground, he’ll soon realize that standing still is a behavior you reward. As soon as he stops and looks ahead, reward his behavior by loosening the reins and allowing him to rest.
If your horse moves at all, stop him, and encourage him to stand quietly. This isn’t the time to push him forward. It’s time to rest and to allow him to think about going forward. Don’t move forward yet.
“Note that in Photo 3A, my body is in a neutral position,” says Goodnight. “Feliciano has finally learned that backing isn’t an option, but that standing still is rewarded.”
As long as your horse stands still and looks forward, praise him. In a soothing tone, tell him what a good horse he is. Reach down and stroke (don’t pat) his neck (Photo 3B). Reward him with a loose rein.
If your horse steps back or looks to the side, repeat Steps 1 and 2.
Step 4: Reward Investigative Behavior
After you’ve stopped your horse and praised him, allow him time to “convert.” When you build in time for him to rest and think, he’ll become interested in what’s in front of him. I call this “converting” from fear behavior to investigative behavior.
Your horse has learned that there’s no means of escape and standing still isn’t enough.
“Below in Photo 4, my mount took a step forward and lowered his head to investigate on his own after I stopped him and allowed him to stand still for about 30 seconds,” says Goodnight.
When your horse reaches his head forward, allow this behavior! Don’t pull on the reins. He’s investigating and thinking of moving forward.
“I still don’t want to push a horse forward just yet,” says Goodnight. “I want moving forward to be his idea. If I drive him forward, he’ll begin to fight me instead of tuning into his investigative behaviors.
“Note that my reins are forward, and my body position allows my mount to move forward, even though I’m not actively cueing him.”
Step 5: Move Forward
When your horse shows a desire to move forward, it’s finally time to cue him to walk forward. Point your horse’s nose to different objects within the scene and ask him to investigate each one. Give him lots of time to look at each item within the scary campsite.
Finally, you’ll be up close to the camp, and your horse will use his investigative behavior to check out everything that was once terrifying.
Julie Goodnight (www.JulieGoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She’s camped with horses in the harshest of weather and has prepared countless horses for the trail. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, now available online at TV.JulieGoodnight.com.
Heidi Melocco (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, therapeutic riding instructor, and equine journalist/photographer based in Mead, Colorado.