Everyone loves a parade, but if you think watching one is fun, try riding in one. You’ll have a blast! I’ve had the honor of participating in three New Year’s Tournament of Roses parades in Pasadena, California, with the Calizona Appaloosa Horse Club. To prepare my Appaloosa gelding Blue Suede Dude for his first parade outing, I spent time introducing him to a range of noises and experiences so that he could become desensitized to them and less likely to react.
I’m going to share my de-spook program with you. It will help you train your horse to remain calm around all kinds of noise and commotion, conditioning that will serve him well should you ever choose to ride him in a parade. As a bonus, this training will also help him keep his cool in all sorts of other “scary” situations he might encounter at a show, on a trail ride, or even just around the barn.
Think It Through
Careful planning is the key to preparing your horse for any novel event.
Start early. Riding in a parade shouldn’t be an impulsive act. Plan far in advance—weeks, at least, and months if possible—to give yourself adequate time to prepare your horse. To be successful, the de-spooking strategies I’ll give you should be practiced often over time, enabling your horse to begin to regard the new experiences as routine. Once your horse has participated in one parade, getting him ready for the next one will take less time. →
A caveat: I’m assuming your horse is already well broke in general. A big parade, especially, is not the ideal way to season a green mount.
Research! Find out as much as you can about the parade you’ll be riding in. What other types of entries will there be—marching bands? Noisy antique cars? Revving engines? Balloons? What’s the overall noise level? How loud are the spectators lining the route? Do they typically have noisemakers, and how raucous are those?
The parade manager can fill you in on these details. Also, if possible, talk to others who’ve ridden in the parade you’re targeting (the manager can give you contacts if you don’t already know someone). Past participants can give you a feel of the spook potential from a horseperson’s standpoint, plus provide other success tips that will be helpful for a first-timer.
Get creative. Obviously, you can’t find a “practice parade” to school on. But imagination and resourcefulness will enable you to re-create the types of experiences most likely to unnerve your horse during a parade. Think “noise and commotion” and you’ll come up with good options, plus I’ll get your thinking jump-started with the strategies I’ll describe in this article.
Prep Your Horse
Here’s how I prepared Dude to participate in his first Rose Parade, in 2010—in front of 3-million-plus spectators. As you use these and other strategies you’ll dream up to prepare your own horse, the secret to success is simple: Go slowly and give your horse plenty of time to acclimate to each experience. Here’s where the trust bond you���ve built with your horse will pay dividends. If past experience has taught him that he can trust you to keep him safe, then he’ll eventually accept the new stimuli you present to him—if you proceed in increments and give him enough time.
Obviously, another key success tip is to prepare your horse to accept all new learning by doing groundwork in advance of any desensitizing session. This “gets the fresh out” and focuses his attention on you. In your round pen or on a longe line, put him through whatever exercises work best to calm and focus him.
Now, on to my strategies.
Noise. This will be your biggest challenge. A parade moves slowly, but the associated racket is considerable. For example, in the Rose Parade, I could actually feel the vibrations from drumming throughout my body—especially in my heart—and I knew Dude could feel it as well. But he was prepared for this by the work we did in advance with “Joe the Drummer” (aka Joe Parisi), a local musician who travels about with a trailer of acoustics, including multiple drums. Joe kindly agreed to allow me, over several one-hour training sessions, to desensitize Dude to the wonderful but noisy sound of his music.
Dude watched the contraption quietly at first, but when the music started—mostly marches and rock-and-roll—my well-trained show horse thought his world was coming to an end. He got “on the muscle” and felt ready to launch, looking for the quickest exit route away from the clanging trailer.
I let his legs move but kept his head “facing the music.” He danced and pranced, but because he trusts me, he eventually settled down. I got him closer to the trailer, then the driver of Joe’s van slowly pulled the trailer down the road, and Dude willingly followed at a walk. After that he became much calmer about the training.
Whenever he showed that calmness, I’d praise him lavishly. Eventually, Joe’s contraption and the sounds from it became routine for Dude.
Another strategy I used involved kids running and playing on a bandstand at the roping arena near me. I asked them to start out soft and slow, then gradually become noisier and more active as I kept Dude nearby and let him experience the hubbub. They had fun, and Dude learned he had nothing to fear from boisterous kids.
My gelding was already accustomed to horse shows, but if your horse has never been to one, that’s another good place to experience noise and commotion. You needn’t enter any classes; just go and hang out where your horse is exposed to the loudspeaker, crowds around the warm-up pen, signs and banners…you get the idea.
Flapping. Parades are full of the unexpected, and one way to deal with this is to get your horse used to all forms of flapping. I used a flag for this purpose. I started by draping it gently over Dude’s neck and hindquarters, eventually advancing to drawing it over his face, waving it overhead, and galloping around the arena with it. (If you don’t have a flag, any cloth will do.)
If more appropriate for your horse, begin the flap-training on the ground, desensitizing him to a cloth or a plastic bag as you work him in your round pen or on a longe line. Be creative. Again, work slowly, gradually upping the intensity of your desensitizing.
Costume. If you’ll be riding in costume, be sure to desensitize your horse to any elements of your get-up that may unnerve him. Dude had to wear an animal skin in our parade appearances. He was already accustomed to this from the costume classes we’d ridden in; the training pictured is what prepared him before his first time in costume.
Traffic. Obviously, you need to accustom your soon-to-be parade mount to traveling down a road and being around traffic. I enlisted my husband’s help for this. We worked on a road near our ranch. Steve drove his truck slowly, allowing me to follow behind, then ride next to the truck, and eventually be tailed closely by the truck—the last being what most horses will find the scariest.
After Dude was OK with being on the ranch road, I took him to our local town’s main street and walked him down the asphalt for a half mile as drivers maneuvered around us. This further accustomed him to walking on a road—this time in an entirely unfamiliar setting—and encountering traffic of all types.
(Note: The parade may have specifications for the type of shoes your horse must wear; the Rose Parade mandates horses be shod with borium plates for best traction. Check with your parade management and/or your farrier for advice on the best footwear for your horse, and be sure to test-ride the new shoes on the appropriate footing before the day of the parade.)
Plan your preparation strategy, then work it over time, and you’ll find riding in a parade to be just as much fun as you imagined—and more.