BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
I have read several articles recently regarding bombproofing and many of them offer some handy tips and tricks. Most of them provide information on what many of us would do anyway in terms of schooling with a plastic bag, or tying one to the arena fence. But what I would like to add is something all of the articles left out, and the 2 things I do which are so fundamental I would consider it a dangerous oversight not to do.
While horses respond to sights and sounds using their eyes and ears, they also depend on their nose, or more precisely their sense of smell. Observe horses when they meet a new pasture companion, they often drop their heads, bring their noses in close proximity and sniff one another. Horses sniff each other’s poop, the ground, the air and each other.
What can help us the most though, in terms of our horses gaining our trust, and building their own confidence, is that they also need to sniff new and unfamiliar objects. I say need in this instance because we can use this behaviour to our advantage when schooling our horses to overcome their flight response to scary objects or situations.
It’s not enough to walk the horse past a discarded tyre, a fallen tree, a tractor, a spooky jump, a blown over wheelie bin (actually one of my horses was fine with wheelie bins, until someone left the lid open, then it became an entirely new monster…that’s horses for you) several times, or even many times. It’s still not enough if you do it every day for three weeks. Yes it helps, yes you should be doing it. However you’ve baked a cake but forgotten the egg, gone on a hike without a map, or more importantly…built a house with no solid foundation.
To actually set in concrete the idea that the spooky object is not dangerous is to let your horse sniff it. Moreover the horse is not just sniffing, the horse is now touching the object. Obviously this isn’t to be rushed, and every horse is different in terms of confidence, and the time needed to actually have your horse in a state that he is ready to touch the object. But all horses will eventually place their nose on anything you ask them to. This absolutely 100% helps the horse to overcome his fear, this is the cake with an egg, this is the concrete you need…your solid foundation.
Take every opportunity to show your horse new things and in different environments.
If the horse is indicating that there is no way on heaven or earth he is touching the scary monster i.e. a quad bike, tractor, car, lorry, plastic bag etc then, if possible, I would encourage you and the horse to follow the object of fear. In terms of equine psychology, the horse may assume he is higher (more dominant) than the scary object, as he is the one in fact driving the object forward. Think of it this way, it’s more comfortable for the horse to follow something spooky, than be followed by something spooky! In this video I am schooling my horse to overcome her fear of quad bikes, it’s a nice piece of footage in that it shows how her confidence grew considerably after following the object of fear. My mare had absolutely refused to touch the quad before we did this.
When visiting your equine friend, don’t always reach for the saddle, but do some groundwork. Plan what you may like to do, and which goal you would like to achieve. Think about your usual hacking route, was there something your horse found spooky on your hack, a noise, an object, other animals? Is there something in the arena that can cause your horse fear, such as jump wings stacked in the corner, a new mounting block, a broken fence panel perhaps, even other horses kicking up their heels in the paddock by the arena? Take this opportunity to school your horse from the ground up if this is the case, and make a list of everything your horse isn’t comfortable with. Start slow, and start small with patience. Over time your horse will learn that for every situation in which he is presented with something scary, you have been there and you’re guiding him through it. As he learns nothing bad happened, then he will build trust in you, as his leader. When he finally reaches forward to smell the object, be happy. When he actually uses his nose to touch the object…give yourself a pat on the back.
Wild horse image: By kind permission of photographer Gary Odell