Do you want some advice on introducing horses to new places? Perhaps you have a youngster you are ready to start taking out to lessons? Or have bought a new horse and want to try some small shows? Get off on the right foot with advice from Jason Webb, a trainer who specialises in starting young horses and retraining those with problems.
“When you take a horse out to a new environment for the first time it can be quite an overwhelming experience,” says Jason. “Having a plan of what to do is critical in creating behaviours that relax your horse and help them as they move forward into their careers and learn to relax in new places.”
Introducing horses to new places: Jason’s six-step plan
1. Do as little as possible
Jason says: “So you’ve unloaded and the horse is looking around, taking it in and they’re quite anxious. At this point I just allow them to take in the environment. People say get your horse busy, but a horse that’s in a flight state doesn’t tend to be able to learn or listen very well, they are slightly incoherent.
“At this point I allow them to move around, potentially on a circle so you can manage where they are going, and just wait for them to settle. Wait for their head to drop and then you can start to do something.”
2. Protect your personal space
“When they first come off the lorry, depending on your horse’s level of obedience on the ground, the main thing is to protect your person space,” adds Jason. “Some horses when they first come off will drop their shoulder into you or sort of tow you off.
“If you’re having those problems they need to be looked at in a familiar environment before you introduce any new environment, so when you come to this new environment you can use a few skills from home to keep your horse away from you, while doing as little as possible.”
3. Do some stretching exercises
Jason says you can recognise when a horse is starting to settle because their head lowers, their movement decreases and their eye starts to soften.
He goes on: “Then you can potentially start to say, ‘Here I am and it’s fine’. You do that by using familiar exercises. You’ll have your own thing you do with your horse, that your horse already knows, so use those things. What I like to use is static flexion or a carrot stretch, except I don’t use carrots, I just use the pressure of a headcollar, just to bend my horse’s head around towards me.
“So stand by the horse’s wither, use the headcollar to apply some pressure to ask the horse to bend its neck by about 90 degrees. I think of this like a tension barometer – if horse is really stiff and doesn’t want to bend when they know this exercise, it tells me they’re still a bit worried about the environment so I may need to wait a bit longer or do these stretches few times.”
Jason adds that stretching the body like this is a relaxing thing to do, if the horse knows the exercise, which in turn means the mind starts to relax.
4. Controlled leading
“So depending on how you lead your horse, I start to establish boundaries,” says Jason. “If leading from the side of the horse I start to say, ‘All right, you need to walk in a straight line for a little bit and only turn when I ask you to turn’ because some horses will push through you so we want to start to reduce that idea.”
Leading from the side, Jason establishes an invisible boundary parallel to the horse so he doesn’t look or walk across your body or line of travel. Leading from the front, he suggests putting your arms out to both sides and the invisible boundary is where your arms were once you’ve lowered them.
5. Lungeing may work – but approach with caution
“Some people recommend lungeing and getting horses moving – yes, if you have a suitable environment and the horse is receptive to it, that’s great,” says Jason. “But it isn’t always possible and I’m always careful with lungeing as it can excite a horse more before it brings them down.”
6. Ride in a small space
“When it comes to riding, I do a very similar thing to on the ground – allow the horse to move around a small area using bend, so small circles or serpentines in an area no bigger than 10m, to help me control horse,” says Jason.
“This allows the horse to get rid of excess energy without introducing them to more new environments. You are staying in one area but allowing movement to happen. Allow it to happen until you feel the head lower, the controls and movement become softer and the horse isn’t really looking to power on.
“When you to feel this, start to use work the horse knows at home to introduce similar boundaries before you move into new areas.”
Introducing horses to new places: where to go
If your horse hasn’t left his home previously, Jason suggests a “neutral environment” for his first outing, such as a friend’s place or a lesson – somewhere relatively quiet where you can manage the surroundings. Once a horse is used to this you can incrementally move to more energetic or intense environments.
“My last word is that horses tend to be more spooky in new environments, he says. “Make sure you have a plan to manage that spooky situation – for me flight situations are managed using one-rein controls and bend.”
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Autor Pippa Roome