Obstacle Challenge -Breaking It Down

The idea of teaching horsemanship using man-made obstacles has always seemed problematic to me. I’ve seen a lot of people working horses over poles, tarpaulins, see-saws, bridges, gates, pedestals etc. It is definitely fun for the people and gives horses a break from the monotony of working in an arena. But I have long questioned its usefulness as a training tool.


Some people think working over and around obstacles will better prepare their horse for the varied and unexpected situations they might find on a trail. Other people use them to overcome the boredom that so many horses and people experience in their daily workout. Recently trail obstacles have even become a competitive sport, so for some negotiating obstacles is a way of being rewarded with blue ribbons and accolades for their excellent training..


Then there are the people who see obstacle training as a way to stretch a horse’s comfort zone and achieve a better connection and relationship with their horse. This is the group that I hope will come to clinics and this is the group that I want to talk about today.


Last Friday I taught my very first trail class and we were lucky enough to have available a venue that offered a wide range of obstacles with varying degrees of difficulty.


I have to admit I did not come to the idea of teaching this day with enthusiasm (in fact, it was more like kicking and screaming). I had to be talked into it. The reason why I approached the day with trepidation is that in the past when I have watched clinics of people working on an obstacle course, good horsemanship was a secondary thought. Even with all the best intentions of the clinician and the riders, when faced with an obstacle a horse did not want to cross, the focus quickly became doing what was necessary to get a horse to traverse to the other side of the obstacle. It just seems to be human nature. A competition is set up between successfully achieving a task and presenting the best horsemanship possible. So a lot of “making a horse do something” tends to be used in the obstacle training I have witnessed at clinics. If you see it from that point of view it is quite understandable why I was less than enthusiastic about the idea.


Nevertheless, I agreed and I realized that it was my responsibility to make sure the training did not descend into a competition between the rider’s wishes and the horse’s needs. I needed to make sure the training was a joint partnership where all views and all opinions were considered and compromises were possible. I didn’t want it to be a match of wills between riders and horses resulting in an outcome of winners and losers. I only wanted human winners and equine winners.


I developed a plan on how I would approach the teaching. The first and only priority was to ensure that the training was of benefit to the horse and rider. I wanted the both of them to come away having learned something that would benefit them in the rest of their training and education. It needed to expand their education and more importantly it needed to positively add to their relationship. If those criteria were not met, I figured the experiment was a failure.


With that in mind, I set out some strategies that I tried to impart throughout the day. Here is a short list of the mains points I wanted each rider at every obstacle to consider.


*  How to break something down into small chunks.


*. How to block what you don't want, and allow what you do want.


* How to go slow and slow down a horse's emotions.


* How to focus on the horse's thoughts and emotions and not the job and allow everything to fall into place rather than make it happen. Get the thoughts and emotions taken care of first and the rest is easy.


* How a little persistence goes a lot further than a lot of insistence.


 *How training to negotiate each obstacle was the same process as improving trot transitions or bridling problems or teaching shoulder in.


The final point is particularly important.


From a horse’s perspective, there is no difference between learning to walk over a scary object like a bridge than learning to walk into a trailer or line up next to a mounting block or bend around a circle or teach flying changes. It’s all the same and the principles underlying these things are always the same. To me, this is the pivotal point I tried to impart. If you can practice the principles of good horsemanship in the arena, then you can apply those same principles to your obstacle course, your trail ride, your jumping, your games training or your cow work – it’s all the same.


We are talking about doing another urban trail day next year. I think I will approach it with less apprehension than I did last week because I have learned the value of such a day is entirely dependent on how I teach it. I realize now that the failure of past playground training clinics that I have witnessed has really been a failure of the approach to the teaching.


But having said that, we should never forget that it behoves the rider to take seriously the idea that successively negotiating an obstacle is far less important than using it as a means to improve focus, clarity, and softness. There is nothing to be gained without those three elements being the top priority.


Video: The video is from the obstacle clinic where a horse is being taught to cross a suspension bridge. It shows the elements that culminate to help a horse deal with difficult tasks – breaking down the elements into simple tasks – slowing down the horse’s mind – being absolutely clear – giving plenty of time.



Horse trainers and riding instructors talk about the importance of transitions in developing balance, obedience, and fluidity in the movement of a horse. Transitions are often thought of as a panacea to many training issues. But they also give a rider an insight into the feelings a horse is carrying towards the work. As I have said before, a horse reveals more about how he feels not by what he is doing, but how he reacts when you interrupt what he is doing. In that regard, transitions very often shine a light on problems that lurk in the shadows.


A transition is usually thought of as a change from one gait to another (eg walk to trot or trot to walk). But they can also, and should also, be within the same gait (eg slow walk to medium walk to extended walk to slow walk). Both are invaluable and should be mastered for exactly the same reasons.


One thing I feel a lot of people misunderstand about transitions is the idea of energy or impulsion that accompanies a transition. A common mistake is the belief that as a horse goes from walk to trot to canter there should be an ever-increasing level of impulsion and effort from a horse. Conversely, transitioning from a canter to a walk equates to a decrease of impulsion and effort. In my mind, this is not how I like to approach the transitions. I always want my horse to be putting out the effort I ask irrespective of the gait. With that in mind, I feel a transition from say a walk to a trot is nothing more than a re-arrangement of the feet from a 4 beat to a 2 beat pattern, with the horse putting out the same amount of effort. The same is true when directing the horse from a 2-beat trot to a 4-beat walk. I don’t want a loss of effort; I just want the movement of the feet to be rearranged.  If we train our horse that a transition is about by changing the effort and impulsion, then we will build in problems such as the walk will always be the same walk and the trot will always be the same trot with no variation. If we ask for more impulsion or more effort at the walk we run the risk of our horse interpreting that to mean he should trot. I see this at nearly every clinic.


In a broader sense, a transition can be any change we ask of a horse. It can be a transition from one direction to another or a rein back to a forward gait or a leg yield to a shoulder in or a turn on the haunches to a turn on the forehand. Anything that requires a change in a horse can be thought of as a transition.


As I said, transitions can be incredibly valuable as a training tool. But they are only of value if we focus on the quality of the transition. This is where people sometimes get stuck in their thinking. Often times the ability to perform a transition is considered the measure of the training success. But this is not true. In my opinion, the quality of a transition, any transition, is dependent on the change in a horse’s feet being preceded by a change in the horse’s thoughts. It’s not the transition of the body that counts, but the transition of the thought. Without a change in thought, there can be no quality to the transition and little for a horse to learn.


An example of this that I see regularly at clinics is how a horse transitions from a walk to a trot or a trot to a walk. I estimate in the majority of cases I see at clinics, horses leap into a trot from a walk and the same is often true when asked to canter from a trot. The transition is abrupt. Often the horse throws their neck up, hollow their back and sometimes flings their head. In most cases, this happens because the horse is not thinking forward at the lower gait and holds back from thinking forward when a rider asks them to change gait. I know this because in the vast majority of instances the problem is solved by just helping a horse think more forward in the lower gait. I want the transition from walk to trot or trot to canter to appear seamless – if you blinked you would hardly notice that something changed.


Much of the time when we ask for a transition a horse is not prepared for a change of thought and instead of giving a horse a new thought to go with the new task we simply block the thought it already has. It has learned to stop going with the old idea, but not go with the new idea. This leads to resistance and ill feelings.


As an example, so many horses that I ride at clinics will automatically slow their feet when I ask for them to make a turn. This is because when I pick up the feel on the inside rein it blocks their thought to be forward. Rather changing their thought to go with me in the new direction with the same effort, they grind to a sluggish motion as if there is a wall in front of them. The horse has learned that an interruption of their thought is not a signal to take on board a new thought, but instead to hinder the old thought.


No matter what type of transition we ask of our horse, the quality and value of it is dependent on our effectiveness for evoking a horse to change its thought. It needs to swap the old thought for the new thought as if it was its own idea. Without that mental gymnastics, there will be plenty of physical exercise for a horse, but very little learning that will pay dividends in the future.

Rules Of Training And Riding For The Uneducated Horse

Just the other day I was teaching how to move a horse’s forehand across. The rider questioned my suggestion that she does not use outside leg against the girth to encourage the shoulders to step away from her leg. Considering the greenness of her horse and the lack of understanding to follow the inside rein or yield off a rider’s I felt using her outside leg would complicate and muddy the clarity of moving the forehand. My explanation did not quell her confusion, so I asked her why did she want to use her outside leg. Her answer was simple and echoed the thoughts of many riders I encounter. “Well, that’s how it is supposed to be done!”


Everything the rider had read and been taught by instructors told her that in order to move the shoulders across a rider should apply outside leg against the girth. So why would I tell her otherwise? Had I lost my mind? Did I not understand the basic rules of moving a horse’s forehand as laid out by all the experts?


I hadn’t lost my mind and I do understand the teaching principles of past masters.


When I was about 14 years old I read Podhajsky’s classic book “The Complete Training Of Horse and Rider.” I read that if I did ABCD a horse would canter on the lead that I wanted. Then if I did EFGH the horse would swap and canter on the opposite lead. Fan-bloody-tastic I thought! I tried it and it didn’t work.


Was Podhajsky lying? Was he an idiot? Was I a terrible rider? It turned out none of those things were the reason my horse didn’t canter on the correct lead or change leads when I asked (well, maybe the last reason was a dim possibility).


What I didn’t know and what the student at my clinic didn’t understand is that the books of esteemed masters and the instruction we both had received were not talking about the horses either of us were riding that day. Their wisdom was intended for another horse that had excellent education on how to follow the feel of a rider’s reins, seat, and legs. Neither my horse nor my student’s horse fitted that category – YET.


I sometimes read on riding forums the sage of advice of members how a horse needs a little more inside leg or the straightness problems of a horse stem from a rider’s shoulders not being perfectly aligned or a forward problem a rider is struggling with can be cured if only they looked more ahead instead of down.  The advice given could be the right advice IF the horse understands those things. But when a rider or trainer receives such instruction it presumes the horse has also received the identically same instruction.


My point is that the rules of riding and the rules of training are not rules. They are recommended guidelines for the education and riding of a horse. But they are not rules and they are almost meaningless if a horse has not been educated in those rules. Consider for example the way dressage teaches to ride a corner with inside leg and outside rein in order for a horse to carry themselves balanced and straight around the line of a corner. A horse does not know automatically know what to do when a rider applies inside leg. If they are on the green side of educated applying the inside leg will almost always indicate to a horse they should go forward with more energy. Yet riders interested in keeping to the rules of most dressage instruction will bring their horse home from the horse breaker and start riding the corners and circles with their inside leg applied. Then they have to get stronger on the reins to ensure their horse doesn’t rush the corner. What the hell is a horse to think? But that is how we are taught in dressage to ride a corner. No instructor ever told me to use inside leg on one type of horse and not on another type of horse. It was always “inside leg to outside rein” on every type of horse.


A horse does not give a damn about the man-made rules of riding and training. Stop trying to make every horse look like a round peg to fit into round holes. Some horses are shaped like square pegs or rhomboid or hexagonal or triangles. It takes work and training to make them into round pegs so that one day they will be able to be ridden in accord with the rules of the experts. So don’t ride them like they are finished and fully educated horses that fit the mould of the finished and educated horses the experts are talking about. It only results in confusion for them.


Photo: Alois Podhajsky was a former director of the Spanish Riding School and published The Complete Training Of Horse and Rider in 1967.