Everything you do with young inexperienced horses (or even older horses, for that matter) is training. You are either helping them become more tolerant of unusual situations (and more willing to trust and obey you and your clients) or making them more untrustworthy. Bombproofing—that is, sensory training which makes your horse oblivious to distractions—is the result of careful, progressive handling.
As we know, horses are herd animals, taking their cues from horses around them. And as prey animals in the wild, they depend upon keen senses and fleetness to escape predators—in other words, run first and ask questions later. This natural flightiness must be overcome before a horse can be a dependable part of the team, safe to handle, and trusted to take his rider safely along the trail without spooking at everything he sees and hears.
The rider’s role is to be the leader in a herd of two. The goal is for the horse to trust and defer to that person as he would a senior herdmate. So the first step in any training program, including bombproofing, is to have a relaxed and confident attitude yourself. That way, your horses and clients can trust you and follow your cues and requests without resistance or fear. Train yourself and your clients to stay relaxed and in control.
Where you start in the “bomb-proofing” process depends on the horse’s prior experience. A young horse that’s been handled by humans from the time he was a foal will be accustomed to many of the things that might frighten a horse raised with minimal human contact (such as a BLM or PMU horse). In earlier days, many western horses ran loose on the range as they grew up, had little contact with humans except to be branded and gelded, and might not be started in training until they were four or five years old.
Whatever the horse’s background, here are a few tried and true methods both you and your clients can use to create safe and trusted riding combinations.
The first step in handling wild horses was to “sack them out,” rubbing a burlap feed sack over their bodies, until they were no longer afraid of it. This made them safer to brush and to saddle and less likely to kick if their bellies or legs were touched.
Most horses today are not so afraid of things touching them, because they’ve already been handled. Even with a barnyard-raised youngster, however, it’s always a good idea to get him used to having all parts of his body touched, so he’ll be calm and relaxed for vaccinations, feet trimming, fly spray, first saddlings, etc.
The more groundwork you can do with a horse, the better. It’s important to get him acquainted with as many situations as possible before he encounters them under saddle.
Get him accustomed to the feel of human hands all over his body. If there are any parts of his body (lower legs, ears, cinch area) where he’s ticklish or reluctant to be touched, spend extra time on this until he can relax and accept it. Then you or your client can progress to using a brush, and eventually a saddle blanket or large rag—putting it on his back, rubbing it up and down his neck, sliding it over his rump and hips, and both sides.
Start off gently and be sure to do both sides equally. If he’s nervous, take more time. For some “goosey” horses, it may take several sessions until they can stay calm and relaxed. Eventually you can rub the saddle blanket or rag a little more swiftly and flap it a little. There is no need to wave it wildly; that will defeat the purpose and just make the horse more scared. But you do want him to accept some motion, since you don’t want him jumping out of his skin when a saddle pad is plopped onto his back, or when the rider has to put on a jacket or slicker when mounted.
USING A FLAG
As we know, horses may spook at strange sights and sounds. But with proper handling a horse can learn to trust the rider and seek guidance from that person, just as he would look to a more experienced herdmate. If the rider is relaxed and unconcerned, the horse will decide there’s nothing to fear. This is why doing plenty of groundwork ahead of time to establish confidence in both the horse and the rider is important.
Many people try to do “sensory training” but don’t do it properly, or don’t take it far enough. It’s not enough to simply get the horse accustomed to being touched. It’s important to get the horse used to having a flag or small tarp touching his body and legs and waving around him. And do it from every angle. Horses’ eyes are set wide apart at the sides of their head, and they see a different picture with each eye—enabling them to see an approaching predator. Make sure you get him accustomed to unexpected movement on each side, or he may come to accept something on one side but still spook at things from the other side.
The technique: have one person hold the horse and reassure him, while another person walks back and forth behind him with the flag or small tarp. Start at least 20 feet behind the horse, then gradually come closer (to about 10 feet, out of kicking range). As the horse relaxes with this activity, you can then start waving the flag and coming closer, progressing to the point where you can walk around him in a circle, waving the flag rapidly. The same process should be used with the horse while mounted, with one person in the saddle and the other on the ground with the flag. This can get him used to unexpected movement from a vehicle coming up behind him, or out on the trail, or even in or near the arena.
Susan Dudasik, horsewoman and 4-H leader from Salmon, Idaho, does most of her early training from the ground. “If there’s something a horse is afraid of, I lead him up to it and make him actually touch it, taking whatever time is needed. I stay relaxed, and eventually the horse will relax, too. All my horses and mules know that if they spook at something, they’ll then have to walk up and touch it. I start with groundwork and lead them up to everything I can think of. That way they get to examine it and smell it, and if necessary we do the advance and retreat game so they don’t feel pressured,” says Dudasik.
When she starts a green horse, she puts him in a round pen and throws a sack or some other scary object in with him, to observe his reaction. “This enables me to see whether he turns to the left or right when he jumps away from it, or how he approaches it on his own. Then I know that this horse will jump to the left 99 percent of the time, for instance,” she says. This also lets you know whether the horse is really afraid, or just curious, and how soon he gets over his fear. Some will walk right up to the scary object while others will circle it, she says.
She teaches all her green horses and mules to do an emergency stop (where the rider reaches forward and grabs one rein and pulls the horse around in a circle). The basics are first taught on the ground, so the horse will readily give to a pull on one rein. “If the green horse spooks or bolts when I’m on him, I can just keep circling him until he calms down—to where I can evaluate the situation,” she says. “Then I can either make him stop and stand and look at it, or go up to it.” If you lead the horse up to scary objects during groundwork (letting the horse relax and examine it on his own terms), he will be more willing to approach something scary when he is mounted.
“When working with something scary, start well away from it and gradually get closer, then back off so the horse knows it won’t get him. Give him a chance. Often a horse just needs a little time to evaluate an obstacle. If he stops and freezes, many people immediately kick him, and this makes him even more afraid. Stop and take a moment to let him check it out,” she says.
IT’S ALL ABOUT CONTROL
Most “spooky” horses are a rider problem. “The rider is anticipating a problem and tenses up, preparing for the horse to jump or shy, even before anything happens,” she says. If the horse sees something scary and stops, often the first thing a rider does is tense up, transmitting anxiety to the horse. The rider must learn to take a deep breath, give the horse more slack in the reins (rather than tightening them), and maybe hang onto the mane or saddle horn in case the horse does jump.
And the rider must do that while transmitting a relaxed attitude to the horse. “When I lived in California, I had to ride my mule through traffic to get to a trail. When I’d hear a car coming, I’d tighten up on the reins. Every time she’d hear a car, she’d tense up because she was afraid something bad was about to happen. One day we were on a narrow trail next to the road, and a fire truck came by. I was sitting on her, talking to a friend, not thinking about anything, and the fire truck went by so close I could have reached out and touched it. My mule didn’t react, and I suddenly realized that I had been the cause of her apprehension about vehicles.
“After that, every time a car went by I just grabbed the saddle horn and left her on a loose rein, and she never did a thing. She’d been more worried about the rider’s fear signals and my reactions than she was about the traffic,” says Dudasik.
That’s the way horses act. They take their cues from herdmates; if one bolts, they all do. If one becomes alert and alarmed, they all do—preparing to flee. If, however, the lead mare decides there’s nothing to be afraid of (the rustle in the bushes was only a rabbit or the wind, and not a mountain lion) and relaxes, they all do, and go back to grazing. If the horse trusts the rider and looks to that person for a cue, it dictates how he will react to perceived danger.
Relaxing is easier said than done. “It’s hard for people because they’re afraid their horse is going to react adversely to something scary. If a horse is going across a bridge and puts his head down to check it out, give him more rein. But most riders are afraid the horse will spook or take a big leap, so they tighten the reins instead,” says Dudasik. “I see this a lot with my 4-H kids. They anticipate things and prepare for the worst. A rider sees something in the distance that might upset the horse, so the rider becomes tense, but the horse might not have paid any attention to it otherwise.
“The rider must learn to relax, so the horse can. At one of our 4-H sessions, we had the kids stop and count to five. They’d count in a low whisper, holding their breath or sucking in air and tensing up, and their horses were nervous and dancing around. So we put the judge farther away and told the kids that the judge had to hear them counting. When they counted loudly, expelling their breath, every horse stood still.” Expelled breath, like a big sigh, is a sign of relaxation. And when a horse hears another horse—or, in this case, the rider—give a big sigh, he knows everything is OK and he relaxes, too.
If a horse has grown up in a stall or paddock, the first rides out on the trail are bound to be scary. If he’s never walked through brush or tall grass, he might be upset by this stuff grabbing at his feet or ticking his belly, or by the sound of twigs brushing against the rider’s hat or helmet. “The wind blowing through my helmet makes a whistling noise, and this can spook a green horse,” says Dudasik. The little things a horse has never heard before (a jacket being zipped, sneezing, the sound of a cell phone) may unnerve him. It’s always wise to acquaint the horse with these things during groundwork.
“If you’ve done a lot of ground work with a young horse, he’s less apt to panic out on the trail. And if he freezes up out there, you can always go back to groundwork and deal with it in a way he’s more familiar with. If my young mule refuses to go past an object or walk up to it, I’ll get off and lead her to it. She will relax then, because she’s already used to being led up to other scary things,” says Dudasik.
When she works with 4-H kids on their trail classes, she often uses a pair of decorative lawn swans. “When I first take these to 4-H horse camp, most of the kids think their horse will never go near them. But I just set them out in the arena and start working the kids closer and closer to them, doing other things. Then I’ll put a pole between the swans for a trot over, and their horses are going over it with no problems. We’d taken the kids’ mind off it, doing other things, and they no longer worried about the swans.”
Dudasik employs other tricks to get riders to forget that their horses “won’t go near” certain objects. “I have them walk their horses in big circles around some tarps, playing follow the leader, and eventually make the circles smaller and smaller, right over the tarps. If a horse won’t walk on the tarp, that’s fine—just keep going and don’t worry about it, I tell them. The next thing you know, every one of those horses is going over the tarp,” she says.
Once out on the trail, a good way to calm a nervous horse is to just stop awhile. It may take only a brief pause, and the rider can gradually decrease the stand-still time as the horse learns to relax.
In the end, training your clients and their spooky horses will involve patience and confidence. But the result will make everyone happier.