Question: Today I took my 4-year-old thoroughbred out on a hack with the girls down the yard, and we had to go over raised metal poles and she just wouldn’t go over them. She was a complete nightmare – we tried everything – she was having none of it! I’m wondering if you have any advice?
Answer from April Reeves: Your mare just hasn’t had enough work doing ‘other’ things. We tend to keep doing the same things over and over again, usually simple riding and arena work, and forget that we need to give our horses continual desensitizing.
Start your program at home walking in hand over poles. Lay out one pole on the ground and walk her over it. Make sure the pole is no shorter than 10 feet as they can avoid short poles by moving around them. As she gets comfortable with walking over it, you can add another that is spaced for her walk. When she is comfortable with that, add a third pole.
As her comfort increases, ride the poles. As you progress, pick up a trot over the poles spaced for your trot (4 feet +-) and then when she is cantering over the three (spaced at 12 feet +-) you can begin to test this out of her comfort zone. If you have any problems, go back and start with a single pole until she is comfortable again. Young thoroughbreds can be very impressionable and can either set up a bond of trust or build distrust if she is pushed beyond her confidence.
As she gets easier with this, you can set the poles up on small blocks, or whatever you have that resembles the height of the ‘scary poles’ you encountered on the trail. I would make sure that she is entirely comfortable with being led over the obstacles, as it is a wiser choice for you to ‘school’ her on the ground as opposed to under saddle (when you are on the trail). You will win more battles on the ground than the saddle and be safer for it.
Thoroughbreds are often considered spooky and stupid but the opposite is the truth: they are incredibly intelligent, and when you take the time and patience with them you can have a brilliant and bold partner at the end of the day. One of my students has a ‘green broke’ TB mare who was giving her problems under saddle. I rode this mare for about 5 minutes, only to find one of the most sensitive and responsive horses I have ridden in a long time. She had dressage basics, and although she was ridden in between by numerous green riders, she still retained fully, her ability to respond to proper aids with obedience and manners. Once the new owner learned how to ride with feeling, the mare and rider accelerated their training and she is now a confident and happy horse!
Crossing a tarp
I like to add to this mix, just to get the horse understanding that it’s not just poles they will have to cross one day.
Take a blue tarp and fold it into one long strand no more than one foot across. Never ask a horse to walk a full tarp right away, as they can panic and get caught up in it. I take them over the short version first, getting them use to the idea, and then I slowly increase the size. Never ask the horse to move up into harder work until they are completely comfortable with the old first. Once she is walking over the short tarp without hesitation or fear, add one foot and ask her again.
This exercise will expand her thoughts to include exercises she has to think about. Horses by nature will use instinct first, and it is up to the human to set up a learning environment where the horse is asked to think. The more we ask our horse to think, the more the horse will move into a thinking brain quicker when needed. If we never ask this of our horses, they will stay instinctual and reactive their entire lives.