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My horse is afraid to enter the show gate – any ideas?

Q&A with DANA HOKANA - September 3rd, 2009 - Q&A Dear Dana

DEAR DANA: My horse got backed into a little over a year ago while entering the show arena gate of my horsemanship class. Now he’s afraid to go in the gate at every show and is equally nervous when moving around other horses in the line-up before all my pattern classes. However, he is completely calm on the rail and while doing the pattern. I have tried walking him in and out of the gate before and after the show dozens of times with no results. Do you have any ideas?
—Ashley of Sterling, KS

DEAR ASHLEY: I am sorry that happened to you and your horse. Sometimes one seemingly small incident can become a really big deal to your horse. I have had similar things happen to me, and it can take a lot of time for your horse to get over a bad experience. It takes many good experiences to program over a bad experience. If a horse has had the problem for quite a while, it has built up bigger and bigger in his mind. Be patient with your horse but don’t give up as he will get over it with persistence on your part.
It sounds like there are two areas that your horse has developed a lot of fear. One, when horses move around him as in the line-up. Two, when he goes through the gate. I would enlist a friend on a very safe horse and I would be willing to spend whatever time is needed to have a breakthrough. Be prepared to take hours, if necessary. If you can do this at a horse show, it is even better.

I would start by ponying your horse off of a very safe, non-reactive horse. If your horse is really afraid, stop and touch your horse’s face, neck—all over—and also talk to him. Horses really do respond to your voice and touch. If you can, ride the pony horse and reach out your hand until you touch the face of your horse. Do this over and over until he relaxes and preferably takes a deep breath, or licks his lips. This shows acceptance. Stay with it until you have a victory. Then, (a) start walking on the pony horse, (b) pony your horse, (c) stop, (d) pet his face—then walk off, stop, pet him, etc., over and over until it turns into a positive experience.

He’s going to see the back end of a horse and a good thing will happen, rather than something fearful. You can even carry treats and give him a treat. You have to re-program him to expect something good when a horse moves his back end around your horse. Then start ponying him through the gate over and over. Stop if you get partly through the gate and pet him, talk to him, or give him a treat and wait until he relaxes. Then have someone else ride the pony horse and you ride your horse and repeat this again, over and over. The difference in this arrangement is that you are directing him rather than him being ponied. He may have refused your cues before to go right up to another horse, but now he is OK with the horse in front of him. You should be able to push him right up to the horse. Make sure you end each interaction with the other horse positively by your horse getting a pat from the other rider.

Next, I would get other horses and people to repeat this with you over and over until he can walk right up to another horse and see the movement of the horse and the person’s hand reaching over to him –it’s no big deal! Once you have his confidence in this area, you should be able to get him to walk through the gate and relax. If he has been refusing your cues and veering or shying away from other horses and the gate for a long time, that may have become a habit. You’ll then need to re-program him to say “yes” to your cues.

I hope this helps you, and good luck with your horse!


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