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How do I get traction with tire obstacles?

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - August 4th, 2011 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY: I took my horse to a local trail competition, and the obstacles were harder than I expected. One that seemed very dangerous was walking over tires. Not only did I almost kill myself, my horse now seems scared of all obstacles. Can you help me?
Natasja Hanes
Corona, CA

HEY NATASJA: I appreciate your question more than you can imagine. I, too, not long ago experienced a similar situation. I saw the tire obstacle separate the well-trained, broke, sensible horses from the rest of the pack. If I were looking for a horse to buy that day for one of my kids, it would have been the horse that got the high score in the tire obstacle.

You are absolutely right: It is a very dangerous obstacle because of the combination of things that can go wrong. Because of the shape of a horse’s foot and how the rim edge of the tire is made, having to walk a horse into it can only spell disaster if the horse does not possess certain qualities and experiences beforehand. So, the question is: How do we teach a horse to walk over, into and through a bunch of tires and get good at it — if practicing it can be so dangerous to horse and rider?

The first thing we need to do is prepare a list of the worst possible scenarios that can go wrong so that we can prepare for them:

1. The horse won’t approach the tires.
2. The horse does walk in, but now feels trapped because the tire is hung up on the back of his heels as he drags it around the arena.
3. The horse gets two feet in the tire and now is handcuffed and falls all the way down to the ground.
4. The horse lands on top of the side of the tire causing him to jump and leap away as the tire chases him.
5. The horse leaps over the tire only to land all four feet in the center of a couple of other tires only to self destruct under you.

I suppose I can come up with more disastrous examples, but this list is good enough. Before we get started, we will need to have the horse mentally in a place where he trusts not only you, but anything attached or associated with you. So make sure you can shake a plastic bag all around him as well as a tarp, rope, and anything else you can think of. Dragging stuff around him while he is moving would also be helpful. Be careful not to permanently attach anything to him that you can’t easily take off within a moment’s notice. Having him walk over tarps, water and even trash would help him acquire the experience he will need in preparation for most of the five scenarios listed above.

Next, you will need a tire, a single hobble with a ring, and a rope long enough to tie around the tire and be able to thread through the ring of the hobble freely. Now, what we will attempt to do is allow the horse to experience a simulation of what it would be like to have a tire attached to his ankle as he drags it around while backing. It would be dangerous to have him step in and actually drag the tire, because in the panic, there would be no safe way of releasing it if he got into trouble. But this is what most riders usually do. Only the tough, super lucky horse and riders survive this approach. On the other hand, if you were to hold the horse from the ground by the lead-line in one hand and then threaded the rope attached to the tire through the ring of the hobble, we could easily release the rope, immediately freeing the horse from harm. Pulling the tire through the hobble gradually closer and closer to the horse’s foot in the attempt to allow the horse to experience what it would be like to drag a tire around from his ankle would eventually settle the horse. All you would have to do is carefully follow the horse around until he stopped. Then, you would repeat the process until he was totally accepting of it. You don’t want to rush this step. Once you can snug up the tire to his foot and actually ask him to back up calmly, the next step is to move on to the other three legs.

Before moving ahead, you should be able to move your horse forward, backwards, and sideways from the ground when he is trying to evade you over an obstacle. Practice this “control over evasion” on something other than the tires first.

The next and final step, before moving onto the saddle, requires you to negotiate your horse over the actual tire cautiously from the ground until your horse is accepting of it. Practicing this up against a fence is quite helpful.

Natasja, if you take your time and follow these suggestions, I am certain that you and your horse will benefit and grow from this experience more than you can imagine because of this challenge.

Remember, and above all, trust your instincts and think safe, Ray.

P.S. – I’ll be demonstrating the points of training on tire obstacles in this column at my next clinic at Starbrite Academy in Norco. See our California Horsetrader ad on page 51.

Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horse-and-human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco CA, at his bustling StarBrite Riding Academy. Does your “horse-human” relationship leave you with a question for Ray? Just go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Hey Ray!” section, then submit it!

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