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Spooky bicycles just surface of the problem

By RAY ARISS - Horsetrader columnist - June 21st, 2012 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY: My recently purchased, beautiful, 7-year-old Palomino Fox Trotter brings a lot to the table — except for a few shortcomings. The biggest surprise was finding out that when I’m on the trail, he comes unglued when bicycles race past him, causing him to become explosive and unpredictable. If I can’t make this behavior go away, he may have to go away. What should I do?
Jon Cannon, Orange Park Acres

HEY JON: There is no perfect horse, and it’s always going to be something! The question to ask here is. “Will I be safe with this horse while trying to figure out how to make it better?” If the answer is no, get professional help and have the horse evaluated. On the other hand, if safety is not an issue, I have an exercise that should help and be fun, too.

First, I’ve had my share of horses at the barn who became hysterical about bicycles. The curious thing about their insecurity was that it was not limited to bicycles. I found that after conditioning the horse to become accepting of the bike, the next time we met one on trail, sometimes he would spook and other times would be OK. The problem wasn’t the bike, but that it was a moving object. In fact, it could have been a piece of paper, a tractor, a bag on a stick, a noisy truck-and-trailer zooming by the trail, or a scary trash truck dumping a load. The one thing all these situations have in common when a horse is unsettled is that they are moving toward the horse. So, this is what I propose:

If you simply want to condition your horse to not be afraid of a bicycle, have an assistant ride a bike around and have the horse follow it. This not only should be something that will be easier for the horse to deal with, but will empower the horse, too. It won’t be long before the horse will be catching up and looking to push it along.

The next thing will be to put the horse in the middle of a circle and, as the bicycle circles around him, have the horse turn and follow with his eyes and body. This will get tiresome quickly. If the horse chooses to stop and simply follow with his eyes and not his body you will be accomplishing something good. The moment the bicycle goes around behind the horse without him moving, confidence and trust will be setting in.

All that is left now is to put the bicycle and the horse in a circle, but moving in opposite directions. Once there is no insecure reactions on the part of the horse, do the same thing on the other side. At this point, there is a good chance that the horse will be confident enough — and tolerant of the bicycle — to hold his ground the next time he encounters it on the trail.

If you’re looking to solidify the whole “bicycle/anything moving your way” thing, this is what you should do:

A. Set up six slalom poles about six paces apart from each other in a straight line, just like you would if you were looking to do pole-bending.

B. Place a target about three or four paces away from the end poles on either side. Targets may be anything from a couple of cones, mounting blocks or even a jumping standard.

C. Walk your horse up to the target and have him stand in front of it quietly while you scratch his neck and withers. (We want him to feel this is a comfortable and enjoyable place to rest.)

D. Turn your horse and walk to the target on the opposite line that you have established. We will call this target point B. When you reach the target repeat what you did at the previous target. You should allow him to settle and appreciate the experience. Repeat this until the horse is looking forward to guiding himself back to the following target.

E. Once he knows where he is going and is happy to get there, not only have we taught him what a straight line is, but also the value behind it. We are now ready to practice the trot and the canter.

F. Your horse at this stage of the game has a focal point, (going from point A to point B). It should be easy to tell the moment he becomes distracted because you will lose the straightness in his way of going.

All that is left is to try to create a pattern that the horse will recognize that reminds him of what he accomplished with the bicycle. You can begin by simply having another horse walk, trot and canter from the opposite target from where you are. You can cue the rider to leave his target toward your target and you do the same. This will look like what 2 horses would do if they were jousting against each other. Begin at the walk and if your horse does not shy the moment you pass by the opposite horse continue to his target or resting place and reward him. You should be able to progress him if all goes well thru the trot and the canter. If at any moment the horse shies away at the point of interception, allow him to veer away into a spiral or turn on the fore-hand and then stop and continue to your target. Continue this process until the horse does not seem bothered by the opposing thundering hooves. Adding a bag or tarp or rope to the opposing helper on his horse will only add to the challenge and the evolution of a trusting confident horse. This will not only be helpful for the horse to understand but it will solidify the qualities that we find valuable in a courageous horse. If you wish to get creative, the opposing horse can be replaced with any or all of the above previously mentioned scary challenges.

Jon, I guarantee you will find yourself looking forward to practicing this approach every chance you get because aside from it being rewarding it’s a real kick in the pants. The thing that helps the most for me when doing this exercise is to trust my instincts and think safe.


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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