The list of optional obstacles that can be used in a trail class includes putting on and removing a slicker, removing and replacing articles from a mail box, and carrying an object from one part of the arena to another. The only stipulation is that the article to be carried must be an object that could reasonably be carried on a trail ride. A horse that is not easily ruffled by various obstacles, that listens obediently to his rider’s cues to help him maneuver through a difficult obstacle, and that picks his way through an obstacle when the situation warrants it, will score highest in a trail class. In fact, these qualities are appreciated in trail horses both in and out of the arena.
READ YOUR HORSE
Many of today’s show horses have been handled from birth and are bred to be calm and accepting of the many things that we humans ask of them. For those horses, picking up a slicker and laying it over their shoulders will present little, if any, problem. Nevertheless, before expecting your horse to accept a bright yellow plastic slicker that may crackle or blow in the wind, spend time working with him on the ground. Let him become accustomed to such a sight. The best time to introduce a new object is at the end of a work session. The horse will not have an abundance of excess energy to give him an excuse to buck or spook when faced with a slicker the first few times. Always set yourself up for success. Introduce new objects when your horse is tired.
Learn to read your horse. If he fears every new thing until it is introduced over and over in a calm and non-threatening manner, then keep using that approach. If your horse easily accepts new objects, then you can proceed a little quicker. A few days spent quietly in the initial training can save you time down the trail. Your horse must learn to trust that you will not put him in a situation that will hurt him. This will not only overcome his apprehension of the current object, but will leave him with good feelings about the next new object.
You can familiarize your horse to many of the objects commonly found in a trial class. However, there is a pretty good chance that one day your horse will be faced with something that he has never seen. Rather than trying to teach your horse to accept one object, such as the slicker, try to teach him to accept all objects that you might carry on him. Although it may take a little more time in the beginning, it is sure to pay off later.
START WITH A SIMPLE OBJECT
Rather than start with a bright yellow slicker, introduce your horse to a smaller object first. A towel or saddle blanket works well. I often use a white bath towel because it is light weight and easy to carry. To begin, approach your horse from the ground. This is for your safety as well as for his. While holding your horse, walk up to him and let him sniff or look at the towel or blanket. If he begins snorting and backing away, you need to move slowly. Don’t rush up to him. Try not to let your body language suggest apprehension. Be confident, steady, and slow.
Once your horse has looked over the towel, or whatever you chose to introduce him to, begin rubbing it on his neck. Talk to him in a soothing voice if he seems worried. Tell him that he is behaving as he should. If a horse seems slightly nervous, I will rub him for a few seconds with the towel. Then I lay it over my arm (or nearby on a stool) as I rub his neck and tell him what a good boy he is. When he relaxes and settles, I repeat the procedure several times. Often you will hear the horse sigh in relief, as if he’s saying “Whew. Got through that. I guess it really wasn’t so bad after all.”
Continue to rub the towel over his neck and praise him as needed until he accepts it. Let the horse tell you how much he can accept at any one given time. If he is very spooky, you can quit for the day when he accepts it on his neck and repeat the procedure the following day. It shouldn’t take nearly as long the following day, and you can advance further. If the horse readily accepted the towel on his neck, let it lay across and rub it back and forth. Then lay it over his withers and rub it back and forth over his back. When he will stand for that, rub it over his hind quarters and then let it drape over his tail. If at any time your horse begins to move as if he is frightened, move the towel back to a place where he previously accepted it. Look for a few brief seconds when he seems to accept the towel and then remove it and rub or scratch his neck until his head drops and he seems settled. Repeat the procedure. Stop any time that the horse shows a few seconds of acceptance.
…Take your time when introducing any thing new. Introduce it briefly and take it away. Let the horse think about it for a moment and allow him to settle. Repeat until he accepts the new object with ease. Teaching him to accept one object will help him accept that you will not hurt him, yet tells him that you do expect him to stand and obey your request.