It’s completely normal for a horse to be wary of what he treads on. The saying ‘no foot, no horse’ is very true, and if his legs or feet are injured because he’s trodden on something hazardous, this could spell death for a horse in the wild. It takes a great deal of trust for a horse to jump a fence, walk over tarpaulin, or onto the ramp of a lorry, or through an unknown body of water, and if your horse is lacking that trust, then taking the time to build it can only benefit your relationship.
One of my favourite exercises is working with just one pole on the ground. Initially, lead your horse over the pole in walk, on a relaxed rope. Progress to asking him to halt with his front feet over the pole but his hind feet behind it, so that the pole is underneath him. You can then either walk him forward (easy) or back him up (more difficult). Next ask him to stop with one front foot over the pole and one foot not, again coming out of this either forwards or backwards (it’s always going to be more difficult to back your horse over a pole because he’ll struggle to see it under his feet, and he has to put a lot of trust in his handler). Then walk him over the pole and ask him to stop with one hind foot over it and one hind foot not, so that the pole is between his hind feet. Again, you can move him backwards or forwards from this position. Finally, set up a ‘U’ shape with 3 poles. Walk your horse over the short end into the ‘U’, so that he has one pole behind him and a pole either side of him, and then ask him to back out again over the same pole he walked in over. The reason I like this set of exercises so much is that to successfully complete them, you have to concentrate hard and respond to the slightest move that your horse makes, which in turn means your horse feels listened to. Communication is a two way street, and here you both need to be involved.
Another favourite is teaching your horse to walk over tarpaulin. Make sure you use heavy, thick tarpaulin that cannot blow away or tear. Fold the tarpaulin so that it is not much thicker than a pole, and lead your horse over enough times that he is relaxed to do so. At that point, unfold just once, so that the tarpaulin is double the thickness that it was previously, and repeat the exercise. Once your horse is relaxed again you can continue, opening the tarpaulin just a little more each time, and when the time is right, you will find that your horse will walk over the tarpaulin as though it were grass!
If you are struggling to get your horse through water, you may find that offering him a ‘lead’ from another horse will resolve the problem. If not, then yet again the answer is often to go back to your groundwork. If you’re not prepared to get your feet wet then why should your horse?!
© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021
Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion