August 3, 2021

This funny story (well now it is) is about Introducing Obstacles safely on the ground.
Just one of my many hard learned life lessons because it's important you understand that every tip I have for you comes from years of experience.

I was taking some courses at the college when my kids were in grades one and two. Some days I had a break between classes and I would go ride my horse. This day I decided to work on conditioning and long trot her around the lake that was only about a 15 minute trot from the barn.

Usually we skirted the end of the lake and went up the mountain but I didn't have time for that long of a ride. I hadn't been around the whole lake in a few years but decided it would work with the amount of time I had.

We took the trail around the end of the lake to ride the part that went along the back side of the lake first. Once there I had a choice of the windy (as in bendy) lake trail. The one where people walked their dogs. Or we could follow the power line which was more open and had a Christmas tree lease with lots of cute 5-8' natural Christmas trees.

When I say We, I mean Pooka and me.
Pooka was a 15 hand, blue eyed chestnut overo Paint mare.
She was pretty messed up by other trainers early on, and had issues we were working on but that's another story.

I opted to take the power-line and Christmas tree route so I could add in some hill work and changes of pace and not worry about coming around a corner and surprising a dog-walker or jogger.

It also meant that I could get the hot, sunny, hard work out of the way, and come back along the busy side of the lake where the two beaches were, at a more relaxed pace. So that's what we did.

The first three quarters of that loop was pretty straightforward. But the last quarter of the trip along the lake had some private properties that came down to the water.

To accommodate park traffic, there were boardwalks built along the bank. They were fairly sturdy and Pooka and I rode along.

Hey do you know what a Pooka is?

Look up the Jimmy Stewart movie, Harvey.
Harvey was a 6' white rabbit.
A Pooka in that story, is an imaginary friend and that's where I first heard it

But in Irish or Celtic folklore, a Pooka is a shapeshifter and can take any form it chooses, often a horse.

Okay, back to the lake.

This lake was built by damming one end of it and flooding the area. The original beach and trails had been built by the local riding club members, which explained why the boardwalks were so sturdy.

But at the end of the lake, near where I had started, the city had built a new bridge to cross the creek that flowed into the lake.

I got off to examine the construction of their new bridge. It had been built for joggers and dog walkers. It did not look like they had thought about horses and I decided not to test it.

When I had started the trip I had crossed through this same creek further up, but you couldn't get to that crossing from here due to the all the bushes and trees.
Instead, I would have to cross near the bridge.

At this point the crossing was quite mucky along either side from when the water level was higher.

Did I mention I had kids?
Single parent, attending school, and often tired?

I carefully stepped from rock to rock not even thinking about my horse who was following me.
They were small rocks.
Apparently Pooka didn't know she should be stepping on them.
And thinking back, I don't know why I hadn't got back on her.

Do you know where a horse goes when they panic?

To the safest place they can see.
And right where I was must have looked pretty darn good.

All of a sudden I remembered I had a horse behind me.
Well she had been behind me.

At that point, sinking in the mud, she jumped forward to safety, hitting me with her chest.
She knocked me flat and came down on top of my back with knees folded, on her front cannon bones.

Then up she got.
And came down on me again with her belly.

Then up she got one more time, it must have been pretty sticky mud because the third time she came down on my back again, with her hind feet.

At that point I must have gave her some good traction and she jumped clear, ahead of me.

And there I was, face down in the mud and if she had hit me in the head and knocked me out, I would not be here as I would have suffocated.

I lifted my head. I used the middle knuckle of the left index finger to scrape the mud out of my left eye.
Then I used the middle knuckle of my right index finger to scrape the mud out of my right eye.

There she was about two horse lengths away from me.
I called her name.
Well I tried.

Try this with me.

Blow out all your air, now suck your tummy in forcefully 2 more times to expel any air you might have left. Now say Poo-Ka

Yup! That's about what I sounded like.
I can only hope she would have come if she could hear me, but I'm pretty sure she couldn't.

Have you ever tried crawling up to your horse in jeans and an aussie duster, with your whole front covered in mud. It's something you should practice. You never know when you might need it.

She was standing with her head partway down, blowing and snorting at me, as I tried to talk to her and crawl to her. I was hoping she would not move and hurt herself as I had English (closed) reins on the bit and could see she had one front leg through the reins.

It took awhile, I had no concept of time at that point. I had to get it done. No one knew where I was.

Once I got to her I unbuckled the one rein from the bit so she wouldn't step on it.
I grabbed hold of the the stirrup iron and pulled myself up.

We still weren't across the creek.
But that was the shortest way back and I needed to get back.

I told her to stay.
I crossed the creek, at the end of my undone snaffle bit reins, that's gotta be at least 12'.
But before I could turn around, she jumped the creek.

Smack. Again.

This time at least she only knocked me to my knees.
But she was standing on my aussie coat and I couldn't get up.

Still no air.
Pooka back... back... please...

Finally she got off my coat. It didn't even occur to me then that I could have just taken it off.
Once again I used the saddle to pull myself up to standing.
At least we were across the creek, but still not home.

I found a log to stand on, and smearing mud all over my saddle, managed to get on. I didn't even notice it until later.

Walking hurt. Trotting hurt.
I stood in the stirrups and put her into a long trot.
If it's going to hurt, I'm going to get it over with. Besides, I was late for my finance class.

I got her put away, and got to my class when it was half-way over. Funny how you operate on automatic pilot, doing what you were supposed to do, and not really thinking.
I got some really funny looks though with all the now wiped off, but still visible mud down my front.
You know a sweat scraper works pretty good on wet mud.

After class I went to my sisters as I had an hour to kill before it was time to pick up the kids.
When I went to get up off the couch I couldn't.
I'd laid still too long and seized up.
My sister insisted on taking me to emergency and yes, there were broken ribs.

What lessons did I learn?

  1. File a flight plan.
    From that day forward when I rode, I left a note saying where I would be, and when I'd be back.
    Even if I was riding at home alone, I'd call someone and let them know I'd call by a certain time.
  2. Think things through.
    When your tired, you may not be thinking clearly. Make a plan before you start to execute it.
  3. Train for unimaginable circumstances in advance.
    Can you crawl up to your horse?
    Are you sure?

After this I made a point of training my horses to stay at the end of whatever length of rope I gave them. In addition to going where I pointed, whether to the left, the right or behind me.

This paid off when I took this same horse on a solo-trip for two weeks in the mountains. I hiked in with my pack boxes tied on my riding saddle. We had to cross a slide, and I knew, because we practiced, that she would stay at the end of the rope behind me. 

That was it in the picture at the top of the page, just after we’d crossed it.

If you look closely by her nostril you can see some of the trail between the two bushes.
That slide has a trail at either end, but the middle, well, it slides.
If you slip, you’re going down Gun Creek as there's nothing to stop you.
I had slept beside that creek about 20 minutes down trail. It is fast and furious and I could occasionally hear a boulder being rolled in it. It's not a creek you cross unless you're on one of the bridges.

And when we got to the Eldorado Creek crossing further up the trail, I crossed on the (too narrow for horses) footbridges, which of course are always at the narrow (therefore deeper) spots, and was able to send her to a shallower spot about 10’ over to cross.

So how does this help you train your horse to cross a horse show bridge or other training obstacle?

There are a lot of steps that can be taken that I teach in the Working Equitation Mastery Online Program, but the most important is to keep yourself safe.

Often people will tell you to walk in front of them, or beside them, but if your horse gets concerned about the footing, they are just as likely to run over you while trying to save themselves.

Do you know the difference between a horse barely bumping you, or running you over?
Don't let your horse bump you.

When people say just stand there, they won't run over you, don't believe them.

Retreating (to not get hurt) can teach  a horse they can move you, but you need to keep yourself safe.

My preferred way to introduce tricky footing to a horse from the ground is for me to be on more of the obstacle than they are, so their escape route is away from me.

With a bridge or well anchored tarp I would be closer to the middle, sending them across one end or corner. If they're scared they're not going to come more on it they're going to move away.

Yes they will avoid the obstacle a few times, but they won't also be pushing you out of the way doing it.
Make sure your rope is long enough to allow them to miss the obstacle, and that you don't have any loops you can get tangled in.

With you standing on the obstacle they can see that you are not worried about standing on it.

But you're not asking them to come towards you.
Just ask them to touch the obstacle with their feet going past you, and if it feels too dangerous they can leave.

The difference between this and the mud Pooka and I were in was that she had no clear escape route. She was trained to not pull on the rope so back was not an option, and everywhere else was mud so I 'must' be standing where the ground is more solid.

You want them to have an option to avoid the obstacle that does not involve running over you. Then you just keep sending them back and forth over part of the obstacle as they build their confidence.

This end of the bridge, that end of the bridge. Their left side closer to you. Right side closer to you. Teach both sides of their brain to be confident.

And as their confidence increases you move your feet a little away from the center, asking them to cross more of the obstacle, but always being aware of where their perceived escape route is, to keep yourself safe.

You can not out muscle your horse. You shouldn't put yourself in a position where you need to.

Until you build their confidence in their ability to step on the obstacle without dying, walking beside or in front of them is just asking to get jumped on.

It can be safer to stay on your horse, but that depends on your riding ability and whether you're comfortable with jumps and spooks.

Stay safe!

If you're enjoying the tips in this blog, consider signing up for Working Equitation Mastery Online where you get detailed step by step lessons and answers to your questions in our private community. Click for more details.

You CAN learn how to improve your horse's skills from online courses and tips such as these.
But only if you implement.

So when you read my articles write down the steps as a reminder for what you're going to try in your next ride.
Take them to the barn and try them out.
Come on back when you're done and let me know how it went.

Before you go to the next article,
I'd love to read your comments and answer your questions below.

Question: How Close Should I Be To The Bull?

Easily Teach Your Horse To Lengthen And Shorten Strides

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About the author 

Trish Hyatt

International Coach and Clinician
National and International Top 10 Competitor
Technical Delegate and Judge of Working Equitation (retired)

Trish's superpower is the ability to give you and your horse what you need, in a way that you understand, so each horse and rider makes progress and knows what they need to work on.

She puts her many skills to use introducing the international discipline of Working Equitation to riders eager to improve their partnership with their horse, with a focus on fun, classical horsemanship and use of the horse for practical work or as cross-training for other disciplines.

  • I resonate with this article and really enjoyed it. I saw it in an obstacles Facebook group.

    My 16 hand Morgan can jump sideways faster than Lightning. so I’ve learned not to walk next to him but to have him walk behind me. Which doesn’t solve the potential of him running over me if something spooks him from behind.

    I’ve never quite solved this so I really appreciate your strategy and the humor in your stories. Thank you!

    • Hi Shannon, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. This was the first time I included more story in the article and wasn’t sure if people would like it.

      My short answer to your problem is to always keep the horse flexed so he’s looking slightly towards you. If he’s looking towards you, and you walk by his shoulder then spooks should go forwards.
      It’s when he can get his head away from you that he can push towards you.

      The other thing that happens when you keep his head towards you and ribs away, consistently, is he realizes that you are aware and this builds his confidence.

      To keep the ribs away, use a dressage whip where you’re leg would go. In time with the belly swinging away if you are moving. This will be as he lands on his outside front foot.

      But if he gets his head away, then use it on the hindquarters to ask them to yield away with the same timing. This will create a turn on the forehand. This will bring his head back to you.

      Practice lots, before you need it. And on both sides.
      Make sure you’re signed up to be notified of new posts and I will write one with more details to address this in the near future.

  • Good story— One we can all relate too, I think. I had something similar, tho not near so dramatic, exciting, or dangerous. We had fairly recently built a lane over to the big pasture, which went through a small creek/stream. Most of the horses would just charge right through, tho there was an OTTB that had not yet figured out how to get his feet wet, and the rest of the herd being across the creek wasn’t yet enough pull to get him over there. so I decided to help him out. Went along, asking him (no halter or rope) to just sort of cross over. I went back and forth a couple of times to “demonstrate”. And don’t you know the moment I turned my back and headed away I heard a “GERONIMO”, and he flattened me, knocked me down onto my face and (thankfully) jumped me longways and headed up the rise at warp speed. I do remember him looking over his shoulder at me as he raced away (I wasn’t stuck in the mud as you had been). Oof, that one hurt. And yes, I imagine I appeared to be the safest way across.

    • Thanks for sharing your story Laura, it sure does happen quick doesn’t it.
      I was using the same process as you of going back and forth a few times to demonstrate, I was on a horse, and darned if that youngster didn’t jump right into the saddle and knock me underneath 8 hooves on lumpy creek rocks.
      I’m sure he said GERONIMO too!
      That’s not what I was saying…

  • Great story and a good reminder for those of us who know better, but get sloppy. I had a friend break her leg in a very similar incident to the one you described. Her horse jumped on her as well, when crossing a muddy stream, with her on foot. I love the advice to see if you can crawl to your horse. I think I will try this out. At my age, self preservation is everything and you never know if you may need to crawl to your horse if something bad happens. Thanks for the thought provoking advice!

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    Question: How Close Should I Be To The Bull?

    Easily Teach Your Horse To Lengthen And Shorten Strides