So you’ve gotta go to a clinic, a show, a new trail, or some such thing that requires you to take your horse away from home. What can you do to prepare your horse? We’ve all been there with a horse in over their head, nervous and out of control, and just as we aren’t having any fun, they aren’t either – and what’s worse, they aren’t learning anything good.
I’m a big fan of preparation work. One of the worst things you can do is take an unprepared horse to an event, clinic, show or what have you without the necessary work done beforehand. An overwhelmed horse shuts down, becomes reactive, makes poor associations and unfortunately, can become more reactive in the future. It’s easy to make assumptions about what a horse “should” be able to handle, but once you’ve gone over the line, the best you can do is damage control. Your best bet is to prepare ahead of time.
Here are some tips for preparing to go off property:
1- make sure you’re working on balance and relaxation at home, where it’s easy. Get so that you can reliably relax your horse, and your work together in their comfort zone is actually going well – a lot of folks tell me their horse “doesn’t do this at home,” but what they miss is that their horse does in fact struggle at home- just in a less exaggerated way. What you get off property is an amplified version of what you have going on at home, so perfect the basics at home.
Then, when you go to a new place, work on the basics but expect less- make it easier, and wait longer. Don’t expect your horse to be as good off property as they are at home. Make the tasks you ask easier and possible for them to do. Try to take what they’re offering and make it constructive- for example, if they’re hot, work on transitions or bending serpentine lines. If they’re worried about a new corner, use it to leg yield away from it. Be creative, work with what your horse offers you, and be willing to abandon what you’d planned to do to help your horse relax.
2- don’t wait til you have to go somewhere to change your routine. If you always ride at the same time or same place, going to a show is going to rock your horses world. After your ride, take a lap around the arena to cool off. Go for a hand walk around the property. Try riding down to get the mail. Follow a friend on an easy trail ride. It doesn’t have to be big – in fact, it’s easy if it’s just small changes done frequently. Get your horse (and you) comfortable with changes in scenery, and you will both benefit from it.
3- practice trailer loading for no reason. Load up in the trailer, rub your horse and put them away. Don’t make trailer loading always about some stressful event. Sometimes it’s just for fun, a little snack inside, and the session is over.
4- take your horse to an event as a guest horse. If you can take your horse to a show just as a passenger, they can benefit tremendously. Take them along with a confident horse and let them just hang out- maybe walk around a bit, but have zero expectations for performance. You could do this at a clinic, or any event you are allowed to bring a guest horse along to.
5- hand walk or pony your horse first. Before going out on the trail, I pony my youngsters along, sometimes several times. That way, by the time we’re riding, it’s pretty much a non issue. Taking in the sights, managing the terrain, and adjusting has all been done by the time I’m riding them. I try to add just one thing new at a time: riding a new location is too much at once, so ponying on a confident horse is a great way to introduce a new thing like a trail.
6- remember the golden rule: one new thing at a time. If you’re going to a show, make sure you’re showing a level or pattern you and your horse know WELL. Going to a new place, showing something your horse feels stressed about and being away from home is entirely too much. Learn the material, get confident at it at home, take your horse to a show as a guest horse, then finally show a level below where you’re schooling. Keep expectations low, and if you can, bring a buddy for you and a buddy for your horse.
If you’re going out on the trail, don’t bring a new to you horse to a new rider to a new location- that’s too much. Make it easy, take in in bite size pieces, and if in doubt, make it even easier.