Exercising Body AND Mind
Teaching a Horse to Pull Objects
|When out on trail or in other open and busy environments, a good horse
should overcome his natural instinct to flee from following objects. He
needs to be comfortable in the aids and decisions of his rider and he can
behave in this manner if he is taught that unusual situations are safe so
long as he responds to the rider's aids.
We like to let all our horses experience a variety of obstacles and problems, including learning to calmly drag objects. From a practical standpoint, we may need to drag a branch or other object off a trail or pony an injured horse. From a behavioral standpoint, we want the horse to suppress his flight instinct if he perceives something spooky, and any object which moves directly toward the horse at whatever speed the horse is travelling can be spooky.
Teaching a horse to pull objects can be tricky. You need a safe area to practice and a safe object to pull. We typically use a large open arena area and try to set up the horses first few "pulls" where we don't have to navigate around other obstacles. We pull an old automobile tire. It is soft, has no sharp edges and can't "dig" into the ground. We pull it with an old worn out lariat which is still stiff enough that it won't twist into loops when it goes slack like some softer ropes can, which could be dangerous if the horse steps into it. Considering the horse might spin during the first couple of attempts, we always use a properly fitting saddle and riding gear. We also use a snaffle bit for this exercise as we expect to do a lot of direct rein bending in order to keep the horse "in position".
The objective in this exercise is to get the horse comfortable with pulling the object; perceiving that it is following him, but keeping him relaxed enough so he doesn't succumb to the desire to bolt away or wheel around to face the object. Therefore we work on other basic drills and problems before taking on the tire, seeing that the horse is comfortable and responding well before tackling the new event.
Typically we like to let the horse inspect the object. With real young or excitable horses, we like to pull the object with another horse, letting the "trainee" follow at a safe distance, eventually closing the gap until he is alongside the tire, then eventually alongside the pulling horse (with the tire behind both of them).
If this orientation goes well, we would then take up the rope and face the object, backing slowly away until the rope goes taught. At this point we would ask the horse to back another couple of steps. The idea here is to apply just enough pressure so that the tire moves, but doesn't appear to jump out at the horse. We're prepared at this point that the horse might want to wheel away from the tire, in which case we would let go of the rope and as the horse rolls away, bend him around so that he makes a complete circle, once again facing the tire. He may snort or act a little disturbed at this time. Just reassure him and let him get over it and try the exercise again.
Some horses may spin a few times, but pretty soon they figure out that for their effort, they are ending up exactly where they started and give up on that avoidance mechanism. More than likely the horse will just stare at the tire with intense curiosity. We'll let him view it for a few seconds and get settled before attempting another pull. We won't however, wait so long that he starts thinking of reasons toget spooky over the tire.
Once the horse is backing solidly with the tire, we'll try rolling away while pulling the tire. We'll do this maneuver methodically so the horse can accept the perceived movement of the tire as it leaves his narrow range of binocular vision and he can only follow it with one eye. From this point on he has virtually no depth perception regarding the object so we'll stay quiet about it and assure him that everything is still OK.
In our other areas of ground schooling we will have already draped and drawn ropes all over the horse's body, so having the rope brush against his hip or flank shouldn't bother him as we rotate away from the tire and start to pull forward. Having the tire move from behind can disturb a horse which had accepted the tire in front of him, so sometimes we have to mix in little side-pass pulling so the horse can get settled in before we attempt long forward pulls.
This all may sound rather complicated, however it's not as bad as it seems. We set the situation up to make it as easy on the horse as possible. If the horse reacts, such as spinning away, we simply take that reaction and extend it to get what we want (such as turning a 180 degree spin attempt into a full circle; back where we started from). We also reinforce the positive. Usually in a matter of minutes, we will be dragging the tire all over the stable. In the worst cases we get the horse reasonably accepting of the tire in one session, and polish it off in the next session.
With any new behavior, repetition is important in order for the horse to develop a reliable behavior pattern. We don't wear the horse out doing the same thing over and over and over, but instead, once he has the pulling under control, we'll go back to the tire occasionally for a brief session when cooling the horse after heavy work, or perhaps integrate it with other obstacle work in the horse course. (Rather than ride the horse for endless laps, we will often work on simple obstacles during cool-downs; those things which don't overtax his body or mind, but give us both something to do until he's ready to be brushed down and put away.)
Note: We will photograph this process and include pictures with this information sheet as soon as weather permits.
Important Considerations: Every horse is different and every rider has varying skills and capabilities. We've described how we approach this maneuver, however you must be the best judge of your horse and your ability. Use common sense, always keep track of your horse's mental and emotional state, and adjust your approach as necessary to teach, not terrify, your mount!
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