How to Successfully Navigate a Troubling Obstacle
by Mark Bolender
I once overheard a spectator sitting next to the water box obstacle at a Bolender Mountain Trail Challenge mutter, “The evil water box wins again!” The horse was doing great, but then refused to step into the water box. The water box always seems to be the evil nemesis of an otherwise confident mountain trail horse.
Most of us have witnessed this potentially dangerous and frustrating scenario. Not only does the situation become precarious, but the resulting human behavior born out of frustration can elevate into abusing the horse. When the horse displays jumping, bolting or just refusing to cross the water box, we can’t force it to “behave,” nor can we sweet-talk it through. That only makes the situation worse. So, how can we control frustration and teach the horse to calmly, boldly, confidently, and safely cross the water box?
I’ve compiled some successful training tips here that I’ve used at Bolender Horse Park to teach a horse to correctly navigate the water box. These techniques have worked for teaching a horse that is being introduced to the water box for the first time, or the horse that has developed dangerous water box behavior. First, I establish a “Bolender Bubble” with the horse. Under no circumstance is the horse allowed to come into my space unless I invite it – just like an alpha mare would. If the horse comes into my space without an invitation it is immediately disciplined with a spank to the shoulder with my rope. I also make sure I can move any part of its body while on the ground and have the ability to drive the horse along the arena wall and then through random obstacles at will. This helps the horse develop confidence in me. I do not approach the water until I have its confidence.
This may sound strange, but the horse’s instinct will read you and determine what your ability is based upon very subtle body language cues we all exhibit. Any hesitation signals a weakness in leadership to the horse; it will then be difficult to have the horse try when you make a request. Remember, this is not a game about domination or force, but one where you must take a leadership role (alpha mare) and show confidence in the request and how you expect the horse to respond to it.
When I’m confident that the horse is locked onto me in a positive manner then it’s time to present the water box to the horse from the ground. I approach the water box in a very positive manner with the thought and body language that says, “You can do this.” I never approach it with, “You will do this.” Next, I allow the horse the dignity to drop its head and examine the water. More than likely the horse will move its shoulder into me. I immediately block this behavior, after the first subtle cue that it’s coming, with a smart spank on the shoulder. I stop and allow the horse once again to drop its head and examine the water. I never push at this point, but allow the horse enough time to consider the situation and think it through. I usually need to repeat this step several times—patience is the key. No matter what happens we must keep emotions in check and not become aggressive. And I always remember the mantra that “less is more” to a horse. It’s the subtle cues I make that it pays attention to most of all.
Soon the horse will step into the water. When this happens I don’t push the horse but allow it time to process the situation again. The horse will begin to paw and play in the water. I allow this behavior because the horse is mentally processing the water box. When the horse is relaxed I allow it to walk out. I repeat this same process while riding.
I have been able to successfully teach the water box to many horses using this method that go on to calmly walk across in a bold and confident manner. The water box isn’t “evil,” it’s just a tough obstacle that (when properly trained) can be beautifully mastered.
Happy Trail and Bolender Blessings!
Published in August 2013 Issue