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
Mark Bolender’s name has become synonymous with the new and exciting international equine discipline Mountain Trail. Mark earned national titles in this sport in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and has been supporting Mountain Trail for the past nine years by teaching clinics, judging shows, and building courses worldwide.
Prior to his involvement in Mountain Trail, Mark developed a solid foundation of experience by breeding Quarter Horses and showing in open, Quarter Horse, and Reining competitions. He writes for a number of magazines and is the author of the popular book, Bolender’s Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding. He has produced four DVD’s about training for Mountain Trail and one DVD entitled The Road to Bridle-less. He has been featured twice in the American Quarter Horse magazine America’s Horse for mastering the Trail Challenge. Mark operates a judging school which certifies judges in the USA, Canada and Europe for Mountain Trail and Trail Challenge. He and his wife, Lee, are the founders of the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) which was formed to promote the sport of Mountain Trail. Mark and Lee own and operate Bolender Horse Park in Washington State, which houses the finest Mountain Trail course in the world. Mark and Lee travel the world to give Mountain Trail clinics in almost every corner of the globe.
Mountain Trail made its television debut on RFDTV in November of 2016, further promoting the sport to audiences everywhere.
Using Bolender Horse Park as the model, Mark and Lee have designed and built Mountain Trail courses for private and public use in the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe – with many more in development. These courses are premier sites used by beginners and highly advanced riders alike; they are designed for clinics, shows, and training.
Mark and Lee actively promote the Bolender training philosophy, which centers on using the natural instincts of the horse in the training process. Mark says that activating key instincts in the horse combined with good horsemanship results in real equine magic. They continue to set goals to build more and more courses, promote the IMTCA, and write books and articles for eager enthusiasts. The next goal is to bring Mountain Trail to the Olympics.