When the unexpected takes place in a natural space, help your horse learn to look to you for its next steps.

The words “trail etiquette” may initially conjure thoughts of hikers, bikers and horseback riders demonstrating proper right of way, but people aren’t the only ones who utilize natural spaces. Deer, snakes, logs and many other animals and objects also frequent the trails we ride. An unexpected meeting with a newly fallen boulder or a jumpy quail can startle us and our horses. So, how can you prepare your horse for the unexpected?

Trainer Johnny Jerviss of Legacy Horse Company feels introducing horses to areas with wildlife is not only important, it’s essential. He explains that riding in natural spaces exposes a horse to different things that help them to develop physically and mentally. Riding outside of an arena can also build trust between a horse and a rider.

“When you and your horse learn to navigate the unknown together as one unit, it strengthens the mutual bonds of trust and willingness you have for each other,” Jerviss says.

Below, he provides information geared toward helping horsemen learn how to guide a horse through wildlife encounters and make the most of their time outside the arena.

Jerviss’ horse calmly assesses a large boulder. Photo by Kayli Hanley

The Horseman’s Responsibility

To provide solid leadership for your horse in natural spaces, Jerviss recommends a horseman be able to exercise good judgment, ride confidently and be prepared.

Good judgment allows a rider to understand the current abilities of their horse and guide them toward positive outcomes, Jerviss explains. For example, a horseman should know how and when to direct a horse’s movement and when to apply or take away pressure to achieve a desired response.

Jerviss says a rider can pass feelings of either confidence or fear onto their horse. Because of this, developing a solid seat and confident attitude before heading for natural spaces is important. He encourages horsemen to view themselves as a supportive older sibling to their horses.

Jerviss and his horse calmly walk down the trail. Photo by Kayli Hanley

Finally, preparation sets a horse and rider up for success. One of the biggest mistakes Jerviss sees horsemen make is over-confining their horse or forcing a frightened horse to stand in one place instead of directing their movement. This can cause a horse to become more nervous, unresponsive to aids and even act out toward their rider.

Instead of trying to prevent movement, Jerviss seeks to direct movement. He wants any horse he takes outside of the arena to possess a solid foundation in body control exercises, especially the ability to move their hindquarters. This way, if a horse becomes frightened, he can work to direct the horse’s movements in a controlled way vs. preventing movement or allowing the horse’s movement to become out of control.

A Practiced Response

When a wildlife encounter kickstarts a fear response in a horse, Jerviss wants the horse to look to him for guidance and to listen to what he asks them to do. He teaches his horses how to respond in this way before ever leaving the arena.

In an arena or round pen, Jerviss introduces his horses to a bend and yield exercise. First, he exposes his horses to objects that may initially bother them, such as a flag or slicker. Then, he asks them to bend their head and neck toward him and yield their hindquarters to have them look at the object.

“They’re getting sensitized to moving their feet as they’re getting desensitized to whatever that object or stimulus is,” Jerviss explains.

He wants to direct the horse’s movement until they decide to stop and process the situation. By directing the movement of the horse’s feet, Jerviss begins to regain the horse’s attention by having them focus on him and the cues he’s giving.

He reminds horsemen to be patient while helping their horses learn this response. Some horses may need to start further away from the foreign object than others. If the horse is too upset to think, they won’t be able to process their way through the exercise.

By teaching his horses to look to him for direction in a controlled environment, Jerviss teaches them to look to him for direction in an uncontrolled environment as well.

Learn the Exercise

Below, Jerviss shares how to teach a horse a basic bend and yield exercise, which can be taught from the ground or saddle. First, outfit your horse in a halter or snaffle bit.

1. Start by softly lifting a single rein (or the lead rope if on the ground) out and in toward the horse’s withers in the shape of a half circle.

When unexpected wildlife encounters take place in a natural space, help your horse learn to look to you for its next steps.
Jerviss lifts a single rein toward the horse’s withers and holds the pressure until the horse tips its nose toward his hand. Photo by Kayli Hanley

2. Once the slack is gone, gently hold the pressure until the horse looks at your hand or tips their nose toward your hand. (Avoid pulling the horse off-balance. The horse’s ears should stay horizontal during this exercise.)

3. Immediately release all pressure. Reward the slightest effort from your horse. Pause to let the horse process the experience before repeating it.

When unexpected wildlife encounters take place in a natural space, help your horse learn to look to you for its next steps.
Jerviss rewards the horse’s effort by releasing all pressure. Photo by Kayli Hanley

4. Build on steps 1-3 by gradually asking the horse to flex further and hold the flexion for longer periods. If the horse offers resistance, slow down your progression. Encourage a soft response. Practice to the right and left.

The horse momentarily holds flexion after pressure is released. Photo by Kayli Hanley

5. When the horse can flex in both directions and momentarily hold flexion after pressure is released, it’s time to activate the hindquarters. First, ask the horse to flex their head and neck. Then, maintain that light and steady pressure with the rein or lead rope until you feel or see them shift their weight.

6. Immediately release pressure. Allow the horse to relax. The horse may or may not move their hindquarters the first time, but a weight shift indicates they were preparing to do so. Reward the slightest effort.

When unexpected wildlife encounters take place in a natural space, help your horse learn to look to you for its next steps.
Jerviss asks the horse to flex, and he maintains a light and steady pressure until the horse shifts its weight. Photo by Kayli Hanley

7. Gradually increase how long you ask the horse to flex until they shift their weight and take a step with their inside hind foot. It should move forward and in front of the outside hind foot. Eventually, the horse should pivot their hindquarters around the inside front foot with forward motion.

8. Continue to practice, slowly asking your horse for more hindquarter movement until they easily and softly perform the maneuver. Practice to the right and left.

Jerviss maintains a light and steady pressure until the horse shifts its weight and takes one step with its inside hind foot. Photo by Kayli Hanley

Enjoy the Trail

Natural spaces may be filled with animal wildlife and objects that intimidate your horse, but that doesn’t mean they must be scary places. Horsemen who take time to properly prepare their horses for wildlife encounters will be better equipped to ride their horses in natural spaces and enjoy their time there.

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