Building a Horse's Confidence with Tarps, Part 2
Helping a Worried Horse
By Jonathan Field
In Building a Horse’s Confidence with Tarps, Part 1, I introduced a special horse of mine named Bellagio (Geo), a nine-year-old Warmblood gelding I’ve had for about three years. He came to me quite troubled because of his general lack of confidence. Geo is a very sensitive, flighty horse, which just so happens to be the kind of horse I love! While this type of horse is not for everyone, there are many great lessons you can learn from a horse like Geo.
Part 1 demonstrated how I helped Geo become confident enough to walk over the blue tarp and stand quietly on it. Now it’s time to touch him with it.
I do a wide variety of exercises with my horses to help them become calmer and braver in various situations. My goal is to have them trust what I ask of them, and be okay with it because I am asking. In other words, for me it’s not about the tarp but about Geo’s trust in me to put the tarp on his body. If he trusts me at the heart of it, then tarps, garbage cans, or stumps on a trail won’t bother him.
For Geo, this is a really big ask. He’s thin-skinned and very particular about everything, such as the brush you pick to groom him with, or how fast you pump the fly spray. All kinds of things affect him, and mostly he is quite over-sensitive to objects he doesn’t know. If there is something slightly out of place on the ranch, Geo will tell you about it. You will see his tail go up and he’ll be running the other way!
Over the past three years, Geo has made tremendous changes and has really become a partner to me. I can ask him to do all kinds of things without the explosive reactions of the past. He still has some pretty big spooks in his system, but the difference now is that he will allow me to guide him and shut him down if he overreacts too much, whereas before if he started to spook at something I might have ended up in another county before I got him stopped!
These photos are from a training session we had awhile back at our ranch in Merritt, BC, when Geo was first introduced to the idea of wearing a tarp. When I notice something that bothers my horse, I take time to show him that it won’t hurt him and he has nothing to worry about. One of the direct benefits of this is that getting him used to the noise and texture of a tarp can help me ride safely with a rain slicker. With a horse like Geo, that’s a big deal.
This exercise has many other indirect benefits that help with his confidence overall, so when we approach a new challenge down the road he will have an easier time with it. I will share some insights and the steps I took to achieve this goal.
In part one I talked significantly about using “horsemanship vs forcemanship.” I want to use feel and timing coupled with a sensitivity to the level of worry in a horse. This helps me determine how much I can fairly ask of him in any one session. I want to do things in a way that results in more trust and a greater bond, rather than ending up with a horse that may carry a tarp but has shut down and is less trusting of me and other humans in the future.
There are key points in this series of photos, but none are more important than your safety. This is potentially a rather dangerous activity to ask of the wrong horse, so if you have little skill the situation could quickly become a wreck. The horse can kick out at the tarp and hit you instead, run over you when trying to get away from the tarp, or a host of other unforeseeable things could go wrong. I shall share this information with you on the condition that you seek a professional’s help if you are inexperienced and decide to pursue this on your own. It’s always a good thing to call on qualified help.
Regardless of whether you pursue these activities, there are some good lessons here. Horsemanship learned from one activity can transfer to another and influence how you approach a wide variety of issues. And being reminded that horses are inherently risky is always a good thing. Keep a healthy respect for the potential of these prey animals – they are amazing athletes and very survival oriented, willing to hurt themselves or others to save their life.
STEP-BY-STEP - Build a Horse's Confidence with Tarps
FIGURE 1: Here I have crumpled the tarp into a small wad to allow Geo to have a sniff. Curiosity leads to confidence, so allowing time for a sniff and a touch can help. One thing here is really important but hard to tell from the photo – I walked backwards and led Geo towards the tarp at first, rather than bringing it to him. Geo followed the tarp as he did in part one where I explained that, in the beginning, it is much more effective to take the object away and have the horse come to the object instead of approaching the horse with it and possibly triggering the self-preservation response. This is a good starting point and in a short time I could walk the tarp towards him and then away, showing him it can come and it won’t harm him, and it will leave.
In these situations, most of the time you are not trying to totally avoid the flight response, in fact it’s okay for the horse to spook and jump around a bit. The key is being aware that you can add more challenge or take it away as you feel the horse can handle it.
FIGURE 2: After a bit of time spent allowing Geo to sniff the tarp, I began to ask a bit more of him. I want to move slowly but not in a sneaky way. Approaching and then retreating, I worked my way down his side. A thick, boney spot on a horse, like the shoulder area, is a good place to start rather than the front legs or belly. Starting near his shoulder I worked my way back, keeping him bent towards me and looking at what I am doing. After each one of these stages I took the tarp away, backed off, and allowed him to think about it and realize that everything was okay.
FIGURE 3: After a short amount of time, I want Geo to start moving while I rub the tarp with a bit more action. I’m also starting to let the tarp become bigger. Notice that I am leaning towards him and driving him away from me. I want him to step away for me, not me away from him. Personal space is the entire key to success and safety here, so prior to this session I must have established the respect that my personal space is more important than any fear or reaction he might have. Having him move his feet helps him realize he can get away so he won’t feel the need to have a fight or flight response. This way he doesn’t feel pent-up stress and kick out to defend himself.
One of the instinctual self-preservation responses in horses is the freeze response. The freeze response helps a horse appear still while they build up a potential explosion to get away. This is why moving the horse’s feet keeps him thinking because he can’t hide emotion through the movement of his feet.
FIGURE 4: The next big step is taking the tarp over his backbone to become visible in his right eye. Personal space and respect must be maintained or he could run away to the left from the tarp on his right side, and right over me. Here you can see he is not thrilled; he is powering up to leave with his front feet off the ground. Knowing that a horse needs to move I will send him forward as quickly as I can.
FIGURE 5 : The next big step is to rhythmically wave the tarp up and over him while he walks and trots around me. I can put it on and take it off, showing him it comes and goes and he is fine. He must be moving away from me instead of me moving away from him.
FIGURE 6: Each time the tarp goes over I can leave it on a bit longer. He is starting to become more accepting but still keeps a close eye on it. I need to do this on both sides.
FIGURE 7: Spreading the tarp out a bit more, and Geo is starting to see it in both eyes while he takes it for a longer ride.
FIGURE 8: Only after Geo has had ample time moving away and carrying it while moving will I start asking him to stand still and accept the tarp rhythmically going up and over him. I like giving him a nice rub and being as smooth as I can with the tarp. If at first you can’t make the tarp smooth then practice over a fence away from your horse. He has done a lot of movement to get to the point where he can be okay with this while standing still. Horses vary as to the amount of time they take to accept this, so give your horse all the time he needs.
FIGURE 9: We made it! Here you can see that Geo is accepting of the tarp as it drapes over him and even falls to the ground as he trots away. It is so helpful for a horse to see something fall off their side and be okay with it. I will do this again at least 14 more times on different days before I consider him to be pretty good at it, then go back every so often to test him and see if he is still confident with the tarp exercises.
FIGURE 10: Only after all the other parts of his body are confident with the tarp will I go to such a sensitive area as his head and ears. Notice I am standing off to the side to avoid a strike and holding the lead in a way that would allow him to leave if he needs to. Don’t confine and force the horse or you will bring up the horse’s need to defend himself.
Here you can see a series of progressive steps toward confidence. Safety is number one, so seek help from a qualified, competent professional and be sure that anyone who helps you has the horsemanship skills to establish personal space with your horse. The telltale sign that they do not have that ability is if you see their feet moving in backwards steps. If this happens they are unintentionally drawing the horse right over top of them, and if the horse spooks from the tarp he will likely run them over.
If you can see each challenge as an opportunity to help the horse become braver under your leadership, then a world of possibilities will open up for you and your horse. Become a true horseman by studying to always be better at handling, riding, and reading horse behaviour.
Be safe and stay Inspired by Horses!
This article was originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Photos: Andrea Hecimovic