Have a horse that is claustrophobic or difficult in structured spaces (indoor or outdoor arena)? Starting with a new horse or playing with a foal?
Use a makeshift arena corner in a field, paddock or pasture to introduce friendly, intriguing spacial ‘elements’.
We can show them a way to think, learn new things and practice things they already know in a familiar area. Building a foundation outside is refreshing and will present new opportunities for both of you.
For a new horse or a baby it can be all fun and fun learning. In the future, arenas can turn out to be the best sandboxes ever.
For a horse that is difficult, it may be that nothing good has happened to your horse in an arena, and that your horse may be looking at it as a source of stress or pain. Association with this threat is VERY powerful in horses, and we can’t ‘talk them out of it’ using force – which will amplify their defense response – or by ‘flooding’ their senses and breaking something inside of them.
Flooding has been deemed unethical due to the high levels of stress it creates and compared to other methods the likelihood of the fearful response returning is significantly increased (McGreevy, 2012).~ Beth Gibbons – Reconsidering Natural Horsemanship – https://www.bethbehaviourist.co.uk/articles/just-another-deluded-cowboy
Note: a bad memory is one of the more difficult aspects of working with horses…and many times is harder to deal with than rehabbing a torn ligament. A rip in the heart of a horse requires Love, Understanding and Patience.
Be gentle with your athlete, at any age and stage of education.
For this you’ll need 4 cones and pieces of wood that are at least 6 feet long.
Introduce one cone to your horse in a field, preferably without a halter or any other form of confinement. If you have trouble approaching, do something else. Pick up rocks, text a friend, anything that allows the horse to process and determine that you are introducing a non-threatening situation.
Generally, they are so curious. Eventually, your horse will want to know what this is all about. Maybe your horse is out in a field with others, and they come over. Great! As soon as your horse comes to you, reward him or her. Do something pleasurable. Groom and/or scratch withers, throat, underbelly…
Refresh a happy bond. That can be the end of lesson one, especially if it took a lot to get the horse close to the cone. In any case, repeat the lesson in a slightly different way every day, until it becomes ‘old news’.
See if your horse will follow you to the cone. See what your horse does if you pick it up and bring it closer. ALL these responses are important and very telling. Maybe they are fearless and full of trust and they boldly investigate.
In any case, when he or she touches the cone with their nose, give them a reward. Pat on the neck, wonderful words, piece of a carrot, it doesn’t matter. Every reward or positive feedback your horse receives, may be the one they remember and build on for the rest of their lives.
If a horse has been violated through rough treatment, overuse resulting in any kind of pain, it’s true these bad memories take longer to diminish. Trust has been lost and that’s not an easy fix for horse or human. Use the eye-dropper method always! Don’t over face your horse, and don’t ignore your horse’s behavior. Never feel as if they are being criminal, or trying to tease or test you…those anthropomorphic assumptions can frustrate you further, or even get you hurt…
In this regard, always, always encourage efforts. Big or small.
…this goes for horse owners and trainers, too.
Whether it’s a math problem or an arena problem, there are always fun, creative solutions. Anxiety can be ‘new’ and in the moment, simply requiring patience and reassurance, or it can something deeply embedded in the neurons and nervous system of the horse. It’s important to make those distinctions objectively…
Once your horse is familiar with one cone, introducing another shouldn’t be a big deal, but if it is, take your time…
Once you have two cones, you can begin to add some games. Spread them far apart and go from one to the next, touching and rewarding. Weave in and out of them. Add another. Add a board or a stick and observe.
Eventually, you’ll have a ‘corner’ that you can lead your horse into and ask for a nice bend. The point is to be creative and alter the designs and tasks often.
If your budget allows, you can set up four corners in a field and have a ‘makeshift arena’, where you can enter and exit at any time, teaching your horse that corners don’t mean something too structured or too cumbersome for their mind or body.