This is the first obstacle I work with when I meet a new horse. It’s safe because there is plenty of room for the horse and handler to keep away from each other and nothing to trip over. Asking your horse to move over different surfaces at your request is invaluable when you ride out on the trail or go to shows. My mare always found any changes on a road surface worrying, and it took some time for her to realize a puddle wouldn’t swallow her and the white lines on the road weren’t some sort of fence to clear.
HOW TO DO IT
I use a heavyweight tarpaulin or a square of thick carpet. I don’t like those very light-woven tarpaulins because they can shred and a horse’s shoe or foot can get caught up in the holes.
Your horse will either walk straight over the tarpaulin or he won’t, but by now, you’ll know how fearful he is because you’ve been watching for those little signs we talked about in Exercise 2: Observing Something New (p. 19). The very last thing you want to do is try to force him. I’ve had horses absolutely refuse to even look at the tarp and walk around it with their heads twisted away so they can’t see it.
I find the simplest way of getting a reluctant horse to walk across a tarpaulin is to absolutely ignore the tarpaulin, just as I recommended in Exercise 26: Flag Waving (p. 96). I walk around the area, leading my horse, and sometimes I just happen to walk on the tarpaulin, and sometimes I don’t. I wander about but all the time I’m keeping an eye on the horse. At some point, he will look at the tarpaulin. Timing is everything here, so as soon as I see this look, I turn and walk away from the tarpaulin. I just keep doing this, and it’s amazing how quickly the horse will pull toward the tarpaulin, asking to go and look at it.
This is when I join him in this curiosity, and we both go and inspect the new surface. I wander onto the tarp, and I wander off it. It’s all very casual. If he needs to sniff or paw it, I just let him get on with it. At no time have I asked the horse to walk on the tarpaulin. I’m ready when he decides he would like to walk onto it because he may get halfway across and jump off or he may run over it—I just make sure I am not in the way. The important thing here is that the horse makes the decision to walk across, not me. I feel this empowers him.
Sometimes the horse will paw at the tarp, even bunching it up and trampling on it. This is fine—let him explore. If you can change the color or texture of the tarpaulin or carpet in another session, so much the better; the more he experiences in life, the more confident he will become.
If your horse walks straight across the tarpaulin, you can start to ask him to stop on it, back off it, back over it, or maybe turn a circle on it. When you’re doing these more advanced maneuvers, it is a good idea to have a heavyweight tarp so it doesn’t wrap around his legs.
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