On Sunday I trailered Olaf to an obstacle practice day at a farm nearby. These obstacle challenges have become popular in my area and I’m a big fan of them. They allow horses to learn how to approach scary objects in a safe, calm way. Obstacles force you to think differently as a trainer, to fine tune your requests and to ask differently when the horse doesn’t understand. No matter what discipline you ride, whether it’s dressage or barrels, I think everyone can benefit from this kind of training.
When we got to the farm and unloaded, there were some goats across the street that had Olaf in hysterics. He was shook! He was tied to the trailer, but he was dancing around on the line and trying to run off.
This is only his third trip off property, and I’m noticing a trend. As soon as we get to a new place, he is amped up, super excited and hard to handle. Within about 10 minutes, he calms down and turns back into the lovable goofball we all know and love. That first 10 minutes though, he is hard to deal with.
This is one of those times when his size is a disadvantage. When he stands with his head straight up in the air, I can’t get anywhere near that big ole noggin. I have to wait for him to calm down before I’m able to get a bridle on him.
I dealt with his nerves by hand walking him for a few minutes. We walked over to the arena where there were other horses and I immediately put him to work, asking him to step over some of the obstacles and turn his brain on. That worked really well, and after about 5 minutes, he was fine.
I hand walked him through the course first. He was an absolute champ about the obstacles. He walked over bridges, stepped up onto tires, walked through pool noodles with flags flapping over his head, walked through water, pushed a giant ball around and generally did everything I asked of him. He also bulldozed through a couple of them and knocked things down (like barrels he was supposed to step over), which was highly entertaining. Why bother to pick up your feet when you can just knock the whole thing over?
I’ve taken a bunch of different horses to these obstacle challenges- both of my minis, my thoroughbred, my psycho paint mare, my mule, and now Olaf- and some horses are just better at playing the game. Some horses, like the minis, will step over and through just about anything. Other horses, like my thoroughbred, are much more hesitant and require a lot more patience. Olaf was a natural.
Once he was sufficiently calm and we had done the course on foot, I went back to the trailer and threw a bridle and a bareback pad on him so we could ride through it. He did better than any horse I’ve ever had. We did all of the easier obstacles, things like stepping up onto pedestals, pushing the ball around, approaching scary objects and maneuvering through poles in a pattern.
One area of the field would get him all excited for some reason (I have no idea), so I let him trot out some of his anxiety and then asked him to go back to work. I don’t have any pictures of me riding him, sadly, but I was thrilled with him. He was calm, willing, and brave.
Since my first horse, all I’ve ever wanted is a good, sound horse to do fun stuff with. I didn’t care whether it was hunters or trail riding or whatever; I just wanted to have fun with my horse. Baron the thoroughbred was willing but not sound. Every time we would make progress, he would get hurt and be unrideable for months at a time. Thunder the quarter horse was willing and sound, but my friend fell in love with him and I let her take him. They were meant to be together. Heidi the paint mare was sound but unwilling. She did not want to do anything I wanted to do, and she made sure I knew it. Ellie the mule was wonderfully willing and totally athletic, but she went blind and became so spooky I quit riding her. Now I have Olaf, who is such a gem. He is sound and willing. Finally, after all these years I have a horse that I can have fun with! He is a little rough around the edges, but he tries hard to please.
Every time I take him somewhere, I’m a little more impressed by him. I feel like building a partnership with a horse is like building a wall, one brick at a time. Every ride and every trip off property is another brick in the wall.