LAHHA clinics teach horses, riders to control fears

Claudia Duncan encourages Velvet to cross over the teeter during a recent equine clinic sponsored by the Los Altos Hills Horsemen's Association.

Because horses are prey animals, their first instinct, when faced with a potential threat, is to escape, as fast as possible. This state of panic or similar reactions to terror can lead to injuries for both the horse and rider because frightened horses can run through fences, slip or fall on their riders. The Los Altos Hills Horsemen's Association recently sponsored a series of clinics designed to help riders teach their equine partners to instead face their fears.

Marybeth Wiefels, an equine behaviorist, demonstrated techniques that increased the participating horses' trust in their human partners, leading to more confidence for both as they worked together during two separate weekend clinics. The Horse Speak Clinic, held last month at the Los Altos Hills riding ring, concentrated on how to best communicate with horses. Through an increased awareness of what motivates a horse, a rider can build a successful partnership with his or her mount.

At a second session held May 13 and 14, human and equine attendees at the Trail Readiness Clinic focused on how to safely approach obstacles or potentially frightening situations .

Initially, each rider worked on the ground, next to his or her horse, acting as a lead horse would, to gain the horse's trust. Because horses anticipate danger in almost every situation, it was necessary to convince them to manage their fears through various obstacles.

With the riders' time and patience, the horses were able to walk near large balls, step onto a shiny tarp, pass by balloons, cross over a bridgelike teeter-totter, get comfortable with a flag and oversized balls and even get close to a scary pink elephant piñata.

For many horses, the most fear-provoking trialwas a large opening that consisted of 15-foot-long tarp strips. This looked and sounded intimidating to the horses, especially when a breeze made the strips flutter in unpredictable directions or brush against the horse.

The horses seemed to enjoy the mental stimulation and the series of exercises, as did the riders. Many of the situations required great concentration,  yet there were also moments of relief and fun.

Once the horses began to trust the leadership of their riders, they were tested with the same obstacles and a few new ones, like water. The second time, the riders were seated in their saddles. Riders were often surprised when a trial their mount had earlier encountered with some degree of ease now became much more of a challenge.

Wiefels anticipated this, explaining that the difference was the horse had to do more of the thinking with the rider in the saddle. The rider's role was less as a leader and more as a driver, giving gentle pressure and encouragement. This often required a great deal of patience.

"To give up or give in would impart the wrong message to the horse - that the horse was right to be frightened and to retreat or run away," Wiefels said. "But there's a caveat: A definite line exists between teaching that lesson and traumatizing a horse.

"It is the responsibility of the rider to know his horse well enough (or, in the case of a newly acquired horse, to recognize the horse's body language) to avoid the latter."

Two of the more difficult tasks involved footing exercises. One required the horse to walk through a 10-by-10-foot area filled with empty plastic bottles and cans, which crackled, crunched or moved under their hooves.

"The goal here is to have the horse calmly investigate this tricky footing, just as a rider would want him to out on trail where there might be slippery rocks or unsure footing," Wiefels said.

LAHHA has scheduled Junior Horsemanship Camp June 24 and 25. For more information, contact Jolon or Mike Wagner at 917-1975.

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