In his second instalment from his trail class series Lou Roper tackles the bridge. As told to Annie Haresign. Make sure to watch the accompanying video at the end of this article!
In this article we’re going to work the bridge. The bridge is found in many trail courses in a number of variations and difficulties. Some course designers will add poles and other more complicated elements to the obstacle but it is important to get a solid foundation in the basics.
If you don’t have a bridge at home or at your regular riding arena, don’t worry, you can actually rig up a fairly good alternative from a large piece of wood. But remember to ensure that the wood is free from any nails or sharp edges and make sure it’s substantial enough to hold the horse’s weight.
Should you be new to the trail class and your horse hasn’t gone across the bridge before then you have to make the time to allow them to get used to it. Your horse will no doubt want to check it out so let him lower his head and have a good look. Make sure you’re aware of your steering and ride straight at the obstacle. Be confident on your horse so you’re sending all the right signals to him in the early stages of training. If your horse pauses prior to crossing the bridge, that’s OK. It’s important that the horse moves forward when you ask, if only for a step. Reward for the slightest obedience is very important, especially for the young or nervous horse.
If you’re worried about how the horse is going to react, maybe ask a more confident or accomplished rider to introduce this new, foreign object to them. Or you could leave the bridge in your arena so your horse can get used to it being there while you’re doing your regular riding and training. Remember, the horse is a flight animal so if you, the rider, is worried or nervous – your horse is more likely to get nervous when approaching a new obstacle.
When you’re in the right frame of mind (confident, with no time pressure) that’s the time to introduce a new obstacle to your horse. Giving the horse enough time and having enough patience with your animal is absolutely invaluable when training any age of horse. When your horse has had a look at the bridge, start walking round the obstacle. Gently encourage him with your leg so he knows he must always go forward and overcome his hesitation. This will give your horse confidence. Remember to relax your hands and seat too as your horse will detect any tension.
Once you’ve walked round the bridge, and your horse is relaxed and no longer alert towards it, that’s the time to consider crossing over it. When you approach the bridge for the first time, or in the show pen, you must ride towards it in a straight line. Give yourself plenty of space and have a good few paces directly in front of the obstacle so your horse can see it clearly before actually stepping on to it. When you reach the bridge, allow your horse another good look at it. They may want to go either left or right and avoid placing their hoof on to this strange object but keep both of your legs on their side with enough pressure to let them know that you want them to step on to it. Remember, take your time!
Encourage with your legs, keep straight and stay relaxed and calm in the saddle. Once your horse steps onto the bridge for the first time, he may be taken a back with the strange sound it makes so try not to over react to any reaction. You may find that your horse can’t cope with much more for this first try at the obstacle, so if you think that you’ve achieved enough in that particular session end on a good note and make some time for further steps in another. You don’t want to push so much that you’re at a point where your horse can’t handle the situation and gets fearful. With plenty of encouragement and a calm, confident rider, your horse will quickly build confidence in you and new obstacles. After all, trail patterns are a test of horse and rider team work. By literally taking the bridge step by step, you’ll eventually have the horse willing to put all their feet on the bridge.
It will feel strange for the horse to be on a different surface to the surrounding arena so as I’ve stressed before, stay confident and calm in the saddle so the horse underneath you feels support in this new situation. Stepping on to the bridge was one thing but you may also find that stepping off from the bridge takes some practise and patience too. The change in surface and even height, if the bridge is slightly raised off the ground, may well make the horse initially nervous and he may accelerate off the obstacle faster than you intended. This is all normal behaviour. The flight instinct is strong and a horse will naturally want to increase the speed away from a situation or item he’s not used to. To ensure that the increase in speed is stopped, you have to introduce repetition to your training to give confidence and eliminate fear. You have to ask him to slow down but without discouraging the forward motion. Practise and repetition of any obstacle will result in better scores in the show pen but remember, no rushing!
Trail show judges are looking for horses that are brave and easily guided across the bridge without hesitation. It takes a lot of repetition for the horse to co-ordinate his feet and have an even rhythm. Remember to free your hand forward and allow your horse to drop his head and extend his neck as he approaches and crosses the obstacle. Judges are also looking for straightness in your riding to, over and from the bridge, so keep an eye on your steering. Softly encourage the horse with your leg just enough to keep a regular tempo of pace and eliminate any chance of hesitation.
When you work at home you’ll be concentrating initially on getting across the bridge in one piece! If you build on the horse’s successes in small steps, you’ll soon be going across the bridge with ease. Appreciate that it’s a completely new exercise for your horse. In the wild the horse would make the effort to go round an ‘alien’ object in its path so you’re asking him to trust you to be brave. Should he be hesitant or rush over the obstacle, be understanding and patient. Remember to be aware of your riding position, you want to look relaxed and in control.
I’m always saying it to my students but it’s true; practise and repetition of your trail obstacles in the correct manner will prove to be the only way to success at home or in the show pen. If you’d like to progress on to the ‘bridge’ obstacle, get down to your local hardware store and make your own or see if you can hire one from a professional yard for a few weeks.
Good luck and get practising!
- Allow plenty of time to let your horse check out the bridge – don’t rush this process!
- Build on small, positive steps especially if you or your horse is nervous. Reward quickly for any small effort by the horse to do as you ask.
- Don’t worry if the horse initially rushes the obstacle or reacts to the sound of the bridge – that’s OK in the beginning!
- Remember to control your speed, tempo and straightness over the obstacle. It’s difficult when attempting a new obstacle but try and stay relaxed and confident. You’ll be helping your horse and a good position and positive rider will gain higher marks in the show pen.
- I keep saying it but repetition of obstacles and practising the correct techniques will result in higher marks in the show pen and build confidence in your horse – good luck!
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