RIDING ON THE ROAD - Tips on improving your horses' confidence

Q. Is your ride confident apart from a problem with traffic, can you only use country lanes that you know are quiet at certain times of the day? Do you blame yourself because your horse will not listen to your leg aids? Are you beginning to loose your trust and confidence in your horse that in every other way is just great? 
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Traffic problems are not nice and are and unfortunately can be some of the hardest ones to solve. If your horse has a problem with any form of traffic, it can become very serious with your horse acting out of character, becoming jumpy and refusing to listen to your aids. This situation is dangerous to all including you, the horse and the traffic that is on the road. The only way forward is to go right back to basics and work with your horse as if he is a complete novice in this situation. 

Tips to help educate and build confidence in your horse when around traffic.

Ideally you should introduce your horse to traffic as part of his early education; traffic is much better included as a relaxed no pressure part of his daily life with. Depending on your situation, there are a number of different ways you can go about this: 

  • If you can turn your horse out in a field by a busy road. The constant sound of passing traffic can be an effective de-sensitiser, particularly if he shares grazing with other friends that don't react every time a car or lorry thunders past.
  • Introduce his hay to the field on the back of a vehicle whether that is a car, truck, or tractor. This will help him become accustomed to having vehicles driven around him and he will start associating them as a positive because they bring him food.
  • Try and park your car at the entrance to his field every time you visit and when you feel he is relaxed maybe even drive it slowly around the field. Have your radio on so he can hear it and even blast the horn so he gets used to the various sounds a car makes.
Even a horse that is confident in regular traffic can turn into a gibbering wreck when faced with new loud machinery sounds.
  • Because many horses don't encounter heavy vehicles very often, it makes it difficult for them to build confidence when caught by surprise.  If possible ask a local farmer to allow you to walk your horse past machinery that is initially switched off, then with the engine running.
  • When out hacking, if you come across something huge and noisy like a lorry, bus or a combine harvester, that you know your horse will be uncomfortable with, try and get out of the way, by pulling into a lay-by or drive,” until the machine has passed, then encourage your horse to follow on, giving him lots of praise.
  • At the other end of the noise spectrum, bicycles can have a similar effect, terrifying a horse by creeping up behind and then whizzing past. Approach this in the same way or if you are lucky enough to have a friend who is able to go out hacking with you on her bike or is able to go out in the field or paddock, ask her to lead so the horse doesn’t feel like the bike is aggressive, teach your horse to follow and once he is confident you can progress to the bike following and even over taking.
Take charge of the situation
  • When getting your horse used to cars and other vehicles, “Ride when the road is likely to be less busy and avoid the day the dustbin lorry comes and routes where the traffic is likely to be heavy.
  • Remember your confidence is as important as your horses', if you are afraid he will pick upon it and wonder why you are frightened and react accordingly  Breathe slowly and even sing to your horse, give him clear indicators that you are strong and confident by keeping  your heels down, your lower leg forward and sitting up straight. This will not only keep you safe but it will also give the horse more confidence in you.
  • If your horse gets a fright on the road, it is important to restore his confidence as soon as possible and to ensure that nothing happens to reinforce any negative views he may have formed.
Dos and don'ts...

  • Use hi-vis and reflective clothing – on both you and your horse.
  • Wear a British safety standard hat and body protector.
  • Thank polite drivers – a smile and a nod is enough if you need both hands on the reins.
  • Ride in single file where possible, or two abreast at the most
  • Be aware of the Highway Code http://www.bhs.org.uk/our-charity/working-with-the-law/highway-code
  • Use clear hand signals when turning, asking traffic to slow down or stop
  • Always ride on the left hand side of the road. Even when you are turning right, do not move into the middle of the road
  • Hack on the roads in poor or fading light.
  • Ride an inexperienced horse out without a steady companion.
  • Ride on the pavements.
  • Use your phone or smoke while riding.
  • Never ride more than two abreast, and always move into single file on narrow roads and as you approach bends.
Stay positive calm and confident and your horse will eventually do the same.
Tips on staying safe and enjoying your hack Read more

Some parts of this article originally appeared in Horse magazine's summer 2012 issue.