When horses approach any object they’re unsure of, it doesn’t matter to them what the object is – they feel fear or tension regardless. For horses who are particularly spooky, for example with cross-country obstacles or scary things out hacking, it’s important to build trust. Groundwork is a great way to do this.
Renowned trainer Tristan Tucker advises the best exercises to get your horse focused on you rather than his environment.
It doesn’t matter whether the horse is approaching the object or it is approaching him – his concern is that the distance between them is reducing, so the danger is increasing.
There are two ways to tackle this problem – moving the horse closer to an object he’s unsure of, or moving the object closer to him. In both scenarios, we need to be teaching the horse what to do with his body to help him handle the situation. This is not about desensitising a horse to a particular object, it’s about the concept.
Horses only have flight in the toolbox they were given by Mother Nature, so approach training involves teaching the horse the correct posture to adopt when the distance between him and the source of his fear decreases.
The physical dictates the mental. Posture can create confidence, so if your horse looks like he’s leaning back when faced with an obstacle, his posture is telling him he can’t get over it.
It’s your job to teach him “This is the way you approach it to feel good”.
How to do it
Walk in front of your horse when presenting him to the object. It’s not about pushing him forward – you’re trying to teach him to lead himself, so be patient.
As soon as he pushes his nose toward the object, start walking backwards or remove the object. The idea is that whenever he advances on it, the pressure is removed, thereby rewarding the try.
Repeat several times and with different objects until your horse can approach them with that forward-facing, reaching posture.
Meet the expert: Tristan Tucker is a grand prix dressage rider and horse trainer who is based in the Netherlands. He developed the TRT Method, an online platform to educate riders on horse training, from solving behavioural problems to teaching piaffe and passage.