Build an Obstacle Course - For Practice and Fun
Have you ever been on a perfect trail ride? Through the woods, up and down narrow trails, laughing, trailblazing, stepping around rocks, popping over fallen tree trunks, splashing through creeks, squeezing between rows of corn - and coming home without a scratch? And with a smile on your (and your horse's) face? Or do you find that you are lucky to get back in one piece, with your horse, and both of you would rather not even look at each other? If your horse and you are not 'together' on things, rides are not going to be that much fun.
If trail rides are not fun, then maybe you and your horse need more practice at home maneuvering through and around objects, and generally practicing HOW you get to where you want to go. Every step counts. If you and your horse do not work well on the ground together, then you won't do well while riding. Doing things together on the ground is where you both need to start.
There are many ways to practice maneuvering on the ground, and one fun way is an obstacle course. You can make one in your paddock or pasture using ground poles, barrels, buckets, hula hoops, old carpets, and other things.
Use your imagination, but be careful to use things that are horse-friendly and safe. Practice each obstacle, slowly and steadily, until your horse does it calmly and quietly, then do the whole obstacle course. Start with easy things in your course and as you both get better, try more challenging things. Each step taken is a part of the whole obstacle, so reward your horse with soft, stroking pets (not slaps) for each foot he places where you want it.
A simple back-up slot can be made with 2 ground poles. Lay them about four feet apart and parallel to each other. Practice walking your horse in between them, stopping, and backing out. More ground poles can be added to make it longer or to make it turn for more of a challenge. Buckets can be used to raise the ground poles if your horse wanders out of the path too readily.
Be careful when using buckets with handles so that your horse doesn't step through the handle and get his foot caught. Practice backing your horse out without bumping the sides. Watch how those hindquarters and forequarters need to move to stay in the path. It is important to be able to get your horse to place his feet where you ask. This can be a valuable thing to practice - someday on a trail ride the trail may come to a dead end and you may have to back out!
Asking your horse to step into a hula hoop (flat on the ground) with one foot or two feet, hind or fore, or even to back into it, is a simple way to practice foot placement. Getting all four hooves on a piece of carpet is another way to practice this.
You can also make a three-sided "box" with ground poles and practice parking your horse in it - forward, sideways, and backward.
Barrels can be placed in a row and you can ask your horse to maneuver around them forwards, backwards, and sideways. This is good practice for maneuvering around trees. You may want to try leading him past the barrels while you are on one side of the barrel and he is on the other. You can also place an old mailbox on top and practice getting something out of it while your horse stands quietly.
Ask your horse to step quietly over a small jump or cavaletti with you beside him, without him getting ahead of you. Then try asking him to go over it quietly without you. How well are you doing at getting him to do what you ask? Sometimes while riding you will want to jump a fallen log, sometimes you may not, so now is the time to practice both ways. If one cavaletti is too easy, try several in a row.
Picking up a noisy object (such as a plastic jug with a dozen marbles in it) and carrying it somewhere is another fun obstacle. Will your horse go with you while you shake it? How about a plastic bag? A flag on a pole? Can you carry one of these and do the entire obstacle course?
If you can do all of these maneuvers easily on the ground, then you can try them mounted. Try getting something out of the mailbox and depositing it in a box or bucket on another barrel. This is a good way to practice riding one-handed. It is also a good way to get your horse to maneuver up to things. Someday you may want to open a gate without getting off!
Some other challenging ideas are to carry a basketball or soccer ball in one hand while you walk (and later ride) to a bucket on the ground and drop the ball into it. Be careful if you miss - the bouncing ball may surprise your horse! For hot days, get two small buckets. Fill one bucket with water and leave the other one empty. Place the buckets on two different barrels. With a cup, see how much water you can get into the empty bucket, cup by cup. Don't fill the cup too full! Do this as a ground exercise first and later while mounted. Be careful - the cool water splashing suddenly down your horse's shoulder may surprise him.
Practice these maneuvers and get really good at home, both on the ground and mounted. Reward your horse with a stroking pet for each correct foot placement so he will stay cooperative and calm. This is a fun way to brush up on your cues and signals and for getting your horse's responses to be exact. There is no limit to the imagination; make up new obstacles as long as they are safe, and HAVE FUN!