It’s no secret that I do a lot of obstacle training with my horses. One look in my arena and you realize I have lots of things to play with. But do you use obstacles with your horse?

To some people, obstacles might look like clutter in the arena, but to me it is endless possibilities that enrich the training of my horses and fun in my sessions.

Obstacles are great to use with horses and riders because…

  • They give you a visual of where you want to put your horse’s feet
  • You get to test how clear your communication is with your horse
  • You build the confidence of the horse/rider with every successful obstacle
  • Your horse becomes more emotionally and mentally fit because they have to think more
  • Your horse learns to accept approaching or passing by objects on all sides of their body which means they are less spooky
  • Your horse discovers there is a reason they need to respond and get lighter to your cues
  • It gives you new things to try which can be interesting and fun for both you and your horse
  • It helps to keep your horse listening and focused
  • It gives your horse a ‘job’ which can help calm and motivate them
  • It gives you a very clear focus which is easier for your horse to understand

Obstacles don’t have to add a lot of clutter- you can use poles in many different ways, or jump standards without having to set too many things up.

Here are ideas you can do with poles:

  • Go forwards over them (walk, trot, canter)
  • Practice halt transitions with them – change it up and sometimes halt before, after, halfway over, or with the pole between the front or hind legs
  • Practice backwards – either between two poles, or try backing up over the poles
  • Practice sideways – change it up and practice sideways from the right and left sides, sometimes do sideways with the pole in front of you, underneath you, or behind you
  • Use shapes – set the poles up in different shapes, like a square or triangle, and then try riding forwards, backwards, with halts, and sideways using the new shape

Here are some ideas using jump standards:

(for safety make sure to remove any unused jump cups)

  • Use them to make jumps, but change it up and try doing different gaits or halt transitions with the jump
  • Practice backing up to the jump or standard – see if you can build your horse’s confidence so they can back their hind end up so close they can touch it with their tail
  • Put a rope between two standards to make a rope gate – then practice going through it forwards, backwards, using your right hand to open and then your left hand
  • Set the standards at different distances apart and practice a weave or figure 8 pattern – then change it up and try the pattern backwards
  • Put different objects on the standards and practice picking them up, riding around and putting them back down – use things like a raincoat, towel, tarp, or pylon

No matter what obstacles you choose to play with, remember to start with baby steps and give your horse lots of praise when they get it right. If your horse gets scared or nervous, try to be patient, calm, and clear about what you want. Never force a horse to an obstacle when they are scared – it will just make them scared of you too and could ruin the trust and confidence you were building.

Set it up for success by being realistic about what you ask your horse to do – for example if your horse can’t halt halfway over a pole confidently then don’t yet try to go backwards over the poles. Instead practice stopping halfway over poles until your horse can do that calmly. Another example is if you can’t ride up to a rope gate and lift the rope confidently (with your horse standing still), then don’t try going through the gate yet. Instead practice riding up to the gate, standing still, and picking up the rope and putting it down.

Practice having relaxation with each part of the obstacle – the approach, the task, and the exit.

Get help from a Harmony Horsemanship Instructor – if you progress too slowly you can make your horse bored and frustrated, but if you progress too quickly you can overwhelm or scare your horse. It is important to know how to read your horse’s body language so you know when they are ready for the next step.

I have lots of fun playing with obstacles and my horses, I hope you do too.