H&H question of the week: my horse hates ditches — what should I do?

  • Four-star event rider Coral Keen provides one H&H forum user with some helpful advice on how to help her horse overcome his fear of ditches

    Q: How to overcome a fear of ditches, without any access to a ditch at home: “The horse I’m riding has a problem with ditches. Aside from this he is a super keen, super confident and very athletic jumper. You can stick all manner of fillers, colourful stuff, teddy bears, plastic trays, rustics in front of him and they are no problem. But a ditch (man made or otherwise) is a no go. I’ve been cross-country schooling and, sod’s law, there were no ditches. He has seen the same cross-country course several times and religiously stops at the ditches. I hate having to use a stick as he seems genuinely scared. So, short of digging my own ditch (which I don’t want to do), do you have any nifty tips or tricks? I’d really like to work this out with him — last year we’d have won the novice class at our local hunter trial but our ditch problem ruined it. This year I’d really like to try again. Thanks in advance.”

    A: “The answer here is practice, practice, practice. Do a bit of research into some good venues you can school at where they have varying size ditches on the flat. Try to start nice and easy so that you are not running down hill to the ditch at the base, avoiding any extra complications or elements that both you and the horse need to think about.

    Continued below…

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    “Begin simply and small and just try walking — don’t let your horse jog at all, just keep at a gentle walk. If you have a friend that can go with you, try asking them to come along with their horse to give you a lead. Just make sure it’s someone who doesn’t have the same problems! Follow them back and forth as many times as you need to, until you think you can try without a lead, but stay in walk the whole time. If he leaps, try to keep calm and repeat the same ditch until he understands what you are asking him to do.

    “Once he begins to relax you can reward him by moving onto another ditch, but still don’t try anything faster than a walk. Give him lots of time, especially if he still feels nervous. Use your voice to help calm him and make sure you reward him as soon as he starts listening to you.

    “Moving forwards, after you have done your homework and are at a show, try using what people call a ‘coffin canter’; slow him right back down before you approach a ditch on the course. He needs time to understand what’s coming and what he needs to do. Taking out the element of surprise for him will reduce the chances of him feeling overwhelmed on approach, which is when you get those dirty stops.”

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