There are 3 basic requirements that must be in place for a horse to be safe and reliable. If these 3 things are established, the risk factor when you ride will significantly decrease.
I would not suggest taking your horse to a new environment or out on the trail until at least these 3 prerequisites are met.
Visit the Evaluate Your Horse article for a Pre-Ride Checklist.
Safe Horse Requirement 1 – Magnets
If a horse has magnets, his mind can not be with you. It’s on the barn, buddy, trailer, gate, or whatever he is drawn to. The horse is convinced that he needs to get to the magnet to feel safe and comfortable. As a result, his mind is not in a neutral, compliant, teachable state. Magnets will cause the horse to ignore your plan and come up with one of his own. This can be bolting back to the magnet, bucking to get you out of his way, or various other evasion maneuvers. Basically, a horse with magnets is not a safe horse.
What’s the solution? Change his mind. Forcing the horse to leave the magnet is not the answer. That will only increase his anxiety and make him less safe. Allow the horse to go to the magnet, but make it a place of work. Convince the horse that the magnet is not where he wants to be. Horses will gravitate towards what feels good and avoid what doesn’t. So work with those instincts and not against them.
For more details about fixing magnets, go here: Buddy Sour Horse
Safe Horse Requirement 2 – Movement
For a horse to be safe, both the horse and rider must be comfortable traveling on a loose rein. Riders often feel they are ensuring their safety by holding the horse back, but it’s actually the opposite. A horse will not feel safe unless he knows he can naturally and freely move without interference from the rider. If the horse believes the rider will always restrict his freedom of movement, he will begin to believe he wouldn’t be able to escape danger.
Practice just being a passenger on your horse in an enclosed area. Only pick up the reins if it’s absolutely necessary. Do a LOT of walk, trot, lope transitions. Spend some time going from an extended trot to a lope and back down to a trot. This will wean yourself and your horse into being okay with some increased speed.
For more instruction, visit this link: The Magic Of Transitions
Safe Horse Requirement 3 – Mindset
A safe horse has an untroubled mindset. He’s not extremely or easily bothered. He can handle a little excitement in his world. The horse doesn’t over react. He responds.
The human’s approach often determines the horse’s mindset. When a person is too cautious or timid, that will translate through their body language to the horse. Consequently, the horse will be unsure. If the human makes a lot of sudden movements or is unfair to the horse, that will cause the horse to develop a defensive mindset.
Furthermore, a horse that has never experienced increased pressure in a controlled way (see requirement 2 above), can possess an intolerance for commotion.
Be sure the horse is okay with a human being above him on his back. Go to the Fencing article for these exercises.
Jump around and make a little ruckus when you’re standing near your horse. If that freaks him out, then he is reacting and not responding. The solution for that is to wean him into handling some action like described here: Mashing Your Horse.
With the first two requirements firmly in place, the horse will be more likely to have a safe mindset and requirement 3 would be a given.
When all three of these prerequisites are met, you could likely take your horse to an unfamiliar place or go on a trail ride without incident. Though he may have much more yet to learn, the horse underneath you should prove to be a safe mount.
Listen to my podcast: 3 Prerequisites Every Horse Must Have
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