by Kate Riordan
You’re four miles from home on a trail that you’ve ridden for years. But today something decides to bounce through the brush unseen but heard — a distinctive and loud rattling sound booms on the horizon. Your horse spooks, you’re launched in a not-so-pretty dismount, you land flat on the ground, and your horse takes off for home.
What can you do to prevent that from happening again — or ever?
“Whenever a horse comes into my barn for training,” comments California clinician and trainer Charles Wilhelm, “there are systematic foundation exercises we do with each and every horse. My goal is to create a dependable horse, and to get the horse and rider to a place where everything they do together is safe and fun.
“We teach each horse to become accustomed to the environment around them so they don’t get excited with every new sight or sound. Many issues with horses happen because they’re fearful of strange things behind them or noises that frighten them. Training horses to accept noises and objects behind them is key to being safe. One of the ways this is accomplished is by dragging various objects from the saddle,” comments Wilhelm. Each object represents different situations that the rider might encounter on the trail. For instance, dragging a big branch with leaves makes a noise much like a big buck deer, a wild turkey, or even a small rabbit bouncing and rattling through the brush.
“We’ve all seen horses spook on the trail, and then the rider tenses up and her blood pressure goes sky high. Even if she’s not thrown, it becomes a nervous situation, and the horse really picks up on that,” states Wilhelm.
Another purpose for these dragging exercises is to prevent an equally frightening situation. “I’ve witnessed a saddle come loose on a downhill — the saddle rolled on the horse’s side and off went the rider, foot still in the stirrup. The frightened and unprepared horse took off and the rider became the dragging object,” reports Wilhelm. He saw the need to find an exercise that prepared the horse not to panic, bolt and flee when something dragged along and bumped into his feet, especially when it was the rider!
It’s important to introduce things around the horse’s feet, where the horse, according to Wilhelm, “can be pretty explosive.” Horses need to be accustomed to obstacles around their front feet too; they may also strike with their front feet. “That’s why dragging exercises are part of our foundation tools,” continues Wilhelm. “It gets horses relaxed about sounds and objects behind and around them.”
More than just a safety issue, these dragging exercises are excellent for preparing a horse for a ranch versatility or trail class. “Dragging obstacles is often a part of these classes,” reports Wilhelm, “so it’s more than just despooking a horse; it’s preparing him for the show ring.”
Wilhelm starts these exercises in a round pen or enclosed safe environment from the ground. The preparation work is very important, including sacking out. Once the horse is comfortable with the ground work, Wilhelm then moves into the saddle with dragging just a simple 30’ line. “It’s not a threatening object to the horse, but it gets him used to something behind him.” Here’s an important caution: Never coil the rope around your hand. Fold the rope loops in half and hold the rope 18” to 24” from the horn, near your thigh, so that your fingers or thumb can never be caught in the rope or pinched between the horn and rope.
Always start this exercise by shortening the reins so you don’t have a lot of slack and can slow or stop the horse quicker. Begin by making a circle, with the end of the object you are dragging in the center of the circle. This “neutral point” is the least intensive position for the horse and doesn’t put much pressure on him. In this circling pattern, the rope isn’t touching the horse. Once the horse accepts the circling exercise, then travel straight — the rope will come close to or actually touch the horse’s hindquarters. Go in a straight line for a short distance then back onto a circle or neutral, releasing the pressure from your horse. If the rope becomes too taut or too close to the horse’s hindquarters and is too much pressure for the horse to handle, simply turn the horse back to neutral or onto the circle.
As your horse becomes more comfortable with the object, you can increase the distance of your straight line, but always return to the circle.
To turn, use both a rein aid and leg pressure. For instance, for a left circle use a neck rein to the left or a direct left rein if using a snaffle. Leg pressure cue comes from moving your right leg at the girth and touching the ribs lightly with your calf and left heel. Do the circle in each direction.
What should the rider do if the horse becomes nervous?
“Don’t panic! Just drop the rope!” smiles Wilhelm.
If you sense that the horse is becoming tense, turn him back toward the ‘neutral’ center of the circle, where the rope or object is. That’s the release part of the exercise. Or if you feel uncomfortable continuing, drop the rope. If you or the horse are anxious and you hang onto the rope, the horse may panic, bolt, or run away. If he’s scared, it will be even more difficult to practice this exercise the next time.
“The first thing people want to do is to drag the object in a straight line. That’s the last thing you want to do initially!” emphasizes Wilhelm. “Practice with a ‘neutral’ circle first where the rope won’t touch the hindquarters, and always remember to practice in both directions. And if your horse is more uncomfortable in one direction or one side, put in extra work on that side.”
The dragging exercises ramp up in small increments. By adding a small cone to the end of the rope, and starting with a circle again, it adds a little more pressure to the exercise. “I just put the snap end of the rope through the cone and attach the snap back onto the rope,” says Wilhelm. After circling, the exercise continues with a straight direction, letting the rope touch the hip and hindquarters of the horse. “You can begin to build a square out of this exercise with a straight line and then a neutral quarter circle where the rope doesn’t touch the horse. Continue the pattern. Take whatever time it takes to get your horse comfortable with this exercise.”
Next comes dragging a log. For this exercise Wilhelm has screwed a large eye-bolt into the end of a 3-1/2’ two-by-four and attaches the rope to the bolt (either using the snap or a Bowline knot). If you feel the log is too heavy and you don’t have great hand and arm strength to hold onto it, hook the rope one-half turn around the saddle horn then hold the rope in your hand on the rope 18” to 24” from the horn, resting on your thigh so you can easily release the rope if you need to. “Don’t loop the rope around the horn. It takes coordination and skill to undo that wrap. Keep the rope simple and safe with a half-turn around the horn,” advises Wilhelm.
The same procedure applies for dragging the log: Circle around the log in a neutral position until the horse is comfortable (remember, do this in both directions). When you circle, you’re in neutral (the rope doesn’t have any tension on it and the obstacle doesn’t move). Then proceed straight, dragging the obstacle, which creates more pressure on the horse when the rope touches him, then turn back onto the circle, which puts the horse in neutral again. When you feel as though the horse truly understands the exercise, shorten the rope, bringing the log closer to him — but not so close that it hits the horse’s heels. It may take several days (or longer) before you and your horse are comfortable about shortening the line.
Dragging a tree branch is next. “The noise the branch and leaves make is very much like what you hear in the brush when a turkey or deer pops up on the trail,” comments Wilhelm. Shorten your reins and start with making a circle around the branch so that initially the branch doesn’t move. Then start dragging the branch in a straight line, returning back to the circle. Ultimately you’ll be riding in a straight direction where the rope then touches the hindquarter. Always follow that by taking the pressure off by turning back onto the circle again so that the rope doesn’t touch your horse. Horses learn by adding pressure in increments. If you started this exercise by dragging the branch in a straight line, you might wind up in the next county, which isn’t where you want to be! “It’s all done in increments for the safety of you and the horse, and for building confidence in the horse and rider,” says Wilhelm.
Be aware of the horse’s confidence before shortening the distance of the line between you and the object. These exercises may take a couple of weeks before the horse is confident enough to have the object closer to his hindquarters. “Remember that even if you think you’ve accomplished these dragging lessons today, a few weeks from now you really need to revisit them again. It’s always a good idea to review and repeat basic lessons, like dragging obstacles. Work on the basics before graduating to whatever maneuvers you want to work on, whether it’s slide stops, flying lead changes, or piaffes. Foundation is the key to starting and maintaining a horse, whether for show or trail,” reports Wilhelm.
After successfully dragging these objects (remember to take as much time as needed), you and your horse should be ready to drag a small tarp. “The principles remain the same. Keep these exercises slow and methodical. You might be tempted to add speed to the equation right now, but don’t,” cautions Wilhelm. “Speed only enters the picture when the horse completely understands the lesson. Achieve your goals with the horse in each direction before you ever think about speeding up the lesson.”
You don’t want to scare the horse with any of these obstacles. “Anytime the horse gets edgy with these dragging exercises, as I said before, drop the rope. No sense in trying to be a hero or pushing the horse through this — it won’t work. It’s difficult for the horse to return to a lesson once he’s been scared.”
After succeeding with dragging the small tarp, Wilhelm steps up to dragging a large tarp, finally bringing the tarp up and around the saddle. “This takes a great deal of preparation for most horses,” reports Wilhelm. “So make sure that you have a solid foundation of successfully dragging other objects before you attempt this. You can shorten the rope until you’re just circling around the large tarp on the ground; your horse is still in neutral. Our goal isn’t to have a dead-headed horse, but a responsive, reliable and dependable one.”
Stay safe, keep success as your goal, and always have fun!