By Mark Bolender
The exciting sports of Trail Challenges and Mountain Trail are based on real-life situations found working on the ranch or on the trail. Certain obstacles simulate these working conditions, and can be used to effectively train for these sports.
One important training obstacle is the balance beam. It simulates some of the difficult log and bridge crossings required to cross creeks or ravines. And it’s a fantastic tool to teach horses to focus, not only on the crossing but on any task at hand such as riding a straight line. The following is a good method to begin training with a balance beam.
First, wrap your horse’s legs from the knee to the hock to prevent injuries. It’s also ideal to have two balance beams to work with; one that’s low to the ground and another that’s more elevated. You should master the low balance beam before you graduate to the elevated one. Also, before starting the training, you must have the horse’s respect and or a strongly established “Bolender Bubble” in place. If you don’t, the horse will push into your personal space, (or your “Bolender Bubble.”) If this happens, you must correct the behavior before proceeding. If the behavior is not blocked the horses instinct will block them from trying to please you for a horse does not listen to one that they see below them in the pecking order. You will know that you have established the bubble when you can move the horse a will with little more than a thought. I always begin by backing the horse up with my back turned to them and I do not look at them. I put myself in the role of the Alfa Mare and do what is needed to get them to lock onto me and move with me.
Establishing this bubble is not about domination but about being safe and a teacher of the horse. Until the horse excepts your leadership the training will turn into a pain management session. What I mean by this is you will be using much more pressure and release for the horse will have no instinctual drive to please you by trying the obstacle. It may seem like a small point but it is the very foundation to my training. It does not mean that all your troubles are over but when you trigger the instinct to please you the job will be much easier. The instinct to please those they see above will override the instinct to avoid the unknown in a horse. The balance beam is a unknown item so they much be very confident in your leadership.
Once you’ve determined your space is respected, drive the horse from the ground to the low balance beam and have it inspect the obstacle. Do not force the horse, but give it all the time it needs to inspect, smell, chew or even paw the beam if it desires. Being curious creatures, most horses will place one foot on the balance beam and then take it off, then repeat the process. You should apply gentle pressure to the horse until it moves forward and puts its foot back on the balance beam. Immediately stop all movement to take the pressure off, and let the horse “think it through.” This method will appear slow at first, but will pay dividends in the end because it builds more boldness and confidence than the method of pushing the horse and forcing it to comply with your request.
As the horse steps up with both feet, make sure your lead rope is loose. This is crucial because if the horse doesn’t stand on the balance beam on a loose lead rope then, in its mind, the effort never happened. So you must resist hanging onto the lead rope. Depending on the horse, placing both feet on the beam and then removing them is normal, and this may go on a number of times. But once the horse has both feet on the beam and appears quiet, it’s time to apply pressure and ask it to step up with its hind feet. Once again, when the horse steps up with all four feet, stop all pressure. Allow it to stand on a loose lead rope before moving on. At this point you will be facing the horse.
Remember that in the horse’s mind, the less you move your feet, the more authority you have. Stay quiet, calm, and show no emotions. The horse will reward you by taking several baby steps. It may take a day of two before the horse walks completely over the balance beam in a relaxed manner while “hunting the trail.” When the horse has mastered the low balance beam from the ground, then you can move to the elevated balance beam. The steps are the same – drive the horse to the obstacle and allow it time to think it through.
When the horse is comfortable with walking across the elevated beam then it’s time to ride. Some horses act as if they’ve never seen the low balance beam once you’re mounted up. However, the steps are the same as presenting the balance beam from the ground. Have the horse face it straight on and allow it time to think it through. The horse will probably put one foot up at first, and then back off. Allow this to occur, but be persistent in asking the horse to go forward. Once it steps up on the balance beam, allow it the privilege of smelling, chewing or pawing the beam.
Most horses will simply step off at this time. Do not turn the hose around. Instead, back up the horse and have it step up on the beam again. Show no emotion or impatience, and do not become aggressive; that will defeat the propose of building boldness and confidence in the horse. Once the horse is willing to step up quietly and walk on the beam, simply look forward and walk. At this point your job is done, and the horse should walk quietly and confidently, with a focused expression on both the low and elevated balance beam.
Happy Trails and Bolender Blessings!