When thinking of obstacles to introduce to your horse so that he’s prepared to negotiate them when you’re on the trail, you’ve probably covered the obvious ones: water, bridges, hills and gullies. Most of us forget to think of passing through overhanging leaves or vines and riding through thick brush. However, if you don’t take the time to prepare your horse for walking under branches and vines or picking his way through bushes that touch his sides, you’re likely to get a rude awakening on the trail.
Asking a horse to walk through an object that he can’t see through and one that hangs above his eye level and moves and makes a noise as he passes through it, requires an immense amount of trust in you, as his leader. Think of the worst places a prey animal can find himself—trapped in the bottom of a gully, cornered in the back of a cave, surrounded by trees and brush in a dense forest. All of those scenarios share similar qualities—the horse is trapped in a tight, narrow space where he can’t easily spot an oncoming predator or run from the situation if a predator did appear.
As a prey animal, your horse is naturally most comfortable in a big open space where he can see for miles and miles. Having to ride along a narrow trail with branches hanging over his head, vines entangling themselves around his legs and bushes hugging his sides, is likely to cause him to use the reactive side of his brain. For all he knows, a lion could be perched in the shadows, just waiting to leap on him. By being an effective leader and preparing him for the experience at home, you can give your horse the guidance and trust he needs to use the thinking side of his brain and confidently negotiate these conditions on the trail.
To prepare horses at the ranch for those scenarios, we use a “cowboy curtain.” It’s an obstacle constructed of wooden poles that stands 20 feet high by 24 feet wide and has PVC vinyl strips hanging down from it. You can make your own cowboy curtain easily, and you can make it as big and as fancy as you wish. Just keep in mind that the smaller the curtain frame is and the narrower it is, the scarier it is to the horse because it’ll make him feel more trapped and claustrophobic. You can use just about any safe object to fashion the curtain, including tarps, pool noodles, carpet strips, etc.