Horse Won't Cross Railroad Tracks

Q. I have been enjoying a new horse for a couple of years. He is just great about everything, except crossing railroad tracks. It’s so frustrating. He just will not cross. I have tried getting off and leading him across, even bribing him with treats. Is there anything else I can do? The best and safest riding in my area is in the river bottoms—and across the tracks.


A. First, the good news is that your horse is great about everything else.  This suggests that he can easily learn to comply with novel or threatening situations and tasks. Otherwise, there would likely be some other aversions in his domestic life. It also suggests that he is genuinely fearful. If he is one of those characters who is just “testing you,” it would have shown up somewhere else by now.  As with helping an adult horse overcome aversion to anything, such as trailer loading, bridge crossing, stocks, clippers, blankets, injections, feet handling, rectal temping, etc., the training is usually more effective if done as an independent teaching project, where there is no big pressure to complete the task.  The focus can be on the training procedures and on the amount of progress made with each session, rather than on the fact that he failed to cross again, and in doing so ruined your nice ride. It’s also amazing how little time it takes to gain compliance when that one task is all you are doing.

So, what exactly would you do? Well, it sounds like overcoming this problem is pretty important to you and might be worth some initial time and effort for an almost guaranteed good outcome and continued compliance. I would get some railroad ties and rails, then set up a mock railroad bed somewhere familiar to him on his home farm. It’s good to place the obstacle where the horse must pass on his way to somewhere he likes to go, or at least is used to going.

For example, most horses like to go out to pasture, or at least are familiar with the procedure and comfortable with the safety of the pasture. If that is the case for your horse, you can set up the rails and ties on the ground at the gate into the pasture. If he won’t lead across for you, make a safely fenced chute or pen enclosure leading into the pasture gate. Just release him into the chute or pen, close it up behind him, and let him cross over the rails through the pasture gate in his own time. If he hasn’t crossed after a few hours, increase his attraction to the pasture. You can do that by putting water and grain just a few feet inside the pasture. Or if he has a favorite horse companion that is not afraid of railroad tracks, you can bring the other horse up near the gate or you can walk the other horse back and forth through the gate (over the mock railroad bed).  This will entice your horse to join the others and reassure your horse that “it’s no big deal.” You can also use familiar herdmates in this role as well. (Be sure to familiarize the companion horses to this novel gate railroad arrangement ahead of time so they don’t send any fear signals to your horse.)

Use your imagination with the goal of staying with the “carrot” and away from the “stick.” Some horses can learn while being pushed, but most just seem to conclude that the feared obstacle really is bad, and thus get worse with pressure. 

If you need help, get people who can be patient and see this as a fun training activity. If your horse is a stallion, you might get a good crew to help you or creatively arrange a safe way to use an estrus mare as the carrot.  Most stallions with good libido typically appear to forget about minor novel obstacles when a breeding opportunity is on the other side.
You can expect that the progress will be mostly steady, but you also can expect some periodic temporary regression (setbacks). Sometimes the regression comes right after a day of great progress, so if you’re not expecting it, you can be very disappointed. Just return to the last step at which he was compliant or relaxed and proceed from there. Setbacks are almost always temporary, and the day after a setback typically has excellent progress. Your job is to try to accept the setback as part of the progress. Human frustration and discouragement can rub off on your horse.  Your relaxation and quiet persistence toward the goal will enhance the positive progress.

If you just can’t set up a special pen or chute, ordinary round pen or lunge line training can be a useful venue for acclimating horses to “feared obstacles.”  You can have the obstacle set up near the outer perimeter of the line or pen. You can get the horse going inside, then gradually work out to the obstacle path.  With the round pen, it is also possible to use a companion horse.

If at first you make too little progress with a full mock-up of an obstacle or aversive situation, you can back up to presenting each of the various elements of the obstacle alone or in partial combinations for several days. In this case I can imagine that there are at least three elements to a railroad bed that might contribute to the novelty or aversion—the rails, the ties, and the deep crushed stone or gravel bed. So, you could start by just laying the railroad ties, then just the rails, then just the gravel bed, then the gravel and rails, then the entire mock-up.  Advance to the next element or combination after he walks comfortably over the obstacle for several replicates.

Another tip for getting a horse to cross ground obstacles such as grates, hoses, “steps,” or railroad tracks more readily is to cover them lightly with some familiar material, say some bedding or a rubber mat. I don’t think it’s as much to hide or disguise as to reassure with familiar material. Have him cross that several times, then gradually remove the familiar material. I have gone so far as to use feed to disguise the obstacle, moving the meal a few inches farther away each day so that the horse sooner or later has to step onto the obstacle to reach the feed.

Once he is going over the ties and rails on his own, then lead him back and forth across. Never pull at him. If he won’t follow you at first, get the grain bucket. Once he comfortably follows you, then try riding him back and forth. Once you are confident riding him back and forth, you can move the training to the real railroad. Remember, this is training, not an outing to the river bottom. Be prepared for some regression, and have all your training options at hand.  Take him there when he’s hungry. Be prepared to repeat the progression through whatever was useful back at home—the hand-leading, the bedding to dribble lightly near the rails, the lunge line, the companion to lead him across, the grain, or whatever you found most useful back at home.

Now, some people ask why go to all this time and effort.  Why not just use more forceful measures so that he learns “Who is the boss?” Well, in the end, the time, effort, and expense of patient, clever, positive reinforcement-based training to overcome genuine aversions are usually not that great.  The payoffs last for the life of the horse.  This approach usually gets the horse to negotiate obstacles appropriately, rather than jump over them.  This is no minor consideration, since someday he might see the obstacle before you do and leap through the air unexpectedly. Very importantly, since you have added no fear of pressure or punishment that might carry over to the next novel obstacle, the next time he encounters a novel or fear-provoking obstacle, he might just trust your judgment and take you or follow you across the first time.  Also, the same methods can be adapted for any problems with natural or acquired aversions, which after all represent the most common type of problem we have with our horses. It is a great feeling to believe you can just relax while peacefully guiding your horse through any of them.

Good luck!

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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