Crossing Bridges

Q. My horse Dakota is not wanting to cross a wood bridge. I walked him across plywood for about three days and had no trouble. Then I rode back to the bridge, and he wouldn't have anything to do with it. Dakota goes crazy, starts sweating, jumps up and down, and starts backing up. I used my spurs and reins a little, but he still wouldn't cross. This is about the only thing he won't do. The bridge is made of old, dark wood, it rises a little, and there are high weeds around the bridge. Also, there is gravel leading up to the bridge. I know there are a lot of elements that could be the problem.

Jerry, via e-mail

A. The difficulties in getting your horse to cross this particular wooden bridge appear to represent sincere fear. Sweating, jumping up and down, and backing up are clearly signs of honest fear. So your general tact of trying to acclimate or desensitize the animal to what you imagine are the fear-eliciting elements of the situation are correct. And you are correct that it is often difficult to determine which of the elements of a particular situation are contributing to the fear response.

Once a horse gets really frightened in a particular situation, any of the elements of the situation--even things that they re-ally weren't or even still aren't afraid of in other situations--together can appear to set off the fear reaction as a stimulus set. I am not sure of how important it is to have your horse cross this particular bridge. If is not really important, and since this is the only difficult situation for him at the moment, I would just walk away from it and continue other fun and general confidence-building teamwork. This can include obstacle courses at home, varying the familiar with novel, the easy with challenging. The goal is to gradually introduce some obstacles you might expect to provoke very mild and momentary wariness, so you can coach him through and reward him. Just repeat each one until he establishes trust and you get the impression he will follow you anywhere. If you sense fear in the horse, just relax and wait and reassure, with no pressure to move forward until the horse is ready. Many people find obstacle course exercises a fun equine activity. They will help establish a pattern of trust that usually lasts a lifetime, especially for you and Dakota, but also for Dakota with people in general. In the future when new and more fearful situations are encountered on the trail, the horse's first reaction will likely take the lead from you and go on forward, rather than go crazy.

For sure you should avoid repeatedly approaching that bridge and adding pressure if the fear does not diminish. This will only reinforce the fear and might set the animal up for a shorter fuse for fear in other situations. Establishing a pattern of fear leading to pressure or punishment from you can behaviorally and physiologically condition the animal to explode. This is one way true phobia is created. In contrast, a good obstacle course training experience, in which mild fear-eliciting stimuli are consistently paired with positive and patient reassurance and reward for resolution of the fear, will physiologically condition the animal's neuroendocrine system to respond in the direction of resolution rather than acceleration.

If you feel the need to keep working on getting Dakota to cross this particular bridge, just like with horses having difficulties understanding loading into a trailer, there are a number of things you can try. The secret in my experience is a calm, relaxed manner, as if this is a fun activity in itself rather than a chore, and that you really have all day for as many occasions as necessary to get this done.

Use all positive and no negative prompts or corrections. I assume you have tried this already, but he might do better with you leading him rather than riding him. I always have some highly palatable grain with me, both as an enticement and to distract the horse when needed, but also as an immediate reward for positive response increments or success. Also, it can often be a big help to cover the transition from the gravel roadway onto the bridge using a long rubber mat or mats, shavings, or straw, producing a continuous substrate. A rubber mat has the added feature of dampening the hollow sound created by stepping on a bridge that can be off-putting to the horse. Whatever you use, be sure to accustom Dakota to walking over it in his daily routine beforehand.

Sometimes blinkers help when you are leading a horse in a fear situation. If they aren't going to help, or if they add to the fear, you will know soon and can give up that tool right away before adding too much fear to the situation. I like half-cup racing blinkers that are on a fabric hood that attaches and detaches easily with Velcro. Again, be sure to get the horse used to the blinkers and Velcro in advance in other leading situations, and get comfortable with using them.

Dakota, like most horses, might do better at overcoming this fear if schooled over the bridge (and even through the obstacle games) with a group of horses. Although the social stimulation is often a very strong positive influence, when helping a horse overcome fear, I am always torn between working alone or involving other horses, which need other people. It is not always easy to find enough friends with the same patience and positive approach. Sooner or later someone can't help but apply pressure, which almost always sets things back. Also, the person with the problem horse is often pressured internally by how long it takes when imposing on friends.

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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