Training the Trail Bridge
Training the Trail Bridge
It’s a step of faith.
Most of the obstacles featured in this "Overlooked Obstacles" series on how to safely navigate a trail course are safely on the ground, but a bridge asks a horse to step up and traverse a man-made object.
Introducing the Bridge
Like all the other obstacles, though, the bridge is based on a trusting relationship between horse and rider, says AQHA Professional Horsewoman Karen Graham of Cave Creek, Arizona, who will have ridden her horses near a bridge in her arena for a long time before she ever asks a horse to take the first step up.
“When I teach one to go over the bridge, I always keep forward motion,” Karen says. “I don’t make them stop on top of it, I don’t stop and let them sit on it. I don’t do anything that makes them think that there’s anything to think about.”
If she thinks a horse might be hesitant, she rides across the bridge the short way instead of the long way.
“It’s two feet up, two feet off, and sometimes they hop over it behind,” she says. “I never make a big deal of it.”
Karen keeps the training on the bridge casual, putting dirt on top of the bridge or hay or sometimes a treat.
“If they’re really scared of the bridge, put a treat on it, and they’ll learn to like the bridge,” she says. “Once they get to where the bridge doesn’t scare them, you just walk across it.”
Bridges can only be traversed at a walk in AQHA competition, and AQHA Professional Horsewoman Ashley Dunbar-Clock of Pilot Point, Texas, likes to think of a bridge as part of a walk obstacle.
“My approach to it is I want to land a little at the base of the bridge, just like I would a pole if they were walking over poles,” Ashley says. “And then, depending on the length of the bridge, I count three or four steps. When I land on the other side of the bridge, if I have the right cadence and the current number of steps, they’re going to step freely off the bridge and continue in their walkovers.”
Trust is Key
Like Karen, Ashley waits until she has a good relationship with a horse before introducing the bridge.
“I walk up to it and let them sniff it and look at it,” she says. “Some just trust me, knowing I’m not going to put them in a bad situation, and they just walk over it. I try to keep their cadence consistent, so that when they go to step down, it’s not a startle, and I just make sure their head is down and looking, so they’re paying attention to what’s coming – that we’re stepping down off the bridge.”
If a horse is hesitant about trying the bridge, Ashley asks a fellow trainer to ride a trained horse across the bridge in front of her. The young horse will usually follow the trained horse perfectly across the bridge.
“If I really have a stubborn one, I’ll go old school and get off and lead it and stand there and get one foot on,” she says. “I’ve only had to do that a handful of times, but that’s my last resort – to stand there and let the horse know I’m in front of it and encourage the horse to walk over it with me.”
The keys, she and Karen both say, are patience and building the horse’s confidence.
“I think training a horse is like anything else: It’s psychology,” Karen says. “You have to know the horse, know its personality, know what the horse will and won’t take, and the more trust you gain with a horse, the more it can do for you.”
Karen and Ashley never punish a horse for being afraid.
“Punishment is not going to get you going forward,” Ashley says. “That’s only going to send you backward, because then the horse thinks there’s something to be afraid of.”
Maintain Good Body Position
A rider can help his horse when it’s on the bridge by staying steady in the middle of the saddle, she says. Resist the temptation to lean and look down over the horse’s shoulder. Instead, look forward through your horse’s ears.
“The big thing when you’re on the bridge is to sit still,” Ashley says. “If you go side to side in your seat, you’re throwing your horse’s weight off a little and he can get unbalanced. I always tell myself it’s forward and steady.”
Perfecting the Trail Bridge Obstacle
An ideal bridge crossing is steady and cadenced, says trail course designer Tim Kimura of Oak Point, Texas, who designs the patterns for the AQHA world championship shows.
“There’s an elegance to a bridge, from how the horse puts its legs on top of the bridge to the rhythm,” Tim says. “Some horses clobber and hit it. A lot of horses, you’ll see them shuffle their feet a little bit because they like to lead with one leg going up the bridge and the same leg going down the bridge.”
A pleasing bridge crossing should be a consistent walking motion.
Build Your Own Trail Bridge
Exhibitors who want to build their own bridges to practice at home should think about color and sturdiness, Tim says. Because horses see in shades of gray, a black bridge looks like a big hole in the ground. Odd shapes painted on top of bridges also look like holes.
The first board on a bridge on each end of a bridge should be durable, Tim says, because that’s the one that gets chipped the most, both from horses’ feet and from tractor drags.
Bridges can be any length, but walk steps are in 2-foot increments, so bridges should be also. A bridge that is 4 feet wide and 6 feet long is standard.
“The simplest way to build a bridge is to get three 4x4 boards and get them cut,” Tim says, “then built it with a 1-inch plywood top.”
Be sure to leave a place to pick up the bridge and move it, either by leaving the front and back ends of the bridge uncovered, by adding handles on the sides or by drilling holes in the sides large enough for a hand to slide into.
Riders on a trail might reasonably expect their horses to cross bridges, so AQHA Rule SHW467.4 includes a bridge as an optional obstacle in trail courses with a suggested width of at least 36 inches and a length of at least 6 feet.
Complete trail rules are online at www.aqha.com/rulebook.