June 18 dawned sunny and hot at Plum Creek Farm in Littlestown, PA for the Carrollton Hounds Spook Proofing Clinic. There were balloons on poles of the parallel jump fences that were set up to be a walk-through obstacle, a giant Nemo the fish balloon on the top rail of the fence by the chicken pen and a bubble machine floating large bubbles into the air at a good rate while waiting for the clinic participants to arrive at the final field of obstacles.
If this does not sound like the perfect environment for a horse, Kitty Hoffman, the owner of Plum Creek Meadows explained that this was to be an opportunity to improve the trust issues that a rider and horse have between them. In the wild a horse is wired to escape from the things that frighten it.
When the horse is trained and used in riding, this natural wiring to flight is still running under that training. The reason that this natural instinct to flight can be overcome is that a rider can build trust.
The way to build this trust is to face the frightening things in an intelligent way and prove to the horse that it is safe with you if it follows your lead. You will not change the horse’s natural instincts but you will redirect the need for leadership to you.
To do this safely Mrs. Hoffman worked out a plan to place things that are known to be startling to a horse in different enclosed pastures and the riders chose which they would like to work their horses near. They had a diverse course of obstacles that was available to them for the entire time between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Some of these ‘frightening’ obstacles included large plastic barrels to be wound through and various other objects also on barrels in farther parts of the field; stones that rattled in a plastic jug and even the ‘terrifying’ umbrella was available for the horses to experience.
Another field housed the balloon obstacle and a selection of pylons with flags on poles set up in them. One horse hugely enjoyed himself pushing around a 4-foot ball in the far end of the field. Nemo was floating from the top fence rail in this field. There were hens in a pen and the bubble machine attracted intense attention from several horses.
The obstacle that concerned most of the horses was a very small, but high decibel donkey in a pen in the corner of the field. He wanted to inaugurate meetings with all of the horses, many of which had no interest in meeting him. For such a small donkey he turned out to be a redoubtable obstacle indeed.
In a field near the road into the farm were several cows, which presented a serious obstacle to horses that had not been exposed to cattle.
A diverse group of horses was present. The half drafts were there—half drafts are very popular in the hunt fields in Maryland for their naturally quiet personalities—as are the Quarter Horses that are the trail rider’s favorite. There was one pinto pony that had decided opinions about several of the obstacles and flatly refused to consider a friendship on any terms with the donkey.
There were also several OTTB’s—Off Track Thoroughbreds—that had moved from a career on the racetracks into the life of potential sport horses. The OTTB contingent was noticeable by its composure at most of the obstacles. Life at the racetracks exposes the TB to many different experiences so neophyte TB owners are often surprised at how willing the horses are to consider different situations in their new lives.
The owners enjoyed the facilities offered and the laid back feeling of the event and were hoping for another clinic to be held either in the fall or at least in the spring of next year.