Most horses are afraid to cross bridges…initially. Horses are naturally wary about anything that might trap their feet. A prey animal in nature doesn’t get a second chance to make a judgment error.
You don’t necessarily need a bridge to prepare for a bridge on the trail. Practice crossing lots of different things. Plywood, a tarp, a stall mat, a mud puddle. Carefully expose your horse to scarier things than you’ll encounter on the trail. My motto is ‘Overprepare, and then go with the flow!’ Just make sure your obstacles aren’t trappy. Particle board, for example, will break. If your horse’s legs get tangled, you’ll withdraw any training deposits you’ve invested.
Begin gradually, practicing crossing the width of an obstacle before its length. If your horse is quite fearful, start the process unmounted. You may even wish to sprinkle a food reward on each new crossing challenge. A powerful motivator, food links something scary with something pleasant.
Be patient if your horse doesn’t want to go near the obstacle. Research is indicating it takes at least 10 seconds for horses to go from alarmed to an investigative state.
Reward the focus. Your horse will need to stretch and lower her neck to investigate the bridge with binocular vision. When she does so, soften your aids. Pressing a tense horse forward is a losing game. Advance another few steps only when your horse is relaxed. Look for soft ears.
Keep straight. Draw imaginary lines in the dirt to form a chute several metres before the bridge. Correct the first step outside the chute with lateral pressure from your leg. Resist the urge to circle away and re-approach. Doing so only rewards your horse’s side door exit attempt.
Once on the bridge, your horse may try to rush or leap to the other side to get the experience over with. When threatened, a horse flees to a safe distance and checks things out from there. In her mind, she scooted to safety before that bridge grabbed her legs.
Proceed slowly, even pausing on top of the bridge. Be mindful that restricting reins will make her feel claustrophobic and inclined to flee the stressful situation.
Once arriving on the other side, don’t scurry away. Simply turn her back into the obstacle and start again. By increasing distance between herself and the object, your horse discovers that fleeing the scene works! ‘Slow the legs, slow the thinking’ is one of my favourite lines in coaching.