16 Apr How to Safely Horseback Ride with Dogs
Horses and dogs make great companions, and what better way to enjoy both of their company than taking a nice long ride on a beautiful day? While the idea certainly sounds great, there is a certain amount of preparation needed in order to safely ride with your canine friends around.
So how can you safely go horseback riding with your dog? Both your dog and your horse need to be comfortable in each other’s presence, be able to obey simple commands, and be in good physical condition. You should also be able to maintain control of them both in unpredictable environments.
While these are the general guidelines for making sure that a ride with your canine friend around goes well, there are a few more important details that you should make certain you’re aware of before setting off on your first ride together.
Your dog and horse might be comfortable with one another when they are merely standing or walking near one another, but you will want to make sure that they have experienced a wide range of activity from one another before you take them on the trail with you.
How can you safely get them this exposure to one another? As with most training methods, the best approach is a gradual one.
STEP 1: Rehearse Basic Commands
Determining whether or not your dog has a firm understanding of basic commands will be a deciding factor as to whether or not they are ready for all the freedom of an open trail ride with you and your horse.
Go over the commands that you hopefully taught them as a puppy. Things like, “come,” “sit,” and “stay” should be sufficient as you are preparing them for their first trail ride. Be certain that they respond to these cues not only when you’re right beside them, but also when they are a distance away.
Once you are further into the process, you will need these commands to ensure that your dog stays a safe distance away while you mount, and avoids coming across the horse’s path while you’re riding. If you find that your dog doesn’t respond well to any of these commands, take a few weeks or months to go over them before moving onto the next step.
The same principle applies to your horse. Your horse should be very responsive to your commands to start and stop, even when there are a lot of distractions around. A great way to achieve this is to perform “bomb proof” training, or desensitization training so that your horse is adjusted to uncomfortable or surprising situations. If you can maintain control of them during this training, then they should be ready to meet your dog. You can find my complete guide for bomb-proofing your horse here.
STEP 2: Make the Introduction
Begin by bringing your dog around a horse that is safely tied off or is in its stall. At this stage, it is very important that you reward any calm behavior that your canine friend demonstrates. If they are overly excited or exhibit fear of the horse, move further away from the horse until they become calm, and then slowly make your way towards the horse while reinforcing your dog’s good behavior.
If your horse is displaying nervous behavior, continually refocus their attention upon you with simple commands. Do this until both of your animals can be close to one another without either demonstrating unusual behavior.
STEP 3: Develop the Relationship
Once you feel like you have good control over both of your animals, it might be tempting to immediately attempt a ride, but this isn’t recommended.
Continue to develop the relationship your animals have with one another by frequently bringing your dog with you to your stable while you’re performing chores or doing groundwork with your horse. This is a great opportunity for your animals to develop trust for one another, and for you to practice your commands with each of them while they are around one another.
It’s vital that your horse develops an awareness of your dog so that they can be on the lookout for them. Regardless of the size of your dog, horses are very large in comparison. A kick or accidental step could be detrimental to your dog.
Some riders attach small bells to their dogs while they’re around their horses to decrease the likelihood of an accident. While this isn’t absolutely necessary, you might consider it if you have a particularly small dog.
There are no hard and fast rules for how long it will take for your animals to become thoroughly comfortable around one another, so you will need to operate with discretion. Once you feel like they are comfortable with each other while still responding well to your commands, you can move onto the next step.
If your horse isn’t responding well to basic commands by this point, you should continue working on groundwork with them. Here are my 5 essential groundwork exercises to get you started.
STEP 4: Take Practice Walks
By this point, your animals should be ready to begin practice walks. The ideal place to do this is in a riding arena where there are few distractions. In addition, the familiarity of the riding arena will help set your horse at ease.
Begin by guiding your horse in a slow walk with a lead rope, having your dog follow along to the side. At this phase of training, it is recommended that you have someone else with you to help you maintain control of your dog while you focus on your horse.
Remember to praise and reward both of your animals when they remain calm. Once they are used to each other’s movement, you will want to gradually increase your pace, making sure that both animals remain thoroughly calm as you progress. If your dog starts to move to close or too far away, this is a good point to practice using your commands to keep them in a safe position.
Once you feel like they are both comfortable, you can repeat the same steps, except this time mounted. Again, it is a good idea to have someone on the ground that can offer additional support and can step in to help with your dog if need be.
If you’ve been in the riding arena up to this point, you can begin taking slow guided walks outside of the arena. Start by leading your horse with a lead rope before attempting a mounted ride together.
STEP 5: Take Your First Ride Together
By this point, you should have a good amount of confidence that both of your animals are comfortable with each other inside and outside the riding arena, and respond well to your basic commands. You’re now ready to take your first ride together.
Remember to take things slow and to have support on hand if you’re able to. However, try to depend on your support as little as possible. One of the challenges of riding with your dog around is focusing on both your horse and your dog at the same time, but this is a skill that you should master over time.
Do your best to remain as calm as possible so that your horse doesn’t pick up on your emotions. After several walks at a slower pace, you can slowly start increasing your pace. If you find that your horse or dog aren’t following their training, continue practicing with them both in the riding arena until they do.
Do I Need a Particular Breed of Dog?
While it’s certainly true that some breeds of dogs are better than others at being around large animals, almost all breeds of dogs can safely be trained to be around horses. The most important thing is that your dog has a calm and levelheaded demeanor.
Certain breeds of dogs have a tendency to nip at horses unless they are trained otherwise. Some of these breeds include German shepherds, English shepherds, and border collies. But don’t let this stop you. These breeds of dogs have a history of working with large animals, so once trained they can make great riding companions.
Can I Use a Leash for My Dog While Horseback Riding?
If you are uncertain about your dog’s behavior while riding, it might be tempting to use a dog leash. However, we do not recommend using a leash for your dog while horseback riding.
Doing so could result in you being pulled off your horse, or your dog becoming trapped by an obstacle while your horse is still attempting to move forward. Because of this, it’s recommended that you ride in a place that you know is safe for your dog to be off-leash. Check out my article on horse safety for beginners for more areas of safety you should take into consideration.
Will My Dog Be Able to Keep Up With My Horse?
This can depend on how old your dog is, their breed, and the pace that you plan to keep while riding. As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to begin with shorter practice rides with your dog to see how they keep up before moving onto extended rides.
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