Kelley, Liverpool jumps can be scary for horses as the visual stimulus of the water is often a surprise in their visual field. I suggest that you may want to work on some desensitization to Liverpool jumps as well as other odd stimuli that he may encounter. The target is a perfect tool for this.
Training Target: One of the most powerful behaviors you can teach your horse is to touch his nose to a target item (this can be a small orange traffic cone, a plastic milk jug or even a stick with a ball on the end). Yes— this simple behavior might prove the most powerful even for those of you jumping five-foot fences or on fourth-level dressage. Once your horse is trained to touch his nose to the target, you can use it to train behaviors like walking nicely into a trailer, eliminating fear of water elements and treating wounds. It can truly be a life-saver.
Step 1: Teach your horse that a particular sound means food is about to be delivered to his mouth. To teach the association, choose a sound, I like to whistle (tweet). You will first tweet, then present the treat. Repeat several times. Be sure the treat is hidden until the sound occurs, then immediately present the treat. After several pairings, you will likely see your horse look toward the food delivery hand as soon as you tweet. You now have a powerful tool—a way to say to your horse, “Yes, that is the behavior that I want”—and you are now ready to train!
Step 2: It is helpful to start training while your horse is either in his stall or on a tie in a quiet area. Be sure distractions are minimal. Present your horse with his target item and be sure to place it just inches from his nose. Horses explore with their noses, he should naturally reach forward to touch the jug. As soon as he reaches, immediately tweet and treat.
Step 3: Put the target item behind your back, then present it again just as in Step 2. Repeat several times.
Step 4: Depending how enthusiastic your horse is, Step 4 may start on your first session or your second. If you start this on your second session, be sure to start at Step 3 first just to be sure the behavior was remembered For this step you will once again place the jug behind your back. We are going to pair a verbal cue with the behavior. As you present the target, give the cue “target.” This time when you present the target, you will present it about one foot from his nose. When he touches it, tweet and treat—and repeat! Keep the jug at waist level or a bit below. This will help with the transition to Step 5. From this point forward, always cue with the word “target.”
Step 5: Now we are going to start to teach him that you and the target are not attached. Place the target on the ground in between you and your horse as you cue with the word “target” and wait. Most horses will quickly touch the target, though some need to take a bit of time to “noodle it through.” It is a blast to watch horses figure it out. Some will look toward you, and may even touch their noses to you, but just stand and wait. As soon as that nose gets close to the target—tweet and treat—and repeat!
Now you are ready to use that target to have him approach any stimulus. Tack him up, and take him to the ring and target him near the Liverpool. Do not force him. If he does not approach the target when it is right next to the Liverpool, pull it back a bit. Next, target him around and even into the Liverpool structure (rails super low, of course). Then hop on his back and have him jump it. Now, back off and target again. Get the picture? Each day you can introduce a new stimulus to target him around. He will soon be confident around most structures.
- Dr. Weiss