Your Turn: Tarphobia

Caitrin O’Shea’s horse Zahra does NOT like tarps. Like, AT ALL. Caitrin recounts the story of how, with the help of a couple trainers, Zahrah overcame her irrational fear of  horse-eating blue plastic.

From Caitrin:

I don’t know what it is about ordinary tarps, but my 4 year old event prospect, Zahra, just can’t stand them.


Proof that Zahra will jump things
that are NOT tarps!
(c) ShortHorse Studios

She has been so accommodating and wonderful about her training. She figured out how to do dressage and now has even the full time dressage riders oohing and aah-ing at her floaty movement. She learned how to jump and now tackles the 3′ oxers like they’re child’s play. She’s happy to go out on trails by herself, and will jump our little cross country jumps while we’re out. She’s been over small ditches, up and down small banks, and into water. It seems like she’s on the path to be a great event horse!

And yet…

She has this overpowering irrational fear of tarps.

I like to do some ground work with all my horses, especially the young ones. Its a great way to establish a partnership, create boundaries, and introduce new concepts. So over the winter with my green-broke then-3 year old, I was doing groundwork once a week. Everything was going smoothly. We were establishing a connection, learning to move away from pressure, and trying new things. Until one day I thought it would be a good idea to bring out the big bad tarp. It’s so versatile– it can simulate water, a ditch, or be just a scary blue tarp!

Zahra completely wigged out. She adamantly refused to go over it, and I was completely flabbergasted. This is the horse that climbed up on the “elephant stand” on her first go, went on trail rides solo, and generally kept a good head on her shoulders– and yet now she was acting like… a three year old!! I tried to get after her, and it just made her frantic, and LESS inclined to listen.

Keep in mind that this was December/January when all this was starting, so I began to panic a little bit. Sure she can do the dressage and the show jumping, but if she won’t walk and/or jump over the tarp, how on earth will I get her into the water or over a ditch??


What I see

So we spent some more time working on the tarp. We slowed way down. I would let her watch other horses walk over it. We would stand in front of it until her blood pressure dropped. I could even pick up the tarp and put it ON her. But still, she would fight when I asked her to walk over it. Usually, if I had a cookie, she would oblige. Once she walked over it once, it became a non-issue and she would walk over it again and again. Until the next time.

As the weather got nicer and we started our introduction to cross country, the tarp work fell by the wayside. She had no problems with the REAL ditches and water I exposed her to, so the tarp fears faded.


What Zahra sees

Until April 1st, April Fool’s Day, and Zahra decided to make a fool out of me! I was at a Leslie Law clinic and he had an inflatable Liverpool (aka, glorified tarp) that he was using to simulate the ditch in a coffin exercise. Gulp. We did all the exercises in the lead up to the coffin beautifully, including a big ol’ corner jump! When our turn comes for the coffin, Leslie invited us to walk around the tarp a few times, and then just trot the Liverpool by itself. And… she didn’t. A guide rail was added. A lead horse came in to try to help us over it. Leslie got a lounge whip. Nothing. Well, lots of rearing and bolting, but certainly no jumping. Finally, he said (and I quote!) “Well, I’m not sure I can get her over it either, but I’ll give it a go.”

For about 10 minutes the rearing and bolting continued, but Leslie DID ultimately get her over it, and once she’d been forced over it twice, it was a non issue and she never looked at it cross eyed again. I got on, jumped through it, no problem.

About a week after that, on a Monday, I decided to revisit the issue. I took out my old faithful tarp and folded it down to a small rectangle, and then covered it in poles. At the other end of the ring, I also set up an unrelated trot pole exercise to complete the illusion. Over the trot poles we went, no problem. Over the pile of poles, no problem. Back and forth we did everything 5-6 times, never a foot wrong.

I was so happy! My plan was working! Now, to remove one pole from the pile and expose just a tiny bit of tarp… But as soon as we walked up to the poles for me to dismount, I felt Zahra tense up when she saw a little bit of blue tarp peeking out. No problem, I thought. She’s already jumped it many times, we’ll just go jump in once more before I move a pole, now that she knows the tarp is there. She trotted right up to it, and then bolted away at the last second. And so began again the bolting and the rearing. Eventually, I was able to get her to walk up calmly to the poles (but not over them), so I asked a friend to grab my rope halter, and  after a few minutes, got her over the poles.

That was the last straw. I sent my good friend Ruth, natural horseman extraordinaire, a message that night that said HELP! I may have just taught my horse to never trust me again!! We agreed on a game plan where she would do some ground work with her, and then at the end of the week, I’d take a lesson to learn how to fix the problem.


Ruth working her across the tarp.
Photo (c) ShortHorse Studios









After the first day, I got a message from Ruth saying “She started out REALLY upset. After an hour she would follow me over stuff.” I found out later that “really upset” meant she walked into the arena, saw all the tarp stuff set up, and took off running around the arena trying to escape.

Throughout the rest of the week, Ruth worked with her a little bit during the day, and I would ride her a little bit after work. On Friday we met up for our lesson. She had several tarp obstacles set up, all of them intending to be jumped over. Since I really don’t need her to be able to actually walk over a tarp, we zeroed in on making her comfortable with jumping the tarps, and who cares if she ever walks across one?? So, we started with her following me over a pole wrapped in a tarp. No problem. Then I walked across a piece of plywood with a tarp underneath. No problem. Next was a folded up tarp with barrels on either side, and a bit of wood across the middle of the tarp. She opted to jump the barrel the first time (“That’s ok! She’s following you into pressure”) but then the second time hopped across the tarp. I was so impressed!


Following me across the pole wrapped in a tarp.
Photo (c) ShortHorse Studios

The next step was for her to go over these obstacles without me. So I walked next to her, encouraging her forward and out, on a 10m circle. She willingly walked over the pole, then the plywood, but at the tarp and barrels, she stopped. I calmly walked in front of her, hopped over the tarp, and she came too.

As soon as Zahra jumped over that tarp by herself, she got a big reward of treats, and she was done with work for the day!

That was Friday. Sunday, at a Ralph Hill clinic, we had a fake ditch (read: tarp) for our indoor cross country school. I explained the problem to him, and we took baby steps. First standing quietly next to it, then jumping rails on the ground next to it, then, towards the end of the lesson after she had jumped a few other things well, he said, “OK, now canter your liverpool!” I gritted my teeth, squared my shoulder, and put my leg on in a death grip. Zahra surged forward, and we jumped it!!

We’re still on the road to recovery, but I think I see a light at the end of the tunnel!!

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