The Stables

Is It A Monster? Dealing With Spooky Horses

The only horse that is 100% bomb proof is one that is dead! Otherwise there is a spook in there somewhere. It is the horse’s nature – it is how equines have survived. A horse is a prey animal – so their survival instinct is to spook. Spook first then run and then stop once they have determined that the threat is negligible. Their ability to jerk all their muscular capacity into a nearly instantaneous response to a perceived threat is their stock in trade. A horse that doesn’t spook is just one who has been exposed to so many threats that he can determine which he needs to run from. I guarantee even the most bomb proof horse will spook at something. Police horses, trained to a huge degree to cope with all manner of things most horses would freak out at, will occasionally ‘lose it’.


We aren’t bomb-proof either. If someone sneaks up behind you wearing a Halloween mask and lets out a blood-curdling scream, you jump. That’s the same as a horse’s spook. Adrenalin rushes into your body, and your heart rate soars. What you don’t do is “lose it.” You don’t generally run screaming into the path of a speeding car. Your spook is likely to be one big jump. Then you realise that there is no reason for alarm.


So having determined that there is no way any horse can be 100% bomb-proof always the issue is how the horse handles and controls the spook and the rider’s reaction to his fear.


There are different types of spooking

A natural reaction:-A deer jumps up out of undergrowth, or a pheasant suddenly flies up under your horse’s feet. Your horse’s reaction is a quick jerk that runs through his frame and then is gone. There’s no sudden stop, no attempt to bolt or buck. He has shown you that he’s alive, that he’s a horse, and that his disposition, training, and intelligence have allowed him to quickly dismiss the danger as harmless.

Since horse’s have senses far superior to us they can detects real danger. He can smell water under the grass you want to canter along and knows that even though the footing looks fine that if he continues he could get bogged down and perhaps die. His spook takes the form of refusing to go where you ask to keep you both alive. This is a difficult spook to deal with as you are the boss, give into the horse and he might try the same reaction to not leave the yard. In this case your knowledge of your horse will help, but if he does try this you will need to quickly establish that you are the boss.


When your horse detects real danger, managing the spook is touchier. In the case of the bog, when your horse has alerted you to a danger you’ve missed, your decision seems easy enough-you don’t go there! But it’s not quite that simple. You’re the leader, after all, and you must make the final judgment as to whether the fear is justified.


Also, the extremely savvy horse, because he gets release when you back off in the face of his fear, may try the same spookiness in a similar situation when it’s not justified, such as when he’s dealing with a puddle instead of a bog. Sometimes though you just have to back off. Never allow the possibility of a training setback to push you into insisting on your way in the face of danger. You don’t settle an argument with your horse in the middle of a busy road. Get off and lead him if that’s the only safe course; you can resume training later under safer conditions. You often have to pay later for allowing your horse to take charge, but usually you can climb back on top of the pecking order readily enough.


Bad spooks are a lot worse to deal with. The horse jumps sideways or whips around and bolts or bucks. He may also refuse to go forwards, seeing something that really isn’t dangerous.


There are also the ‘Are you awake because I’m going to take the piss spooks,’ where the horse will spook for the sheer joy of it, or perhaps they’re trying to check out their riders. Funnily enough (not!) a horse will often spook on the way out for a ride and the not notice anything on the way back. Ride him in a dithery uncertain fashion and you are guaranteed to get plenty of spooks. There was a case recently of a horse who was usually a nightmare to ride, spooking at everything, until one day someone made the rider really angry and suddenly the horse was able to walk straight through a gypsy camp, complete with banging tin sheets and flapping bits of plastic – this was all due to the rider’s attitude.


If you’re an assertive rider, you simply point the horse forward, and all goes well. But if you’re a timid rider, your horse might figure out that you are a push over. Turn him around and head for home in the face of this ‘danger’ and you are on the road to creating a monster.


To nip this behaviour in the bud, drive him horse forward at the first inkling of a spook. He needs to understand that the command to move forward is just that, a command. You can’t let him take charge and hesitate at each new object simply because it gives him a chance to test you out.


You can decrease his tendency to spook, through desensitization and discipline.


Desensitization. First, take the perceived danger out of potentially fearful objects and situations so that your horse is convinced he has nothing to fear, expose your horse to a wide variety of stimuli. Play loud music, tie flapping plastic bags around the place, get a friend to run around in the sand arena (but stop when asked!) brush through trees when out riding anything to gently scare the horse. Push any desensitization routine through to completion, to gently expose your horse to the stimuli until he stops reacting to it, no matter how long it takes.


Another way to help your horse is to ride out with a patient friend on a steady horse. Make your horse lead, but if you are failing let the steady horse take over, but then go back and let your spooker lead the way past. Try to go back to the same place alone soon after and test the horse. He should go forwards past it, if not check that he is not just testing you.


With a horse that is prone to whip around a run use lateral flexion to achieve a one-rein stop in a panic situation. Bring your horse’s head around until his nose almost touches his shoulder; in this position, he’ll have difficulty running away or getting his head down for a buck. Release the rein pressure the instant he calms down.


You need also to look at your own ability. Are you tensing and making the horse afraid?


Once you are beside the scary object, relax both reins don’t make the horse feel as if he is being put in a dangerous situation. You can always use the one rein technique if he does run. Relax.. Don’t stare at the scary thing, breathe, look at your surrounds, hum or sing.


Again. Relax. Breathe. If you’re holding your breath, you’ll tense up and convince your horse there’s good reason to be afraid. Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, feel yourself sink into the saddle. If you are tense stands to reason your bottom will be too – and that is not a good way to be – tense muscles sit on top of the saddle. Relax! Breathe! Let your bottom sink into the saddle. You’ll be a lot safer if something goes wrong, relaxed muscles will move with the horse – tense ones will work against you.


Article via Lavender and White Publishing

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