The air is crisp and clear. your horse has been relaxed and polite. You’re admiring the scenery on your ride when suddenly his head whips up and he gives a diving lurch to the side. Grabbing desperately for reins and saddle horn, you may or may not come along for the ride as he reverses direction and bolts down the trail at a dead run.
What caused this particular spook? It may have been an animal in the underbrush, a waving scrap of plastic caught on a fence, or just a weirdly shaped rock. You may never know, and it doesn’t really matter. The vital point is that your horse got scared and ran.
While a fit, happy, healthy horse may have some exuberant moments, nervous horses don’t tease us or try to “get away with something” by spooking. They don’t pretend to be afraid. No matter what’s currently hiding in the bushes, what happened to your horse in the past that triggers his fear now, or how intense his reaction may be, his fear is genuine.
It’s called “spooking” for good reason. Other creatures have preyed on horses since the dawn of time, so it’s understandable that when something scares your horse, his primary survival instinct is to immediately vacate the premises as if hotly pursued by a fire-breathing, sharp-toothed fiend that eagerly popped the lock on Satan’s closet just to hunt up fresh horsemeat.
You have to deal with what happens as it happens, but when you get back to the barn-whether on foot or in the saddle-you have some work to do that ultimately will make both you and your nervous horse a lot safer in the future.
You can’t prevent your horse from noticing something scary. You can’t desensitize him to every scary situation he may encounter. You can’t force a horse not to be afraid.
What you can do is teach him how to control his fear.
Why Teach “Spook In Place”?
Just as schoolchildren learn fire drills so they won’t panic and will have an action plan in an emergency, you’ll train your horse to control his fear and respond in a safe manner if something scares him. You’ll teach him to “spook in place.”
You’ll practice this drill at different times and in different ways, so he has an action plan that he can implement in different scary situations. That way, both of you can stay safe.
You’re probably saying, “But wait! I don’t want my horse to spook at all! Why on Earth would I want to teach him to ‘spook in place’?”
The answer is simple: Although you can’t keep your horse from being frightened, you can teach him that even though he may be scared, everything will be okay as long as he doesn’t move his feet. When you’re riding and something startles him, this buys you time to either give him another cue to respond to or, if necessary, to get off him safely and deal with the situation from the ground.
Is He Ready?
“Spook in place” training is a valuable tool for most horses and can be taught to horses of any age. The earlier you start this training, the longer you get to ride your horse without falling off! It is especially good for teaching nervous horses to become safe partners.
Before you begin this training, your horse should have a solid base of round pen training. He should respond politely if you ask him to go forward, turn toward the left, and turn toward the right, and he should do both inside and outside turns dependably.
A round pen is extremely useful for this exercise. You should have at least an enclosed area for safe ground work. If you don’t have a round pen, connect a longe line to the bit for control in the beginning stages.
You’ll also need assorted items of varying degrees of “scariness,” similar to what you’d use for sacking out. (See “Sacking Out the Problem Horse,” September 2008 issue.) Be creative, but for sure collect a small washcloth or towel, a lariat, a milk jug with pebbles in it, and a tarp.
This Is Not Sacking Out!
While both sacking out and “spook in place” training involve working with distracting, possibly scary, objects, these two training techniques are not the same thing.
Sacking out-if done correctly-uses weird and noisy items to teach your horse to follow your cues no matter what the distraction. You keep him moving during training to teach him to become more responsive to the bridle when you’re in the saddle.
“Spook in place” training teaches your horse to control his fear when afraid. He should stand still until told to do something else.
Goals for Horse and Rider
Your goal with this exercise is to condition your horse to override his quite reasonable and natural response to fear-that is, to put major distance between himself and whatever he sees as a threat. Instead, you’ll teach him to stand still and face the object that frightens him.
It’ll take a pretty powerful motivator to accomplish this, and it’ll take time and patience. But the end result is well worth your time and effort. Aside from the substantial and immediate safety factor when you find yourself in a pinch, you don’t want your horse to be nervous all his life. It’s not good for him, and it’s not good for you. As he learns that no harm will come to him by facing the scary thing, he’ll become more relaxed and reliable in other training situations, as well.
Your next goal is to train yourself to deal with fear in a horse. If you get tense or nervous because you expect or anticipate that your horse will spook, it sends a very clear message to him that this situation or thing must be dangerous because you’re nervous.
On the other hand, if you’re confident because you’ve successfully worked through gradual increases in a horse’s fear level, you’ll be able to provide the calm leadership that all horses seek.
How Do We Teach This?
Although this sounds counterproductive, you’ll teach your horse to become calmer by raising his fear to the point where he’s “almost panicked” while, of course, never putting him in danger or causing any pain. Mentally, this is a very uncomfortable state for a horse. Replacing that discomfort with relaxation is your powerful motivator for him to change his behavior. After all, he doesn’t want to be afraid.
A horse is “almost panicked” when he’s almost to the point of running off, but he doesn’t. When he’s in that “almost panicked” state, he’ll be looking for relief. When he looks as though he’s about to leave at any moment, but leaves his feet in place and looks directly at you, remove the scary object and reward him by giving him that relief he wants. Then pet and praise him for being such a brave fellow.
Introduce mildly scary objects and/or actions at first. Then you can move to much scarier things as his self-control improves. Stop doing whatever generated the fear when your horse stands still and looks at you. Then reward him for his correct response, and let him relax. That relaxation time is crucial in this process.
Soon your horse will learn that any scary thing he encounters means he should stop and look at it so he’ll get relaxation and reward. That’s a pretty powerful motivator for the behavior you want.
As you go through this training exercise, always err on the side of cautious and slow progression. Any fool can scare a horse and make him run away. Your object is to scare him and not have him move.
Remember that-in this or any other training session-you must not get hurt, your horse must not get hurt, and your horse must end the session calmer than he was at the start.
You don’t have to complete the whole training process in one day. Any time your horse reacts correctly to something that initially startled him, you’ve had a very successful session and can stop. The next time you work with him, back up a bit from where you ended and start with something he handled easily the last time to boost his confidence and reinforce what he learned at the last session.
It’s helpful to begin this training after your horse has had a good workout so he’s relaxed and will find standing still a pleasant pastime.
Different horses have different levels of fear and respond to scary things with different levels of intensity. You definitely don’t want to teach your horse to be afraid of you, so your first step is to find out just how much it takes to startle him without his running off.
Understand there’s an element of trial and error to these first steps, so start very slowly. Look for a reaction, but it shouldn’t be enough to make your horse move his feet unless he does so to face you.
Doing something you consider to be mildly silly can help relax you, as well as help determine where your horse is on the there-are-lions-in-the-bushes-and-we-are-leaving-now scale. Jumping jacks or singing a loud song or even doing the hokey-pokey would all work.
Position your horse on one side of the round pen facing the middle, where you’ll stand still and quietly say, “Boo.” He should stand still for this (or if he moves, you really do have your work cut out for you!). Go up to him, and reward him with praise and gentle rubs.
Keeping him in the same position, return to the middle of the pen. This time, you want to get a mild reaction out of him. Say “Boo!” more loudly and possibly with a mild wave of your arms. If he reacts and looks startled, but stays in place, you’ve gotten the reaction you’re looking for, so go over and praise him again.
Understand that your horse doesn’t have any idea why you’re doing all this or what he’s done to earn the reward, so be patient.
Little by little, increase the intensity of your “Boo!” and your body language (waving arms, jumping in the air, and so on). Reward and praise your horse each time he stays still and just looks at you.
If your horse moves, you’ve applied too much pressure. It was your mistake, not his. Stop him and bring him back to exactly where he was before. Go back to the level that didn’t make him move his feet, and repeat it several times, rewarding him again. Repeat this exercise at various spots in the round pen.
Take a few steps closer to your horse, and repeat the same actions. When you’re closer, it’s as though you’re training a whole new cue, so again, take it in small increments. And don’t get so close to your horse that there’s ever any question of your safety. The closest distance you need to be to perform this exercise is about one horse’s length away.
If you find yourself continually stopping and starting your horse because he’s jumpy, work out on the rail for a little while, and practice your turns before taking him back and beginning again.
Don’t Nag Him!
It’s extremely important that you give your horse that “release” from any scary activity by rewarding him each time with a pet and giving him a chance to relax for a moment before you begin to work again.
After your horse has learned to stand quietly and just look at you while you yell “Boo!,” wave your arms and jump about, praise him, and quit doing it. You don’t want to aggravate him, so when he’s gotten the idea, it’s time to move on to the next level.
Mild to Wild
At this point, you can repeat the process with your collection of scary objects. Start with a washcloth. Go through the exact same procedure you did with the “Boo.” Begin by gently waving the washcloth. If your horse responds correctly, put it on the ground before you go up and praise him. Then go back and shake the washcloth. Reward him for his correct response. Eventually wave the cloth wildly over your head while performing ridiculous dances from your youth.
Following the pattern of mild to wild, progress to a towel, then perhaps a lariat, a plastic bag, a bottle of rocks, and a tarp as your horse learns that none of this is actually going to hurt him. You don’t want to actually touch him with any objects at this point, but the more situations you can expose him to, the better.
Keep in mind that every new object, every new action with that object, and every new distance is scary for your horse, so reward him every time he just looks and doesn’t move his feet.
You want your horse to learn to face whatever scares him, so now you can move a bit to the side, “kiss” to him, and encourage him to turn to look at you. Repeat these exercises at different places in the round pen so he learns that there’s not just one magic piece of real estate on which he’s to stand and look at scary things.
After your horse starts to understand the “spook in place” concept, change tactics slightly if he moves off during your activities. If he spooks, continue the exercise, but keep even with his nose as he circles the pen until he turns and looks at you or faces you.
Don’t scare your horse to the point where you lose control; just keep him a bit uncomfortable as long as he’s running. And keep your position at his nose rather than chasing him from behind. When he turns toward you or even looks at you with one eye, stop your action. When he stops and looks at you, reward him.
This training technique can become a fun game for both you and your horse. It’s also a game at which both of you win and which ultimately makes both of you a lot safer. Have fun!