Meet the Monsters

If you remain calm and consistent, and train your horse to respond without fail to basic cues, encounters with unusual critters needn't send your partner into a panic.

You are riding ol’ marmot down a familiar road and notice that the “For Sale” sign is gone from a nearby front pasture. You are wondering what kind of horses the new folks have, when suddenly four huge, shaggy, ungainly creatures come galumphing toward you in a bizarre sort of gallop. Your horse freezes in horror, eyes bulging, his body crouching slightly as he prepares for a rapid retreat.

Evidently the new neighbors raise llamas.

Or maybe you’ve lined up in the park for the start of a competitive trail ride. Your horse has successfully trained and competed over long distances, and seems well prepared for anything the rugged terrain might afford. But just then, the circus setting up across the road starts unloading the elephants.

Or maybe an 18-wheeler suddenly barrels down your normally quiet road, spitting gravel as it comes toward you and your alert, sensitive mare. As the truck roars by, the driver leans out the window and yells, “Pretty horse!” then lets loose with a blast from his air horn.

If you do much of anything on horseback, chances are good that you and your horse are going to encounter things that are unexpectedly exciting. It could be anything-a baby stroller being pushed around a corner at the fairgrounds, a longhorn steer loitering in the shade of a nearby haystack, a pheasant bursting from a hedge-or just a scary boulder on the trail.

Prepping for Final Exams

Consider controlled encounters with other animals as challenging pop quizzes.

  • Keep your horse moving forward and his focus on you.
  • Ride far enough away from the distraction to gain control.
  • Use familiar exercises to improve your horse’s responses to essential cues.
  • Remain calm and consistent so your horse learns to trust your response to his fear.
  • Move closer to the fearsome creature when your horse is calm and cooperative.

Such situations can produce pretty intense fear responses and, unfortunately, riders tend to be unfairly judgmental of their horses.

We are told that horses are cowards, and we believe it. If a horse flatly refuses to continue on the trail past a pen with noisy peacocks in it, we thump on his ribs, think he is playing the same sort of mental game that people play on each other; or that he is being stubborn, pretending to be stupid, or being purposely annoying.

But horses don’t do that. When a horse is afraid, he’s afraid. Period.

The horse is actually one of the least stubborn, most courageous animals on earth. When a rider asks a horse to walk quietly into or next to a bizarre object that, to the horse, is a terrifying monster, it’s like someone asking you to jump off a 100-foot cliff with bungee cords on your ankles-even though you’re afraid of heights. If you think about it rationally, how do you know for sure that the person who measured the bungee cords did it accurately?

Five minutes of persuasion is probably not going to make you want to jump off that cliff. But what if, after five minutes, the bungee jump operator loses patience and begins to kick you, call you names, and swat you with a whip? Is that likely going to make you trust the person who is telling you that you have no reason to be afraid-while you stare intently over the edge of the cliff at a bunch of rocks far below? Sure, the guy telling you to jump is not afraid, but he’s not going to be the one to go “splat” if he miscalculated the length of those bungees.

Become Trustworthy
When we ask a horse to do something he’s afraid of, he is making what he considers to be a similar life-and-death decision. Five minutes of persuasion isn’t much, but that’s about how long most people manage to keep their patience when they ask their horses to face and conquer a scary obstacle.

However, panic, frustration, anger, or indecision-all of which usually accompany the lack of an action plan-are not going to help anyone in a scary situation. Both horse and rider will be considerably safer if each one knows ahead of time exactly what is expected of him. The rider must show calm leadership, and the horse must follow a simple, pre-determined plan without dwelling on distractions.

Such responses require training for both members of the team. There are no magic tricks that will get your horse to walk quietly past an elephant. It takes time, training, more time, more training-and a level-headed rider. But you can get there.

If you know about the new llamas, the circus elephants, or the 18-wheeler with the air horn ahead of time, it is possible that you can arrange for a meeting where you can introduce your horse to them in a controlled manner. (See “Dirt Bike Encounter,” August 2004, or “Confidence Builders for Fraidy Cat Trail Horses,” May 2007.) There is, however, absolutely no way you can desensitize your horse to every possible “monster” that you may encounter-and very few of those gremlins are going to give you advance notice, allowing you to pencil in a training appointment on your calendar.

Instead, you and your horse have to establish a working pattern of how you’re going to approach a scary object well before an elephant, llama, or ostrich shows up. Part of your basic training must include how you are going to treat your horse-and how your horse is going to respond to you-if he becomes afraid. The most important part of that response should be that your horse learns that when he’s afraid of something, he doesn’t have to be afraid of you as well.

The tarp in the arena, the truck coming down the road, or the longhorn next to a haystack are tests. Such tests show us whether we have taught a particular cue well enough for the horse to respond to that cue rather than to the distraction-however major or minor it may be.

It may not seem to us that stepping over a blue tarp is the same as approaching one step closer to a llama, but the cue is the same. If the horse is solidly conditioned to respond to that cue, then stepping forward is what he will do.

It is decidedly not a good idea just to trust that your horse is going to behave in a manner that you consider reasonable and safe when something scary comes along. This sort of trust is really a wish, a hope, and a prayer that he will somehow understand that it is his responsibility to trust you that you’re not going to let whatever it is hurt him.

Not only is it not smart to shift that burden of responsibility to the horse, it isn’t fair-especially if at any time anyone has ever become frustrated and angry with the horse for being afraid. Such experiences only teach the horse that his rider might get mad at him when he sees something spooky.

We may not have a llama or an elephant handy with which to “sack out” our horse, but when we approach that tarp (or anything new) for the first time, and every time after, we, in effect, train the horse for that first llama encounter. We are teaching him how to react when anything new and strange comes up.

The fact is that horses do learn to trust us. They trust us to behave in the ways we have behaved before. If we come up to a creek and our horses get fearful, and we get impatient and start whacking them and spurring them forward, they’re going to learn that every time they disagree with us, we’re going to get mad and start fighting with them. When our horses approach the next thing that they’re afraid of, they’re going to expect to be whacked and spurred. So now they’re afraid of two things: the new, scary object and us.

Preparing for Distraction
As people, we look at the distraction-the elephant, the llama, the tarp-as an obstacle to overcome. The actual monster, however, is not the most important factor in our safety. To prepare for the abnormal, we have to realize that the only things we have to work with are the basic cues: turn left, turn right, go forward, back up, etc. If those cues are solidly ingrained in our horses, then we will be safe.

During training, when our horses confront a strange object, it’s like a pop quiz at school. And despite what most students think, pop quizzes are not actually intended as classroom torture. These unexpected tests let the teacher know if the students have really understood the lessons. The quiz also tells students that this material is important and might show up on a final exam, so they’d better pay attention.

In this case, we are the teachers, our horses are the students, and the pop quiz lets us know if our horses really understand our cues. The final exam is the appearance of a monster under unexpected circumstances.

We have regular quizzes for our horses when we set up training situations where we control the environment, like putting cones out in the arena. Can we get the horse to turn right where we want him to turn right? Will he speed up exactly where we want him to speed up? Or, if we set out a tarp, will he go across it?

Then we have surprise quizzes. These can be odd things at horse shows, like the sudden appearance of a baby stroller, or the rock on the trail our horse is afraid of. We might see these as “little monsters” that pose no inherent danger. We didn’t plan the encounter, but they can give us a pretty good indication of whether or not our horses are really solid on their cues and are truly listening to us.

Let’s say we come to a horse show a day early to practice our serpentines in the arena. All of a sudden, our horse spies the roping chutes and locks his brakes, staring and snorting at the gates.

Most people will check to see what is spooking the horse. They’ll try to keep the horse standing still, looking at the object. They’ll pet the horse and try to get him to go up to whatever it is he’s frightened of. They’ll squeeze or kick, trying to get him to go forward, perhaps even asking him to touch the scary object with his nose. Generally, the horse won’t. In many cases, the horse will actually back up.

When a rider gives a horse a cue to go forward and the horse backs up instead, the rider is “undoing” the cue. He’s teaching the horse that the go-forward cue now means it’s okay to back up.

When a situation progresses to the point that the horse is raising his head, stiffening his neck, pulling on the bridle, ignoring the cue to bring his head down, and is shying or shimmying to the left and right, the rider is burning up his control cues. He’s teaching the horse that the cues don’t really matter as long as the horse finds something else to look at.

And all the time, the rider is either petting and reassuring the horse, or getting after him for ignoring the cues.

If you follow the “stop, look, and pet” route, you teach your horse that if he stops and stares, he gets reassurance and doesn’t have to keep working. Equally counterproductive, if you get after him, the horse learns to become afraid of the unfamiliar object and your own negative reaction to his fear or insecurity.

Here’s a productive alternative. When your horse spots a scary object, choose absolutely anything you want to practice and put your horse to work. It could be as basic as giving to the bit, moving his hips over, or sidepassing. While your horse gets better at that particular exercise, you’ll also be teaching him to pay attention to you whenever something scary comes up. You want your horse to learn to focus on you and ignore the distraction.

If you are practicing serpentines and your horse stops and spooks at something, the first thing he’ll expect is for you to ask him to go forward. You, however, might quietly and immediately take him in a direction away from the object. Ride away from the distraction, maybe 50 feet, and begin working on your serpentines again on the far side of the arena. The concept is simple: Ride the horse where you can, rather than where you cannot.

As you come toward the middle of the arena, your horse may start looking at the dreaded object. However, rather than allow him to slow down and turn his attention to the scary item, pick up your reins slowly and basically say to him, “Don’t think about that; we’re doing this right now.” Keep his body position the same and his feet moving, while you ask him to focus on his serpentines.

Understand Your Objective
Importantly, your objective is not to see how quickly you can get your horse past the scary object. It’s just the opposite. The longer it takes-10 minutes, 30 minutes-the better, because you are going to end up with a better, more responsive horse. If you have been doing serpentines for 30 minutes while slowly inching closer to the scary chutes, your horse has been through a lot of repetitions of right turn, left turn, speed up, slow down.

When he’s doing those serpentines perfectly at the midline of the arena, then scoot him down a foot. When he’s perfect there, go one foot closer to that object, sticking with the pattern. When he’s perfect there, go another foot closer, and then another.

Pretty soon the horse will be going directly by the object as though it’s not there. You have practiced what you wanted to do anyway, while providing incentive for your horse not to find things to spook at. Your horse will be going the speed you want, with the head elevation you want, and you’ll be riding him exactly as you want to ride in front of the judge.

If you are on the trail, apply the same principles. Work on basic cues where it is safe, then come closer and closer until you can pass the object safely. Don’t get in a hurry and start applying pressure. If you remain calm, consistent, and focused, your horse is not going to worry about whether you’re going to get frustrated with him the next time he sees a llama or a scary rock. Not only is he going to be more responsive when you ask him to speed up or slow down, turn this way or that, or put his head down, he also discovers that every time he finds something to be afraid of, he suddenly has to move off and practice a particular maneuver-a lot.

Prep for Final Exams
Repetition of an exercise is not punishment, nor frantic, exhaustive abuse. It should be quiet, pressure-free practice that continues until the horse correctly follows the go-forward cue, no matter what the distraction.

This sort of experience is excellent preparation for those “final exam” situations where we risk getting hurt if our horses don’t respond correctly to our cues. If your horse jumps into the road to get away from the curious neighborhood llama that runs toward the fence to greet him, it could be a final exam for you both.

Preparing for the unexpected will help you ride your perfect horse with perfect confidence, knowing you can deal with pretty much any monster that comes his way.