Spooking, shying and refusing to work or obey are the biggest problems common to riders in all disciplines. They often evoke the most fear among inexperienced riders, and they?re one of the problems most often dealt with poorly by inexperienced and more experienced riders alike.
That’s because people often fail to understand that horses do not think like humans. They?re not extra-large, vegetarian humans wearing fur coats. We are predators; they are prey animals. Their species has survived for millions of years by being ever alert, by scanning the distance and their surroundings for danger.And a couple of thousand years of domestication and the seemingly safe, warm place you keep them can’t remove that instinct.
So it really doesn’t help to just get mad at horses when they spook. it’s kind of like getting mad at your dog for chasing a ball or getting mad at your cat for climbing a tree. it’s what their instinct tells them to do. But, yes, it can be frustrating.
If your horse has a spooking or shying habit, the first thing you have to figure out is the reason. Is he doing it because He’s genuinely afraid of a sight or a noise, or is he spooking for no real reason because he knows it’s a foolproof method to get out of work’
Too often, spooking becomes a learned behavior, something they did once or twice to you, or to a previous rider, when something really did startle them, and they discovered how well it worked (to get out of what you’re doing). But sometimes you’re dealing with a horse possessing above-average sensitivity, and you have to be willing and able to accommodate that.
If you or your trainer conclude that your horse really is a sensitive type or has a particular fear (of bright objects, dark places or barking dogs, for instance), you can only figure out how to increase his trust in you.
Whenever you ride a genuinely spooky horse, you need to be thinking ahead and looking ahead, but in a calm, reassuring way, not in a tense, fearful way. If you encounter the object of your horse’s fears, He’s going to be tense and fearful, so you have to be the opposite.
let’s say you’re trail riding with another friend or two. You?ve been walking through a sunny meadow, and the trail is heading toward a path into a dark woods. Your horse has spooked at things like this before ? maybe even reared and spun around, trying to gallop off in the opposite direction. You need to see this challenge coming, but you don’t want to suddenly grab your reins, stiffen your entire body, and take your leg off his side.
Take a deep breath, become a wet noodle in your hips and lower back, then close your legs and send your horse forward to the dark hole in the woods. Sit up and stay relaxed in your back and hips so you can move with him, and keep riding him forward. If he won?t go toward the trail opening, keep walking (or trotting) in circles in front of it, urging him forward with your legs and your voice.
Sometimes he still won?t enter the woods, and that’s the time to rely on your friends. Ninety-nine times out of 100, your horse will follow other horses down the trail or past whatever is bothering him.
A good schooling exercise is to ride your horse with other unafraid horses near the problem. It will reassure both of you.
An Evasion.But honest-to-goodness fear isn?t the only reason horses spook. Some horses use spooking as an evasion, a clever effort to avoid the work you’re asking them to do. And if they discover that this evasion works ? that you stop asking them to do what you wanted or, worse yet, that you walk or halt ? well, then you?ve turned it into a chronic problem. Why’ Because the horse has convinced you to let him do what he wanted ? to stop working.
The key is to keep moving, to keep his feet moving. Being able to do that results from training the horse to go forward, to be forward, mentally and physically.
A horse should decrease his gait with his hind end, by bringing it underneath him to change his balance. And having his hindquarters underneath him and being in balance ? able to quickly lengthen or shorten his stride or move sideways ? is what ?forward? means.
Forward is not just a physical state; it’s also a mental state. It means being alert, willing and eager to work with you, looking for something to do or someplace to go.
The forward attitude is usually achieved through proper training, because most horses would rather eat hay or hang out under a shade tree with their friends than work. You achieve that forward physical and mental state both on the ground (around the barn or while longeing or working in a round pen) and in your riding.
The horse’s answer, whenever you put your leg on his side, must always be to move in the direction your legs direct. If the horse does that, then 90-percent of the time spooking isn?t an issue.
Bottom Line.Whenever your horse is genuinely spooking or shying, you must react with confidence, not fear. Stay calm, quiet and react as minimally as possible. If you make a big deal of the action ? with shouting, prolonged hitting with a whip or kicking ? You’ll just aggravate the situation by confirming his fear.
And if He’s spooking to avoid work (or to refuse a jump), your correction must be immediate and focused. It must be a reprimand for that particular action, not for every time He’s ever spooked or disobeyed. A prolonged emotional outburst from you makes no sense to the horse and won?t prevent it from happening again.
Remember, horses will always be aware of (and often alarmed by) their environment. Part of good training is teaching them to react reasonably if they are alarmed. But the bottom line is the horse is a prey animal, much more alert to potential danger than you are. So you must clearly communicate to the horse that you’re in charge, that if he trusts you and obeys your commands, he’ll be safe.
Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor.