Riding A Spooky Horse

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
How Do I Handle Riding A Spooky Horse?

Question: Dear Julie, I usually ride some type of warmblooded horse (not exactly sure of the exact type) during riding classes. He’s often very nervous about a certain corner of the riding circle. He was once spooked by a bird, and since that he’s been trying to avoid that corner/short side. The horse trainer told me to avoid the corner to make him calmer, but what happened was that while trotting near that particular corner (short side of the circle), he suddenly spooked and ran off. I managed to stop him, but because of his action another girl fell off her horse. I guess he was already quite tense because of approaching the corner and when I turned him away from the corner, I must have somehow confirmed that the corner was a dangerous place? He was quite nervous during the rest of the class. Just by removing my feet from the stirrups he got very tense. I feel sorry for him because it seemed to be a true reaction of fear/shock.

I’d like to ride him again next time, but being a fresh rider, I’m not sure how I should handle his sudden spooks. The first time I noticed his nervousness was when riding outdoors. A paper sign was moving because of the wind and he suddenly jumped to the side. Do you think I should get another horse? Is it okay to pet him/reward him for settling down after an incident like that, or will he then think that I rewarded him for spooking? How long a memory does a horse have regarding reward? I don’t want to force him to go into that scary corner. Is there another way to make him overcome that fear or general nervousness?
Thanks for teaching me a lot about horses and riding,
Kaja

Answer: Kaja, Horses can be very suspicious animals and when something has frightened them, they tend to remember it and every time they get to the place where they were scared, they will be expecting something scary to happen. Also, horses are very location-specific in the way they behave—associating a certain place with their behavior, so it is no surprise the way your horse is acting. Most every arena has a “scary” place in it and typically it is as far away from the gate or barn as you can get. This is no coincidence—the farther away from the barn (which represents the safety of the herd to him) he gets, the more unsure he becomes and the stronger the urge to run back to safety.

In some cases it may be good to avoid a trouble spot, like when you are first warming up a fresh (or volatile) horse or if you have questions about your ability to control the horse if he spooks. However, at some point, in order for you to have total control over your horse, you must be able to take him, into places where he may not want to go, maintaining his obedience. If a horse comes to believe he has a say-so in where you try to take him, your authority will gradually erode to the point that you can’t get him out of the barnyard or around the arena.

When a horse is spooky or frightened, the best thing to do is turn him toward the scary object and ask him to stand, take a deep breath and relax. You should reassure your horse by using a soothing voice and rubbing him on the neck and taking a deep breath yourself; this will show him that you think everything is okay, that you have it all under control and he need not be afraid. Try to avoid turning your horse away from a scary object while he is still frightened because that will almost certainly trigger his flight response, as you have seen.

With an emotional or volatile horse like this, I would begin working in the “safest” part of the arena, using small circles and lots of changes of direction and building confidence and obedience in the horse. The more you change directions and cause the horse to swing his neck from side to side, the calmer and more compliant he will become (“S” turns are much more productive than circles). As the horse relaxes and gets more comfortable, I will start expanding the area I am working in by venturing toward the scary place gradually and always returning back to the “safe” place to build confidence. Eventually I would be working closer and closer to the scary spot until I could ride him in that area without a reaction from him.

There is a very effective technique to use when working with spooky horses. First, keep in mind that you will always have more control over a horse when his neck is bent; when it is straight out in front of him he can get away from you easily. So as you approach the scary area, you’ll want to keep his neck slightly bent to one side or the other. An easy way to accomplish this is to ride in a serpentine pattern doing constant changes of direction. But make sure that each and every time you turn him, you turn TOWARD the scary place and not away from it. You’ve already seen what happens when you turn away from a scary object— his flight response is triggered and your horse is likely to bolt. Weaving back and forth and turning him toward the scary spot will accomplish several things—it will keep his neck bent for greater control, it will keep him in an obedient frame of mind because he is responding to your directives and going where you said and it will put him a little closer to the object every time you turn him (and prevent him from bolting like he did when you turned him away from it). There are several articles in my Training Library about this process of despooking a horse. http://juliegoodnight.com/traininglibrary

Asking your horse to keep his head down will cause him to relax as well, but this may require the skill of a more advanced rider (again, check out my Training Library for more info on how to do this). From the sounds of it, this is not a great horse for a beginner rider and it would probably be more productive and more fun for you to ride a less volatile horse. That way you can relax and think about improving your own riding, instead of worrying about the next time he spooks. Remember, this is all about having fun. Your riding and your confidence will advance much faster on an easier horse and you may find that you’ll progress enough that you can eventually ride this horse again and have more confidence.

When a horse is frightened or spooky, he needs the rider’s calmness and reassurance to let him know he will be okay. I would put my hands down on a horse’s neck to steady him any time he became tense or unsure—it is not really a reward, just a reassurance that I’ve got everything under control. And I would give copious praise to my horse by petting him in the withers or neck when he is obedient and brave in the face of a scary thing. The rule of thumb with horses is that you have a three second window of opportunity to reward, release or punish the horse, in order for him to make an association between his actions and your actions—and the sooner in the three seconds the better. If a horse is rewarded in a timely fashion, he will remember it for a very long time. The important part is not whether or not he remembers the reward, it’s whether he made an association between his actions and the reward. If the association is made, he will remember it for some time—horses have exceptional memories.

As you have seen already, the more you learn about horses, the more you learn how much you don’t know, which is why advanced and expert riders are sometimes more humble than novice riders. This horse is challenging and no doubt you would learn a lot from him, but it may be better to ride something a little easier and safer for now so that you can focus on developing your riding skills without having to train a horse at the same time.

Good luck!
Julie
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If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

Learn To Ride At Julie’s Clinic’s

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The Questions You Ask Most
This Issue: Will I be too afraid to learn at a clinic? I’m afraid of being judged…

Ride and Learn
Horsemanship clinics are a way of life for me. I’ve taught hundreds of them and I like to take them whenever I can. I enjoy taking clinics and it helps keep my teaching and riding fresh, rejuvenates my spirit and I always learn something about my horse. Knowing I have a clinic coming up where I’ll take my horse—whether I am teaching or participant, helps motivate me to ride more. I like having a goal to work toward with my horse—whether it’s personal, competitive or physical; it helps me stay focused and productive in our training sessions. Does that work for you? What are your current riding goals?

I’ve been very focused lately on planning my 2011 Clinic Tour. Along with my focus on clinics, I’ve been reviewing and updating all our information on clinics, what to expect, what to bring and how to get the most from the experience. I know from what people tell me—either before or after the clinic—that they were very nervous to ride with me. This always bothers me– although I’ve heard it enough to know it is a common theme—not just in my clinics but for everyone. It bothers me because I know how hard I work to make sure all the riders are safe, comfortable and satisfied during one of my clinics and I think that most people who have ridden with me would agree that there’s no point in being apprehensive about riding with me.

I always tell the riders at the beginning of my clinics that nervousness is a wasted emotion, because I’m here to make sure they have fun and learn something and no one is under any pressure to perform; do as much or as little as you want. But still, I know people are reticent and I know there are some that will never sign up to begin with because of it and I wish I knew how to alleviate those fears. So what is it about taking a horsemanship clinic that is so frightening? Is it fear of the unknown? Fear of riding around other people? Fear you’ll lose control of your horse? Fear of riding in an unknown place? Based on a previous bad experience? Horror stories heard from others?

When I teach a clinic, my main goal and focus is to keep the rider safe, both physically and emotionally, and make sure they have fun and leave the clinic feeling good about themselves and having learned something. I’ll pretty much do whatever it takes to make sure that happens for each individual and for everyone that is something different. I think the first part of being a good instructor is being able to analyze the horse/tack, the rider errors, the personality and confidence level of the rider and the temperament and training of the horse. Then you have to be able to put all that together to discern what the most important thing to work on first is. And that’s the tricky part—because a person can really only work on one thing at a time. The next step, and the one that some trainers don’t do so well, is to be able to effectively communicate to the rider what he/she needs to work on, the why and the how. This must be done in a kind and supportive way that makes the rider want to try harder.

Too much of any emotion–be it fear, humiliation, anger, etc.–blocks us from a state of mind to learn anything, let alone mull over complicated concepts. Therefore, taking care of a rider emotionally always comes first. I believe that although you have to point out people’s mistakes as an instructor (that’s why they are there) it has to be done in a tactful and supportive way, in safeguard of the individual’s emotional well-being. I believe strongly that you also have to make an effort to find someone doing something right and then give them copious praise. That praising others, inspires all riders to work harder (“Amber, good job using your eyes as you went around that turn” can only lead to every rider in the arena looking up and where they are going). I also feel a strong responsibility to the well-being of the horse and sometimes this can be touchy—pointing out that the horse’s “problem” is actually caused by the person.

In this instance, I find that although it sometimes takes a little more work on my part, I can almost always address the situation and still take care of both the horse and the rider’s emotional well-being. I consider myself very fortunate that the type of riders that come to my clinics are almost always fun, interesting, open-minded and keen to learn. This makes them pretty easy to teach. I can count on one hand, and still have fingers left over, how many caustic or toxic people I have encountered in the thousands of people I have taught at clinics. I am so thankful that my clinics tend to draw great people. Although I have heard the occasional horror story from other clinics, I think most people learn and grow at clinics and I know they will at mine.

On one level, I totally get it—riding in front of a group with a bunch of strangers can be nerve wracking. Riding horses requires such a voluminous amount of information to master that it can be overwhelming at times. The unknown quantity of how your horse will respond in an unknown situation is a little intimidating. On the other hand, the opportunity to learn, grow, explore new concepts and master new skills is quite compelling.

What about you? Do you like to ride in clinics? What do you get out of it? Does it make you nervous? Why? I’ll be interested to hear. Come share your thoughts on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/horsemaster.tv
Until next time,

–Julie Goodnight

Fearful Of Riding My Thoroughbred

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Question:
I need you! I have a 16.2 hand Thoroughbred that after having the greatest relationship with for 2 years I am now petrified to ride. I even think about going on the trails and I can’t breath. Nothing happened. I mean yes I have fallen off of him but that was a year ago. He spooks so easily and I just get sick to my stomach when I ride him! He spooks and I work him through it but I still can’t gain any confidence.

Which book of yours do I need to read? What mantra can I say? I can’t sell my horse. I have to ride! It makes me cry when I think about it. My husband let me quit my job of six years so that I could go to the barn every day. In two years I went from not having a horse to having two horses and running a boarding stable with a partner. And now I am supposed to tell my husband that I am too afraid to ride?? Or maybe my boarders the next time they want me to lead them on a trail ride? And the thought of going on a ride by myself makes my heart stop right in my chest. What is wrong with me?

Frustrated in Ohio

Answer:
Dear Frustrated,
I am so sorry to hear that you are struggling with this fear issue. It is important that you have faith in the fact that you can do some specifics things to help manage your fear and that if you work on it, you can resolve this issue and get back to enjoying your horse like you used to. The key words here are that you will have to work on it. I know many, many people that have had similar experiences and have had success managing their fear, once they have committed themselves to action. There are a few ideas that I have for you that may help. Both my book, Ride with Confidence!, and my audio CD, Build Your Confidence with Horses, will help you a lot in understanding the emotion of fear, identifying the nature of your fear, making a plan to overcome it and learning some real-life skills that can help you deal better with the emotion. The book is very helpful for dealing with the fear of riding and also for dealing with fear and anxiety in any area of your life. I am one of five contributing authors to this book so there are many different approaches and techniques, including human psychology, equine psychology, hypnosis and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP Sports Psychology). The audio CD is both instructional and motivational and is especially useful for listening to on your way to the barn because it has reminders of the physical and mental things you can do to contain and dissipate the emotion of fear when you feel it welling up.

Now, to address your specific situation, I have some thoughts for you and some suggestions. First, from reading your email, it sounds to me like you have had a drastic change in your confidence level, without being able to pin it on something specific like an accident or injury. This is not at all uncommon but it begs the question, is there something else going on in your life, either related to horses or not, that may have caused this change?

Sometimes people may experience trauma or anxiety in other areas of their life and it can manifest with horses, but until you address and resolve the original issue, you may not have success with the horse thing. For example, I had a woman in a FM clinic that had never had any fear of riding until she and her daughter became victims of a violent crime and after that, she was mortified to ride. We could work on the horse issue, but she also needed to come to terms with what had happened to her through counseling and processing.

I encourage you to take a hard look at the “big picture” of your life and invest in some serious introspection. The book and video will guide you through this process but you’ll have to put some earnest thought into it; it may help to talk with someone like a counselor, friend or pastor. Obviously you are embarrassed and ashamed of having fear and keeping it to yourself is one of the worst things you can do. You are feeling pressure from your husband and from your clients, but it is quite possible that the pressure is originating from you and not them. The fact of the matter is that for the most part, no one really cares whether you ride or not or what emotional issues you are dealing with and besides, most people have fear of horses themselves. It is an extremely prevalent issue amongst horse enthusiast but sadly it is seldom discussed. In my seminars on fear of riding at horse fairs, the room is always jam packed with people, all of whom are greatly relieved to see everyone else there; people of all ages, genders, abilities and experience. I think it is important for you to “come out of the closet” with your fear and tell those close to you about it so that they can support your plan and help you meet your goals.

Surround yourself with people that are supportive of you and share your plan with them; avoid contact with the people that are making it worse. Again, the book and audio will guide you through this process. Maybe you want to start a private club with some of your boarders that may be struggling themselves with this issue and work through it together; I bet you’ll have more members in your club than you would think.

Another thought I had when reading your email was that this horse is not really what you need to be riding right now. A Thoroughbred is a tough ride for any one; they are volatile and emotional animals, which is totally exacerbated with a fearful rider. Think about it, we have been breeding these horses for centuries to run fast and have a strong flight response; spookiness comes with the territory. Because horses are herd animals and prey animals, they are programmed to take on the emotions of the other horses in the herd. If you become frightened, the horse easily recognizes it, because a huge part of your body is connected to him; it is natural for him to become frightened too. Thus you have the snowball effect.

I am not suggesting that you get rid of the horse, but I do think it would do you a world of good to ride a more reliable horse for as long as it takes to rebuild your confidence. Spend some time riding a reliable horse so that you can remind yourself that you are a competent rider and perfectly capable of handling whatever your horse can dish out. Find a way to get some hours in on a solid mount on which you can rebuild your confidence and remind yourself that you actually love to ride. Consider taking some Dressage or Reining lessons on a finished horse and learn some new theory while you build confidence. The horse is a critical part of the equation. You must ride a horse that builds your confidence, not zaps it.

And speaking of the horse, there are some positive steps you can take to resolve the spooking issue with your horse. If you make a commitment to his training, you can teach him not to spook or to spook in place. There are a few Q&As on my website on despooking that will help you think through the process and you may want to be on the lookout for despooking clinics (you can always go without a horse and audit and still learn plenty, sometimes more than you would with a horse).

Like with any bomb-proofing process for horses, you always start on the ground. Hopefully this will make it a little easier for you to keep your confidence up. Study my articles and develop a training plan and devote a few minutes everyday to despook your horse from the ground. You’ll teach him to face his fear and then to have the courage to actually approach and even touch the frightening item. You can make a game out of this until your horse is eagerly facing and approaching, since he is rewarded for being a brave horse.

As his confidence builds so will yours. Eventually you can take the same training plan to the saddle and go through the same process with you on his back. Making a plan, taking action and putting your mind and energy into training your horse are actions that will not only help your horse, but build your confidence too. Having a plan of action also keeps your mind from becoming polluted with thoughts of fear. There is more on controlling the thoughts in your mind in the book and audio. There is a lot of action you can take to resolve this issue. Now it is up to you to “get off the pot.” Please let me know how it goes. Good luck and keep the faith. You CAN do this.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Advance And Retreat

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While shooting a Horse Master episode on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts I was introduced to a woman, Vickie Thurber, who had an accident with her young pinto eventing horse and wanted help introducing “Poco” to new possibly scary stimuli. She wanted to make sure he—and she—knew what to do if he spooked again. In their initial accident, Poco spooked and Vickie injured her arm. I decided to take Poco to the beach to introduce him to the surf. Though he lives on an island, the surf was new to him. Although not everyone can ride their horse on the beach, the technique I use to help Poco face his fears can be used to approach any scary object or scene. Read on to learn more about “advance and retreat”. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html

Advance and retreat: These days, with military actions and wars consistently in the headlines, thoughts of aggression make it easy to think of “advance and retreat” as an aggressive move. But in case of horse training, advance and retreat is an important concept to understand and when utilized properly, this technique can effectively train your horse to quietly and peacefully accept all sorts of scary and uncomfortable stimuli.

When training a horse to accept a scary or adverse stimulus, whether it be clippers, fly spray, the water hose, the bridle, or taking a horse to the beach for the first time, it’s important to understand the theory of advance and retreat. First, you must understand that whatever a horse is afraid of, be it a sound, a feel or a touch, that factor is considered a stimulus. A stimulus is an environmental factor that motivates the horse to action. If the horse is afraid of the stimulus, the action will likely be to snort and run away.

The advance and retreat method of horse training is a way to desensitize the horse to a scary stimulus and teach him to respond to the stimulus with willing acceptance. Let’s say, for the sake of explanation that the scary stimulus is fly spray, although this method will work with any type of stimulus. The first step, in any training process, is to determine what the desired outcome is. In the instance of fly spray, the desired outcome is that the horse stands still and relaxed while you spray him.

With the case of fly spray, as with just about any scary stimulus, there are many different sensations that may frighten the horse. It maybe the sound of the spray bottle, the smell of the chemical or the feel of the droplets on his body (or all of the stimuli combined) that causes fear in the horse. Regardless of what actually causes the fear, it’s an honest emotion of the horse and he should not be reprimanded.

The theory of the advance is that you approach slowly with the stimulus, starting far enough away that the horse is not uncomfortable and advancing slowly until you reach the place that causes discomfort or a slight tensing in the horse. It may be that just spraying in close proximity to the horse causes him to tense and become frightened (helpful hint: use a bottle with water in it so you don’t waste your fly spray). Only advance as far as you can until the horse becomes tense, advance no farther but maintain your ground.

Continue applying the stimulus, at the distance that caused the horse discomfort and let him move as fast as he wants in a circle around you. Do not try to hold him still, don’t impede his forward motion; keep his nose tipped toward you so that he has to move in a circle around you. It’s important that he is allowed to move his feet because that is his natural reaction to a scary stimulus.

The theory of retreat comes into play once the horse voluntarily makes the right response, which is to hold still and/or relax. As soon as the horse stops his feet or relaxes, even if it’s very briefly, immediately remove the stimulus (stop spraying). Turn your back on the horse and take a few steps away and allow him time to relax and take a deep breath. Removing the stimulus when the horse makes the right response rewards him for stopping his feet. Timing is everything, as with most aspects of horse training.

Apply the stimulus again (advance), as close as causes discomfort and remove it the instant the horse stops moving his feet or relaxes (retreat). In very short order, the horse will make the association that if he holds still and relaxes, the scary thing will go away. Once he makes this association, it will diffuse his fear altogether.

It’s critical in this training technique that you not advance beyond whatever causes discomfort to the horse. Once he stands still and accepts the stimulus (because you have retreated a number of times), then you can advance farther. I have seen too many horses traumatized by people advancing too far initially and overwhelming the horse, sending him into terror and panic. Then often, the person removes the stimulus when the horse is reacting poorly, thus rewarding his behavior.

Advance and retreat, when applied with good timing and a calm and humane approach, will help the horse learn to stand still and accept scary stimuli. Furthermore, once a horse has been desensitized in this way to a number of stimuli, he learns to carry over this response to new stimuli as well and to think his way through a scary scene.
–Julie Goodnight

Coping With Fear

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Coping with Fear
By Julie Goodnight

There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of horses. They’re big scary animals capable of spontaneous violent combustion at any moment. In fact, it’s a bit of an intelligence test really; you’d have to be a complete idiot to have no fear.
Fear is a natural emotion and it’s an important one too. Without fear, we’d be likely to do really stupid things that could result in serious injury or even death. Everyone is afraid of horses on some level and you should not feel badly about yourself if you are occasionally experiencing nervousness or fear around horses. But when fear begins to control what you do and do not do and it begins to impact your enjoyment of horses, it’s time to do something about it!

Fortunately, there are many things that you can do to get back in control of this emotion. I know dozens of people that have followed these important steps and have gone from paralyzing fear to achieving their dreams on horses.
First, it’s important to intellectualize the emotion—to understand your fear, its origins and the effects of the emotion on your mind and body. You may be suffering from post-traumatic fear, which occurs after and accident or an injury. Or you may be suffering from general anxiety—which is something we do to ourselves by creating the “what if” scenarios in our minds. It’s important to think through your emotions objectively and understand them.

With post-traumatic fear, your fear will tend to surface whenever you are doing something similar to what you were doing when you got hurt. This known as a “fear memory” and it is a normal reaction—don’t let it take you by surprise. Expect it and be ready for it by having a plan to keep your emotions in check. You cannot erase fear memories but you can train yourself to over-ride them.

General anxiety tends to affect us more as we age (we don’t bounce like we used to) and have more life pressures on us. What if I get hurt and can’t go to work? Who will pay the mortgage? Who will take the kids to soccer? What if I look stupid in front of all these people? General anxiety is something we do to ourselves—I call it mind pollution. The important thing to realize is that you can control what you think about and you can chose to think about more positive things. Have a plan for what you will think about, even if it is only reciting poetry or singing a son.
Once you have really explored your emotion, it is much easier to objectify it. Our mind, body and spirit are all interconnected and one affects the other. By intellectualizing and objectifying your fear, you’ll keep your mind engaged and that will help keep the fear in check. Also, if you can learn to control your body language and look confident, no matter how you really feel on the inside, then your emotions don’t stand a chance. If you can control your mind and your body, your emotions can’t control you.

It’s also important to develop a plan for building confidence—it won’t just happen on its own. Start by defining your comfort zone—that exact moment that you become uncomfortable and nervous. Go about your daily routine with your horse, paying extra close attention to your bio-feedback and find exactly where your comfort ends and where your nervousness begins.
Then you will stay within your comfort zone as long as it takes, until you are ready for a small challenge. Take small steps outside your comfort zone, always staying within your comfort zone whenever you need to build confidence. By taking small ventures outside your comfort zone and always returning to safety, you’ll gradually expand your comfort zone.

For instance, maybe you feel comfortable catching, leading, tying, grooming and cleaning your horse’s feet; but when you go to pick up your saddle off the rack, suddenly you feel the butterflies in your stomach—you have just left your comfort zone.
So you’ll head to the barn each day, catch, tie, groom, clean feet, then put your horse away. And you’ll do that every day until you are so sick and tired of grooming for no reason, that you are ready for a small challenge. Then your next step will be to saddle your horse—then unsaddle him and put him away. And you’ll do that every day until you are ready for another challenge.

Next, maybe you’ll go to the arena and longe him—then put him away. Your next step may be to mount and dismount; then walk once around the arena; then walk for 10 minutes, etc. Gradually, step by tiny step, you are expanding your comfort zone. Always give yourself permission to drop down below your comfort zone to build more confidence and remember—there is no time frame here. If it takes you a month or a year, who cares?

The important thing to remember is that you can control your emotions. It’ll take a little work on your part, but it can be done. I hear from people all the time that have gotten back to enjoying their horses by following these steps. For more information on coping with a fear of horses, check out my website (juliegoodnight.com) for more information about dealing with fear. I have a book, Ride with Confidence, and motivational audio CD, Building Confidence with Horses.

–Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com
(800) 225-8827

Issues From The Saddle: What To Do With A Horse That Bolts, Runs Off With Rider

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

I enjoyed watching you present at Equine Affaire in MA this past November. I have been riding a good 15-20 years but most intensively the last 5-6….I have a 13 year old Thoroughbred cross that I ride in dressage. I have had him almost 5 years. He has always been on the tense, spooky side but all spooking was usually in-place or a short-lived minor scoot. I have an outdoor arena and this October he began bolting with me across the arena. Then out of arena into his “safe” paddock, then into the field where I ultimately bailed out as I felt a fall was inevitable. He does not buck while bolting but just stiffens his neck like a rock grabs the bit and goes, out of control. My trainer saw this happen during a lesson and was concerned this was obviously becoming a habit. I always dealt with it by putting him right back to work, even when I fell off, I got right back on. I did dismount a few times and back him up with the dressage whip and then got back on. He is clever and strong and I cannot find a way to stop him when he stiffens his neck when he bolts. I brought horse to a stables mid-December for indoor arena winter board. Horse did it again, twice, in the indoor, with the trainer there. I fell off twice, got back on….Sadly, I have now become afraid, anticipating the spook that will cause the bolt. I am still working him and he has improved. The bolt, I’m pretty sure is induced by a spook. I don’t believe he is bolting just because. What gets him spooking at home you ask? Roosting wild turkeys in the woods behind arena and revving engines (car) but especially the ATV. In the indoor, again revving engines and any noise from outside arena…of course snow sliding off roof is a biggie. The horse is progressing in his dressage and his musculature has changed dramatically, he is quite fit as well. My trainer describes him as a 4-5 year old mentality even though he is coming 13. I think I need some basic ground manners reestablished….1. do you think your ground manner dvd will help me on my way? 2. If I attended the Heritage Farm clinic do you think I would get enough of what I need with this specific problem? 3. Can you suggest another plan of action for me?

Michelle

Answer: Michelle,

Runaway horses are dangerous for you, for the horse and for others around you and it is a problem that should be corrected immediately; but once again, it takes an expert hand to correct such a serious problem. Regardless of what is triggering his episodes of flight, he is extremely disobedient and he has learned this trick well. Probably, the sounds he is spooking at are just a trigger mechanisms; the runaway behavior is well engrained, learned behavior that he has had success with and there is nothing you can do to unlearn that. A skilled rider can correct this behavior and prevent it from happening and eventually, with no further episodes over a long period of time, the horse’s routine behavior will not include bolting, but he will always know how to get away with it if he chooses to.

There are two keys to dealing with a runaway: prevention and cure. Keep the neck bent to prevent the horse from bolting and be able to use the ‘pulley rein,’ quickly and effectively to stop the horse in a safe and highly effective manner.

Your horse cannot grab the bit and run off without stiffening his neck first. Any time you need more control over any horse, whether he is spooking, bolting, or being otherwise disobedient or fractious, you want to keep the neck slightly bent, with the nose to one side or the other by lifting one rein. In that position, you have more control and can pick up one rein to gain leverage over the horse. When his neck is stiff and straight, you are in a pound for pound tug of war that you cannot win because his head and neck weigh more than your entire body. This is why using one rein is more effective than using two; two reins encourages your horse to stiffen his neck and brace against the pull on the reins.

As with all training, timing is everything and the rider must be able to see ‘what happens before what happens happens.’ Your horse will give signs that he is thinking about bolting, like reaching for the bit, throwing his head up or straightening and stiffening his neck. This should be met with sudden and harsh correction before he grabs the bit and bolts, with one rein to re-bend the horse’s neck and check his obedience.

The pulley rein is described in detail in the Q&A section of my website and is a means to stop a runaway horse, using one rein, but without turning the horse. It is dangerous to try and turn or circle a runaway horse because the chances of him falling are good. The pulley rein gives you a means to apply leverage with one rein, with a slight bend in the horse’s neck and if you are skilled with the pulley rein, you can stop any horse right on his nose.

Your trainer is right to be concerned that this horse’s dangerous behavior is escalating. Certainly doing ground work will help with the horse’s obedient frame of mind, but this is an engrained riding issue that will have to be addressed in the saddle, by someone who is very competent at dealing with runaways. In clinics we always deal with training issues as they arise and this problem of yours is definitely part of a bigger-picture problem that a general horsemanship would address. As long as the horse does not pose a danger to the other riders, you and he would most likely benefit from the clinic; however, I think the MA clinic is already full to riders.

Not knowing your riding and training capabilities and not being able to see the big picture, it is difficult for me to prescribe another course of action for you but hopefully this has given you some food-for-thought on which to make some decisions about what to do with this horse. You should definitely consider some professional training or finding a horse that is safer and more suitable.

JG

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Spooky Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hi Julie!

I usually ride some type of warmblooded horse (not exactly sure of the exact type) during riding classes. He’s often very nervous about a certain corner of the riding circle. He was once spooked by a bird, and since that he’s been trying to avoid that corner/short side. The horse trainer told me to avoid the corner to make him calmer, but what happened was that while trotting near that particular corner (short side of the circle), he suddenly spooked and ran off. I managed to stop him, but because of his action another girl fell off her horse. I guess he was already quite tense because of approaching the corner and when I turned him away from the corner, I must have somehow confirmed that the corner was a dangerous place? He was quite nervous during the rest of the class. Just by removing my feet from the stirrups he got very tense. I feel sorry for him because it seemed to be a true reaction of fear/shock.

I’d like to ride him again next time, but being a fresh rider, I’m not sure how I should handle his sudden spooks. The first time I noticed his nervousness was when riding outdoors. A paper sign was moving because of the wind and he suddenly jumped to the side. Do you think I should get another horse? Is it okay to pet him/reward him for settling down after an incident like that, or will he then think that I rewarded him for spooking? How long a memory does a horse have regarding reward? I don’t want to force him to go into that scary corner. Is there another way to make him overcome that fear or general nervousness?

Thanks for teaching me a lot about horses and riding,
Kaja

Answer: Kaja,

Horses can be very suspicious animals and when something has frightened them, they tend to remember it and every time they get to the place where they were scared, they will be expecting something scary to happen. Also, horses are very location-specific in the way they behave—associating a certain place with their behavior, so it is no surprise the way your horse is acting. Most every arena has a “scary” place in it and typically it is as far away from the gate or barn as you can get. This is no coincidence—the farther away from the barn (which represents the safety of the herd to him) he gets, the more unsure he becomes and the stronger the urge to run back to safety.

In some cases it may be good to avoid a trouble spot, like when you are first warming up a fresh (or volatile) horse or if you have questions about your ability to control the horse if he spooks. However, at some point, in order for you to have total control over your horse, you must be able to take him, into places where he may not want to go, maintaining his obedience. If a horse comes to believe he has a say-so in where you try to take him, your authority will gradually erode to the point that you can’t get him out of the barnyard or around the arena.

When a horse is spooky or frightened, the best thing to do is turn him toward the scary object and ask him to stand, take a deep breath and relax. You should reassure your horse by using a soothing voice and rubbing him on the neck and taking a deep breath yourself; this will show him that you think everything is okay, that you have it all under control and he need not be afraid. Try to avoid turning your horse away from a scary object while he is still frightened because that will almost certainly trigger his flight response, as you have seen.

With an emotional or volatile horse like this, I would begin working in the “safest” part of the arena, using small circles and lots of changes of direction and building confidence and obedience in the horse. The more you change directions and cause the horse to swing his neck from side to side, the calmer and more compliant he will become (“S” turns are much more productive than circles). As the horse relaxes and gets more comfortable, I will start expanding the area I am working in by venturing toward the scary place gradually and always returning back to the “safe” place to build confidence. Eventually I would be working closer and closer to the scary spot until I could ride him in that area without a reaction from him.

There is a very effective technique to use when working with spooky horses. First, keep in mind that you will always have more control over a horse when his neck is bent; when it is straight out in front of him he can get away from you easily. So as you approach the scary area, you’ll want to keep his neck slightly bent to one side or the other. An easy way to accomplish this is to ride in a serpentine pattern doing constant changes of direction. But make sure that each and every time you turn him, you turn TOWARD the scary place and not away from it. You’ve already seen what happens when you turn away from a scary object— his flight response is triggered and your horse is likely to bolt. Weaving back and forth and turning him toward the scary spot will accomplish several things—it will keep his neck bent for greater control, it will keep him in an obedient frame of mind because he is responding to your directives and going where you said and it will put him a little closer to the object every time you turn him (and prevent him from bolting like he did when you turned him away from it). There are several articles in my Training Library about this process of despooking a horse.

Asking your horse to keep his head down will cause him to relax as well, but this may require the skill of a more advanced rider (again, check out my Training Library for more info on how to do this). From the sounds of it, this is not a great horse for a beginner rider and it would probably be more productive and more fun for you to ride a less volatile horse. That way you can relax and think about improving your own riding, instead of worrying about the next time he spooks. Remember, this is all about having fun. Your riding and your confidence will advance much faster on an easier horse and you may find that you’ll progress enough that you can eventually ride this horse again and have more confidence.

When a horse is frightened or spooky, he needs the rider’s calmness and reassurance to let him know he will be okay. I would put my hands down on a horse’s neck to steady him any time he became tense or unsure—it is not really a reward, just a reassurance that I’ve got everything under control. And I would give copious praise to my horse by petting him in the withers or neck when he is obedient and brave in the face of a scary thing. The rule of thumb with horses is that you have a three second window of opportunity to reward, release or punish the horse, in order for him to make an association between his actions and your actions—and the sooner in the three seconds the better. If a horse is rewarded in a timely fashion, he will remember it for a very long time. The important part is not whether or not he remembers the reward, it’s whether he made an association between his actions and the reward. If the association is made, he will remember it for some time—horses have exceptional memories.

As you have seen already, the more you learn about horses, the more you learn how much you don’t know, which is why advanced and expert riders are sometimes more humble than novice riders. This horse is challenging and no doubt you would learn a lot from him, but it may be better to ride something a little easier and safer for now so that you can focus on developing your riding skills without having to train a horse at the same time.

Good luck!
Julie

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.