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

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