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,
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.
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
Changing Direction/Changing Speed
Many “forward” horses come to trainers because they are challenging to train. Here, I’ll share some of the techniques that I use to get the horses slowed down a little and to get them steady in their gaits. First let me tell you what definitely will not work. It will not work to use a harsher bit or to constantly pull back on the reins to slow the horse down. Any pressure on a horse’s mouth makes him more anxious. Forward horses tend to be more anxious to begin with and they also tend to be very sensitive. More pressure on their mouths almost always makes them faster. The classic scenario with a forward horse is that the rider is constantly pulling on both reins and the horse is getting more and more, tense and starts to jig and speed up. Instead, help your horse relax, put his head down and slow down. You want him to learn to make an association between relaxing and getting a loose rein, which is what all horses want.
Since you cannot slow him down by pulling back on the reins, the best option is to work on changing directions. Often people talk about using the circle to slow a horse down, but I find reverses to be much more effective. Often when people use a circle to slow a horse down, they pull the horse into a sharp sudden fast circle, which tends to excite and irritate the horse rather than slow him down. Every time the horse changes direction, he has to slow down as he turns back the other way.
For changes of direction, ride two-handed in a snaffle with both hands well in front of the pommel and with a reasonably loose rein. In slow motion, move both hands to the side (in the direction you want to turn) so that the inside rein is a leading rein and the outside rein is a neck rein (see the Q&A about rein-aids). Move your hands as a unit like they are connected; there is no backward pull on the reins. Do not pull back on the reins and do not try to slow the horse down. Just turn to the left for a moment, and then slowly and gently change your turn to the right, then left, then right, etc. It is critical that you are moving your hands in slow motion and that you are not pulling back on the reins as you do. Your turns should be totally random, half turn, quarter turn, full turn, etc.; don’t let yourself fall into a pattern. Gradually (it may take minutes, hours or days) your horse will begin to slow his trot every time he changes direction. Once this starts happening, let him go straight between turns and then slowly and gently bring him into a turn when you feel him first begin to speed up. Ultimately, you should be going straight between every turn, and then you will let the horse stay straight as long as he is relaxed until he is maintaining a steady relaxed trot without turning.
Make sure your hands are moving together and there is very little or no pressure on the horse’s mouth. Whenever you need to correct the horse’s nose to bring it into the turn, pick up (not back or down) slowly on the inside rein and immediately release it when the horse gives his nose. Eventually, you should be able to make these turns and straightness with just the slow movement of your hands on a totally loose rein and without actual contact on the horse’s mouth.
Head Down Cue
Your horse will relax when he learns a drop-your-head cue. With nervous horses, this is a very important step. A horse’s head comes up as he tenses and it drops as he relaxes. If you can cue your horse to drop his head, you have succeeded in teaching him a cue to relax, since it is not physically possible for him to drop his head and stay tense. Start from the ground with a rope halter and training lead. Apply gentle steady pressure down on the halter by pulling on the lead and watch the horse carefully for his head dropping. At the very first fraction of an inch, release the halter and praise the horse. Then ask again, watching very closely for any movement in the right direction, then release and apply copious praise. It is better to err on the side of the release being sooner rather than later. Timing is everything in horse training. The optimal timing for a release is half a second after the desired response. The first few inches down will be a challenge, but the next foot is easy. Once the horse figures it out he will gladly drop his head all the way to the ground every time you ask.
Once he can do this reliably from the ground, it is time to teach the same cue from the saddle. Standing still, you will use one rein, shorten it up to apply light pressure to the horse’s mouth and wait until the head drops the smallest fraction of an inch then drop the rein entirely and give copious praise. Don’t worry if the horse begins to move about, just focus on the head dropping and release whenever it does. In the same process the horse will gradually figure out that when you apply pressure with one rein and he drops his head, the pressure will go away. Again, the first few inches are very hard to get and will require a great deal of patience and concentration on your part, but the next couple feet to the ground will come much more quickly.
Whatever you do, don’t succumb to applying more pressure if the horse does not respond. Apply just enough pressure that the horse begins to look for a way out of the pressure. He will guess what to do to find the release. He may put his head up, to the side, etc., but eventually he will try moving his head down and that is the instant he must find the release so that he makes an association between the cue and the right answer. This is a general concept in training that applies to almost anything that you do. More pressure is never the answer; you just need enough pressure that the horse begins to look for a way out of it.
Oddly enough, sometimes a very nervous horse can actually become addicted to lowering his head and relaxing. He doesn’t really want to be nervous and frightened all the time and when he finds the peace by putting his head down, he comes to like it. This can actually become a little bit of a problem in some horses (they want to put their head way down all the time) but that is not very common and it is a far better problem to have than the original one.
Your horse is capable of slowing down, relaxing and moving in a steady manner. Try these exercises, be patient, always move your hands in slow motion and give the exercises considerable time to work.
I have lived with and worked with horses for more than half a century. And the older I get, the more appreciation I have for horses and their willingness, generosity and ability to forgive. It never ceases to amaze me how they tolerate some of the crazy things we humans do and how they will keep on trying to please.
Over the decades, I have learned that horses thrive on structure, consistency, praise and discipline. They crave leadership and authority and they feel safe and content in its presence. Leadership is very black and white to a horse and he knows it when he sees it. There is no faking leadership to a horse.
In domestic herds, groups of horses that are forced together, sometimes there are unqualified horses in the alpha role and the other horses know it—they agree to the terms, but do not have respect or admiration for the stand-in. Being a bully does not make you a leader and although a more subordinate horse will defer to the space of a more aggressive herdmate, he does not respect the bully as his leader and certainly does not like him.
A true herd leader is not a bully, but is willing to dish out discipline when it is needed. The true leader of the herd is responsible for the herd’s safety and for insuring that all the herdmates are good citizens of the herd—sometimes that means disciplining an unruly horse.
Horses recognize true leadership—fairness, courage, authority, confidence, intelligence, honesty, responsibility. When horses find a true leader, they have the highest respect and deference for and come to worship the ground their leader walks on. They trust and want to be with their leader and are always on the lookout for ways to please—to stay in the good graces of the one in charge.
To me, this is the ideal relationship to have with a horse and it makes me a much better and stronger person to live up to the ideals of my horse. When your horse thinks of you as the supreme leader, he will go anywhere with you, trusting you to look out for his well-being, having faith in your decisions and knowing you have his best interest in mind. He will work hard to please you and will get his feelings hurt if he thinks you are unhappy with him. But that attitude comes at a price—you have to earn it– and it is easily lost if you fall down on the job.
Once your horse recognizes the qualities of a true leader in you, it means that he trusts you to be fair, consistent and protect him from anything that could hurt him. That trust can be lost in an instant by asking the horse to do something that causes him to get hurt or frightened. This is an important obligation of the leader and should never be overlooked.
Horses are herd animals and as such, are instinctively drawn to the herd; but membership into any herd is not a guarantee. In the domestic setting, a new horse introduced an existing herd will automatically be shunned and treated harshly, as if to say, “We do not want you—go away!” Once the new horse shows a certain amount of contrition and a willingness to respect the hierarchy of the herd, he will be allowed provisional membership. But he is treading on thin ice and knows that if he is not on his best behavior, he could be once again banished from the herd.
Acceptance into a herd means that you are willing to abide by the rules of the herd and be a good citizen to the herd. Horses are very good at learning and following rules and as long as rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced, horses will follow the rules religiously.
There are many important lessons for us to learn from life in the horse herd. To be accepted as the leader, you have to establish authority right away and not worry about being liked—that will come later. You have to take charge, establish the rules and demonstrate your willingness to enforce them. Then your horse will come to accept your authority, feel safe in your presence and be eager to please you.
You cannot bribe or pamper your horse into thinking of you as a leader. That is not within his frame of reference. If you start out your relationship by begging him to be your friend, you automatically put yourself in the subordinate position. Horses crave authority, not pandering.
If you are the leader in your herd of two—you and your horse—then it is up to you to set and enforce the rules. Always. You lead—he follows. If your leadership skills are inadequate, your horse will step into the leadership role and start making all the decisions, like where you both go and how fast you get there. In that case, sooner or later, your horse will make a decision you don’t agree with.
It is a hard thing for some people to accept, but horses thrive off both praise and discipline; he gets a lot more of the latter in the herd. Praise is only meaningful to the horse if he has earned it and if he thinks of you as his leader and someone he wants to please. And without discipline, rules have no meaning and the horse will not make an effort to please you. If there are no rules, there is no leadership.
Discipline and praise go together and the horse needs both. If you constantly shower praise on a horse, without him making any effort to earn it, why should he keep trying to please you?
Your horse needs to know when you are pleased with him and know when you are not. Often just a stern word is all it takes, especially when the horse has an attitude of wanting to please you. But just like a child, the horse needs structure and rules to follow and ramifications to be meted out if he disobeys a rule. Otherwise, you end up with a very unpleasant animal—whether it is two-legged or four.
All of my horses, selected by me largely for their temperaments, fall into the category of very willing and eager to please. That does not mean that they are always perfect, never make mistakes or never misbehave. Since humans have been breeding horses more for pleasure and recreation than for beasts of burden for nearly a century, as a rule, horses are much better tempered than they used to be.
But this eager and willing attitude can turn into the likes of a tantrumming toddler in the presence of inadequate leadership. Recognizing when a horse is trying his best, when he is goofing off and when he is blatantly breaking the rules, is the first step in nurturing the “try” in your horse.
When I issue a directive to a horse, it is not his actual response or performance that matters—it is the effort he makes to do the right thing. If he tries, he gets rewarded and praised. If he doesn’t, he gets scolded and put immediately back to work. He doesn’t have to be brilliant, but he does have to make an effort.
Although praise is a great motivator for horses and scolding is a great dissuader, the best motivator of all for horses is comfort. When my horse puts out a good effort in response to something I have asked him to do, I always acknowledge it by whispering sweet-nothings to him, rubbing him on the withers and leaving him alone for a moment to let him rest and think about how good it feels to be a good horse. When he cheats me or doesn’t try hard enough, I put him immediately back to work. When he makes an exceptional effort, I might just stop what I am doing and immediately put him away.
Equine behaviorists have long known that safety and comfort are the greatest motivating factors of a horse’s behavior. Often people are surprised to learn that it is not food, as it is with dogs. Horses can find the food on their own—they don’t need a leader for that.
Horses only feel safe in the presence of a strong and committed leader who is fair, in-control and makes all the important decisions. Horses are comfortable when they are allowed to take it easy and have the satisfaction of feeling appreciated. Pampering, indulgence and a lack of rules and structure can turn a good horse bad in a matter of hours.
If you watch for and acknowledge the try in your horse—his effort to do the right thing or to please you– and recognize and reprimand when he is disobedient or distracted, he will work hard to stay on your good side and he will feel safe and content to be with you and to do your bidding.
All the money in the world cannot buy this kind of respect and devotion from a horse—you have to earn it by being a strong leader and recognizing your horse’s effort, be it good or bad. This is a tall order—that’s why horses make us better people.
Enjoy the ride,