I have had my horse for 10 months. I am scared to ride her outside because every time I ask her for a canter, or if another horse canters off ahead of her, she does her best imitation of a bucking bronco then takes off like her tail is on fire. So far I’ve managed to hang on, but it’s very scary. If I ride her in the arena, she’s fine. She’s also a very buddy and barn-sour horse. I am working on that with her by riding a short distance from the barn and bringing her immediately back. I do this over and over. It’s pretty boring, but I don’t know what else to try. She’s a really sweet-natured horse except for these two problems. I go back and forth between keeping her and selling her. I would like to use some natural horsemanship methods to overcome these problems. Can you help? I’m turning into a scaredy cat!
Scared Enough to Sell
Dear Scared Enough to Sell,
First of all, there’s nothing wrong with being scared in this instance. If your horse is out of control, it’s perfectly normal to be frightened! So don’t call yourself a scaredy cat.
When your horse takes off her herd behavior is over-riding her training and her flight response is triggered. The solution is more training. You’ll need to do a lot of ground work—both round pen and lead line work. Once your horse is totally focused on you and accepts you as her leader, she will no longer resist leaving the barn with you. You’ll be a herd of two and you’ll be the leader.
You’ll also need to work on your mounted training. Start out in the arena. There’s an important saying that is thousands of years old, “The best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” It’s very, very true. You need to work in the arena doing lots of trotting and lots of transitions. Also, work on circling and other school figures so that your horse is very obedient and responsive to your aids. Then you can begin working on the canter in the arena, doing the same transitions and riding maneuvers. Focus on the transitions and not the cantering. Cue her up, canter six or eight strides, then return to trot and repeat. Your upward transitions should be very smooth. As long as your horse is leaping into a canter, she’s not ready to progress. You’ll know she’s ready for more when she quietly and obediently changes gaits. If your horse is exploding into a canter, chances are you’re over-cueing her.
While you’re in the arena, also make sure you know how to effectively use the one-rein stop. If you pull on two reins to stop the horse, the pressure on his mouth is so great that the horse will tend to lean into the pressure and brace against it—your horse may even run off to escape the pressure. When you want to slow down or stop your horse, simply lift one rein up and diagonally toward your opposite hip. At the same time, shift your weight back into the saddle. This will cause the horse to yield his hip as he turns and to disengage his hindquarters. Disengagement of the hindquarters simultaneously causes the horse to stop his forward motion (putting the engine in neutral) and become submissive. The instant you feel a change in the horse (well before he actually comes to a stop) drop your hand dramatically to his neck in a clear and meaningful release. You can pick up the rein again if he doesn’t come to a complete halt, but it’s critical to release the horse when he first makes an effort to do the right thing. Timing is everything in horse training and the sooner the release comes, the better. A horse’s natural reaction to pain and discomfort is to run away from it. Therefore sometimes the horse inadvertently is taught to speed up when the rider is asking for the stop. My videos on riding, particularly Goodnight’s Principles of Riding Volume 2, Communication and Control, show in great detail how to use your seat effectively and how to cue the horse to stop with your seat and not the reins.
As you’re teaching any new cue to the horse, make sure you sequence the cue
into three parts. For instance when I teach horse to stop I exhale and say “whoa” then shift my seat/weight, then finally pick up on the reins, in a one-two-three rhythm. This gives the horse two opportunities (cues) to stop before the pull comes on his mouth. If you use this sequence consistently, the horse will learn to stop before you ever touch his mouth. All horses are happy to do that if they know it to be an option; no horse wants his mouth pulled on.
Stay in the arena as long as it takes and be confident of your control and her obedience before you try your transitions and stopping cues outside. When you’re ready, keep her at a trot for a while. Let the other horses canter off around you, but make her stay at a trot. When you do ask her to canter, just go a few strides and return to a gentle trot. If you have done this enough in the arena, your horse should be thinking stop as soon as you begin cantering, and that is the thought you want for this horse.
It sounds like your horse has great potential—she just needs more training. If you don’t have the time or the ability to invest in her training, maybe you want to consider an older, better-trained and seasoned horse. There’s nothing wrong with her that time and training won’t cure, but then again, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing when you’re in over your head and making a change. After all, you didn’t get into this sport to cause more stress in your life! You’ll have to decide for yourself what the best course of action is for both you and your horse. Good luck and be careful!
Until next time,
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
Whether you’re riding on the trail, at a show, or in your own arena, you’ll likely encounter any number of obstacles and scary objects. Can you count on your horse to quietly and willingly approach new obstacles without spooking? Do you have a plan in place to help introduce him to new challenges?
Because horses are prey animals, they’re hardwired to be on the alert, looking for any sign of an attack and preparing to bolt. They easily sense changes in the environment and notice movements, sounds, and smells that people have learned to disregard. Their eyes are triggered to pick up on sudden movements that may signal a predator that lies still in the grass, then pounces. You, however, would like to ride a calm, relaxed trail mount.
While some horses are spookier than others, all horses can react to unusual sights, sounds, sensations, and smells. The good news is that any horse can be desensitized and helped to approach most any once-fear-inducing obstacle.
Horses have a unique ability to transition from fearful and spooky to trusting and willing if they have a confident leader. I’ll teach you how to help your horse through a spook and help him confidently approach any object. Practice your approach at home, then apply those skills on the trail.
Horses rely on all of their senses to identify a potential threat. Your horse might react to an unusual odor (that you might not smell), a strange sound (soft or loud) or an unaccustomed sensation (such as a branch scraping his side). Even the most predictable trail horse can spook at a new scenario or a combination of stimuli.
While horses easily settle into a routine, they’ll notice if something is suddenly different and become suspicious. For instance, if a horse passes a mailbox every day as he leaves the property, he may suddenly spook if the flag is up. He may see the mailbox as a new monster capable of attack — until proven otherwise.
When your horse spooks, he probably balks (stops suddenly on the forehand), then spins, rears, and/or leaps. These extreme actions can unseat even a seasoned rider.
After the initial spook, your horse may also bolt. That’s because when he turns his nose away from the scary object, his flight response kicks in. At that point, he may run an eighth of a mile or more before stopping to consider just what it is he’s running away from.
Here’s how to avoid the bolt and to keep your horse’s nose pointed at the object that spooks him. Instead of allowing his flight response to kick in, you’ll help him stay present and invoke another natural response — curiosity.
Exercise Prep: Teach your horse to approach and accept any scary object.
Why you need it on the trail: Even the most benign trail ride can present perceived threats in your horse’s mind. You need to know how to keep him from spooking and bolting — potentially unseating you and causing injury.
What you’ll do: As you ride, you’ll keep your horse focused on the scary object, turning toward the stimulus and stopping him from turning to bolt. You’ll take a deep breath, maintain visual and mindful focus, be calm and relaxed, and avoid prompting your horse to become even more fearful. You’ll make sure he remains obedient as you ask him to stop and look toward the scary object. Your goal is to prevent his flight response from triggering while encouraging his curiosity.
What you’ll need: Your usual tack, a helmet, and an object or situation that’s new to your horse. Set up an obstacle that your horse hasn’t seen before, or recreate a situation that has spooked your horse on the trail. If your horse is typically “bombproof,” test his willingness to approach something that moves or makes an unusual sound, such as a plastic bag caught in a tree.
(Note: If you don’t feel safe or comfortable with your horse, or if your horse is young and inexperienced, ask an experienced horse-person or trainer to help you through your horse’s desensitizing process.)
Warm-up exercise: Mount up, and warm up your horse as usual, well away from the new obstacle. Perform small circles to the right and left. Make sure you can calmly turn him in both directions and that he’s listening to your turn cues.
Step #1. Control His Nose
Guide your horse toward the obstacle at a walk. Start at least 20 yards away to give him a chance to notice a change in his usual environment. Approaching from a distance will also allow you to notice small changes in his body language and alertness, so you can control his movements before he can manage a dramatic spook, turn, and bolt.
At the first sign of tension in your horse’s body — perking his ears, tensing his muscles or leaning away from the obstacle — ask him to stop and keep his nose pointed directly at the object. Don’t allow him to move backward, left or right. Standing still and focusing on the object that caused concern is the only option.
When you ask your horse to stop, it keeps him obedient and responsive to you, and gives you a reason to praise him. Stopping and standing gives him a moment to observe the new object, take a deep breath, and relax.
If your horse tries to turn away — if he even starts to look to one side or the other —correct his focus by picking up on one rein and pointing his nose back to the obstacle.
Keep your arms are in front of you, encouraging your horse not to back away as you correct his nose position, and turn straight toward the scary obstacle.
If your horse turns his head to the right, bump the left rein, and visa versa. Use the amount of rein pressure needed to get an immediate response. Don’t allow him to refuse your turn cue or turn the way he’d like. He must learn that turning away (and therefore invoking his flight response) isn’t an option.
At this point, you’re not asking him to approach the object. You’re asking him only to stop moving forward, backward, left, or right, and look at the object that causes him tension or fear. Soon, he’ll understand that there’s nowhere to go and will easily stand still and face what he’s afraid of.
As soon as your horse stops trying to turn away from the scary object, loosen the reins, take a deep breath (to signal your non-concern), and rub him on the neck to praise him for being obedient.
Step #2. Take a Forward Step
Ask your horse to take a step or two — but no more — closer to the object. Just as in Step #1, you’ll keep his nose pointed toward the obstacle and keep your own focus on where you want to go. After he’s moved a step or two closer to the object, say “whoa,” as you gently sit back and stop him.
Again, loosen the reins, take a deep breath and rub your horse on the neck to praise him for responding to your commands. Make sure to rub your horse on the neck —which signals him to relax — instead patting him. Patting can energize and stimulate instead of relax your horse.
Ask your horse to step forward then stop several times until you get closer and closer to the object. Always stop after a few steps, praise him, and encourage him to relax. With each repetition, he’ll gain confidence, and his initial fearfulness of the object will dissipate. He’ll get used to seeing, hearing, smelling, and sensing the object. He’ll understand that you, his herd leader, are encouraging him and praising him for his approach.
Step #3. Encourage Curiosity
Asking your horse to stop moving toward the scary object not only helps him relax, but helps him become curious about the item in front of him.
Imagine telling a young child not to look in the hall closet the day before her birthday. You’ll inspire her curiosity and may prompt her to snoop for presents. The same idea applies to your horse regarding the once-scary object. As soon as you ask him to stop and look at the item, he’ll become curious about it. His fear will convert to curiosity, and you’ll feel him become drawn to the object, like a magnet.
When your horse anticipates your go-forward cue and seems to want to go forward, allow his forward motion for a few steps.
When your horse steps forward, loosen the reins, and allow the forward motion, and give him praise and affirmation for his curiosity. But then hold him back a little so he becomes even more curious about the object.
Make a game out of this exercise that your horse will love to play. When he approaches the object and touches it with his muzzle, declare him the winner — with copious praise.
When you’ve made sure your horse’s curiosity results in relaxation instead of another spook, ask him to move forward and past the object that first caused him fear. With practice, frequent stops, and praise, he’ll soon approach whatever you place in his path.
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.