Your horse sees objects far away much better than those nearby. As a prey animal, he’s programmed to scan the horizon, searching for predators. His brain is also trained to react to quick movements, such blowing branches and strangely moving unidentified objects-even items that you know to be harmless. Until proven otherwise, your horse assumes that an unidentifiable object may kill and eat him, which can lead to nervous, spooky behavior.
Your horse also has difficulty seeing when moving from light to dark and vice versa. While your horse has excellent night vision, his eyes dilate and constrict tremendously to see by both sunlight and starlight. As horses in the wild rely on their vision for survival, compromised vision can lead to a spook.
This in mind, keep your eyes moving and looking far down the trail. Scan the horizon for any object (such as a blowing grocery bag) or potentially scary scene (such as a dark, shaded area), that may cause your horse anxiety and lead to a spook.
By simply looking ahead, you can avoid circumstances that may trigger your nervous horse’s fears. If you can ride proactively toward whatever lies ahead, you may ride right past the threat before your horse acts out with fear.
When you spot a potential problem object or scene, follow these steps:
Step #1: Take charge. Remind your horse that you’re in charge and worthy of following in the case of a crisis. Remind him of your leadership skills and his ability to be obedient.
Step #2: Cue your horse. To establish your leadership, ask for simple, continuous moves, such as stop, go forward, turn, back, etc. Star your series of cues as soon as you see the scary object, before your horse detects it.
Step #3: Keep him focused. As you approach the object, keep your horse focused and his nose pointed directly down the trail; no looking around is allowed. If his nose isn’t pointed straight ahead, he’s thinking about his surroundings and preparing to take off on his own path.
Step #4: Stop and relax. Stop regularly to remind your horse that you’re in control. Let him drop his head, take a deep breath, and relax; then forge ahead. As he relaxes, take a moment to breathe deeply yourself. Your attentiveness and calm disposition will also cue your horse to relax.
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
Sit the Spook
Learn how to sit the spook on trail for safety and control with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
All horses are capable of spooking. Horses are hardwired to flee in response to fear. They’re naturally programmed to watch for danger and for the herd leader’s cue for when to bolt.
Get away first; think later.
While you can desensitize your horse to most any stimulus you may encounter on the trail (and you should), there’s always a chance he’ll see something new, scary, and spook inducing.
“I laugh when I see sale ads boast a ‘bombproof’ horse that will never spook,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
Of course, horses are individuals and some may spook more often than others. Put the word “never” in there, and horses will prove you wrong.
Arabian Horses are stereotyped to be more flighty than Quarter Horses, but there are individuals who prove the stereotype wrong for each breed.
Quarter Horses bred for cow work may see a slight movement and look for something to chase.
You can’t totally remove the spook from the horse (though you should desensitize him as much as you can), but you can program your brain to know what to do in the moment when your horse spooks. You’re the part of the equation that can change.
A great trail-riding horse doesn’t need to be “bombproof” if you prepare your mind and body.
Here, Goodnight will give you her six-step method on how to sit the spook: (1) Envision perfection; (2) relax; (3) sit well; (4) be the herd leader; (5) react quickly; (6) convert his behavior.
Goodnight will also provide a special riding exercise just for kids.
Step 1: Envision Perfection
Is your horse tense on the trail? Envision your horse as well-behaved and calm, and ride him in a way that lets him know you’re in charge.
Don’t allow your horse to look around and find something to spook at. He doesn’t need to look from side-to-side and take in the scenery. His job is to look at what’s in front of him and mind the footing.
You’re in charge of where your horse looks. His nose shouldn’t move beyond the width of his shoulders. Looking straight ahead is the obedient response.
Ride with two hands. If he turns his head to look at the scary bushes, wildlife, etc., bump his nose back to center with light rein pressure.
Avoid gripping the reins tightly. Keep the reins loose, so your horse doesn’t feel your anxiety and think he should be worried. But don’t allow too much rein slack. You’ll need to have enough contact available to turn your horse if he reacts to something scary. (More on that in a minute.)
If your horse is tense, calm him by showing him you’re a worthy leader. Get him moving, and give him something to do. You don’t have to ride in a straight line. Guide him to the right and left; go around a bush.
Turning in different directions will get your horse thinking and give you control. Control his space, and remind him that you’re in charge of where you both go.
Step 2: Relax
Relaxing can be a tall order — especially if you think your horse might spook. To relax, close your eyes momentarily, and picture a balanced rider. Assume a centered, balanced position, with your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel in alignment.
Then systematically relax every joint in your body. Imagine relaxed toes. Unlock your knees. Relax your hips, and move with your horse’s back. Drop your shoulders. Unclench your fingers, wrists, hands, and shoulders.
If you’re worried that your horse might spook and become uncontrollable, you’ll probably tense your hips, clamp your legs, and grasp at the reins. You might even go into the fetal position.
These are normal reflexes in response to fear — your body pulls into the center for protection. But when you’re riding, this isn’t a safe posture at all.
Rolling into a ball causes you to pull on the reins, and drive your heels and legs into your horse’s sides. These actions tell him to be worried and move quickly — so you’re actually cueing him to spook.
What’s more, when you’re worried, you tense up your joints, locking them into position — a dangerous riding posture.
Tense a bicep as though you’re showing off your arm muscles. Notice that when you do so, your wrist elbow and shoulder joints lock.
Responding to a spook by tensing up and locking your joints is like hitting an ejection button. When you stiffen your back, shoulders, and legs, your body becomes one tense, locked object that can’t move with your horse. Instead, you’ll likely to bounce right off.
Step 3: Sit Well
On the other hand, you can be too relaxed, riding with your feet out in front of you, as though you’re sitting in a recliner with a remote control in your hand.
This isn’t a balanced position. If your horse spooks, you won’t have time to regain your balance to correct him, and you’ll likely be left behind.
Do you lengthen your stirrups for trail riding because it seems more comfortable? Don’t think you can ride with too-long stirrups because you’re “just trail riding.” Let’s take “just trail riding” out of the vocabulary.
Choose a stirrup length that allows your feet to rest without reaching — and while keeping your knees slightly bent so you can move like an athlete. Also, make sure your legs will stay underneath your seat.
Instead of sitting far back in the saddle, maintain an active, athletic stance. Suck in your belly button, rock back on your pockets, and sink your heels deep into the stirrups.
For a balanced, anchored position, ride with your toes up and heels down. Roll your ankles so that the bottoms of your feet are angled away from your horse.
Rolling in your ankles and slightly lifting your pinky toes move your legs into a close contact position and wraps the stirrup leathers around your legs.
There’s a yoga term that will help you imagine sitting up, back, and in balance: back body. Ride with your back body extended. That is, lengthen all your back’s bones, ligaments, and “energy.”
Almost everything in life causes you to cock your chest and abdomen forward and lock your hips, that is, living in the front body. Think hunching over the computer or slouching on the couch.
In riding, you want to elongate your back body and be conscious of your back. Relax and round your lower back, and extend your torso up; shorten your front-side and lengthen your back-side.
Stay in your back body, and don’t allow your energy to move forward. Use this visualization to prepare for riding — and prepare for a spook.
Step 4: Be the Herd Leader
Your horse is a herd animal, wired to notice the reactions and tension of the herd members. When you ride your horse, you’re in his herd, so he looks to you to make sure everything is okay. Imagine yourself as a strong, calm leader.
If you even think your horse might spook, start deep, abdominal breathing. He’ll detect if you’re holding your breath, which signals to him that he should be afraid.
Breathing with purpose will extend your spine and help you think about riding in your back body. Breathing is critical. Do it. Air is free.
Moving your eyes will help keep your whole body relaxed. Your horse will notice your tension if you lock your gaze on something you think may spook him.
Focus where you want your horse to go — not at something that’s potentially scary. When you focus on where you are now or where your horse is going, your eyes lend weight and point your body to that point.
What’s more, when you turn and look at where your horse is headed, instead of where you want to go, the problem gets worse.
Let’s say your horse spooks at something to the right of the trail and that’s what he’s moving away from. But you’re more afraid of the drop-off to the left of the trail that he’s moving toward — so you look left.
Your horse usually goes where you look or follows your focus. So by looking the wrong way, you’ve encouraged him to spook. Instead, focus where you want to go so that everything in your body gives him a consistent cue to go where you want.
Step 5: React Quickly
When your horse spooks, you won’t have time to stop and think. Spooks happen fast. You’ll only have an instant to stop your horse’s desire to bolt and focus him on the path you want.
This is the time that your at-home, in-the-car, thinking-ahead mental practice comes into play. Here’s a breakdown of what happens during a spook and how you’ll need to respond to keep your horse from bolting — all while keeping yourself relaxed, in your back body, breathing, and looking where you want to go.
In a spook, your horse first turns in the opposite direction of the scary object and tries to get away from it. He’s acting on his deep-seated flight instinct to survive.
Get in your mind that you’ll always turn your horse back toward the spooky stimulus any time he spooks. Lock in that image. Practice the motions and scenario over and over. Facing fear countermands flight.
Your horse will never run toward the spook-inducing stimulus, so a turn is required. Be prepared to turn with one rein. This flexes his neck and encourages the turn. Then ask for the stop.
If you pull on both reins at once, your horse will run right through the reins, and you’ll be in a pound-for-pound battle you can’t win.
If you shut off his escape path, he’ll try to turn another way. Be prepared to turn to the right then to the left with one rein while avoiding putting any pressure on the opposite rein. Block each escape path, and point him back at the scary stimulus. He won’t bolt toward what he’s afraid of.
The further your horse gets into the flight response before you intervene, the harder it is to get him out of the bolting run. Your reaction has to be quick. You might have to take a sudden, hard hold of your horse so that you can stop him before he bolts too far. If he gets four or five strides into the bolt, you may not be able to stop him.
As soon as you turn and stop your horse from bolting, he should stop and look at what scared him. Program in this response by approaching scary objects at home. Praise your horse each time he stops and looks at the scary object.
Repetition locks in this response and will help you on the trail. You can’t take the spook out of your horse, but you can teach him how to deal with it.
During a spook on the trail, your horse may be so scared that he won’t be ready to stop and will instead turn away again. Each time he turns, block his path. By doing so, you’ll leave him no other option but to face his fear.
As your horse calms, ask him to stop again. Encourage him to take a breath by taking a deep breath yourself. When you eliminate his flight option, he’ll calm down and listen to your cues. Soften your body, and sigh out the air. Pet him on the neck. Let him know you’re the leader in your herd of two and that all is okay.
If your horse flies backward, chances are, you’re pulling back on the reins. Note that pulling back on the reins doesn’t stop your horse. In fact, it may be causing the problem.
Instead, reach your hands straight toward your horse’s ears, and pump your legs on him from behind the cinch.
If you can’t stop the backward motion, pick up one rein toward your opposite shoulder, and cause him to cross his back legs. He can’t back and cross his legs at the same time. (You might want to practice this at home.)
Step 6: Convert his Behavior
When your horse determines that the scary monster isn’t going to kill and eat him, he’ll “convert” to investigative behavior. Investigative behavior is simply curiosity and will cancel out his flight behavior.
If your horse moves forward toward the scary thing, allow him to check it out, and praise him. This will convert him — replace one natural behavior with another without getting into a fight.
When your horse is curious about what spooked him, he’s suddenly brave. He’ll want to go closer. Praise him for his courageous actions, look for a new location to ride toward, and move down the trail.
For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com
This article first appeared in The Trail Rider ~ September/October 2014
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.
Question Category: Riding Skills
Question: Dear Julie,
Last night I watched your TV show on introducing the horse to the surf. It was very informative but the thing that impressed me the most was how you maintained your wonderful, balanced seat and body position while the horse was jumping sideways! Unfortunately, when my horse spooks and jumps like that, I look and feel like “Whiplash” the little monkey they strap on to the Border Collie’s back at the rodeo. Needless to say, this scares my horse even more. I have some pretty big confidence issues due to past experiences/injuries and know that having a secure seat during a spook would help my confidence tremendously.
I have read your article on rider position and feel like I have this pretty good under normal riding circumstances. My ankles and back are soft and my seat is following and mobile. Everything falls apart if he spooks. I’ll usually know that he’s distracted or tense before it happens (I’ve been practicing your calm down/lower your head cue, and your 3 step circling exercise), then a deer or invisible something causes him to blow up. I only ride him in my pasture and arena because he is hyper alert. I hope to get past all of this someday with a lot of desensitizing exercises.
Do you have any suggestions for me on how to develop the kind of secure, safe seat and following upper body that I saw on your show? My body whips so badly that I feel every muscle in my core working to keep me from flying off. I’m 50 years old and do yoga almost every day. I know the change won’t happen overnight and I’m willing to work hard to keep safe.
Thank you very much for any advice you can give me. I love your show and all the articles and information available on your website.
Lori, Malta, MT
Thank you for watching the show. We have certainly gotten a lot of comments on the beach episode! It was called “Wave Runner” and aired on January 7th and will run again the week of February 18th. It was really fun to shoot and I can tell you, it was a really wild ride, but we did eventually make it into the waves, belly deep in the ocean!
Being able to stay in the middle of your horse even when he is moving radically is simply a matter of being relaxed. I know, easier said than done! Any time you tense a muscle, it causes you to lock a corresponding joint. Since your joints act as shock absorbers, a locked joint leads to bouncing and if it is your ankles, knees or hips that are locked, it is like hitting the ejector button.
It is important to learn where you have a tendency to tense and to always focus on seeking out the source of your tension as you ride. Most of us tend toward the same bad habits. So if you can determine what those are, you can constantly remind yourself not to do that. For instance, if you have a tendency to look down or lean forward and close your hips, you should be constantly checking yourself for those errors.
It sounds like you already know and understand the principles of good balance and position in the saddle (there’s lots of information on that in my Training Library and in my video series, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding), but now you need to be able to relax when your horse spooks or moves unexpectedly. For the most part, this will come naturally as you gain confidence but it will help if you can learn to focus on deep abdominal breathing, keeping your eyes up and active and continuing to ride through the problem instead of freezing up.
There is one suggestion I can make to help you learn to move with your horse when he jumps to the side. If you can find a cutting horse trainer in your area, perhaps you could take some lessons on a well-trained cutter on a mechanical cutting machine. At first, you may only be able to stay with the horse on one or two turns, but gradually you’ll learn to stay soft and relaxed in your joints as he makes the big moves from side to side. In addition to improving your seat and building your confidence, it will sure be a lot of fun!
Enjoy the ride!
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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: Dear Julie,
I have an 8-year-old gelding that is very easy to work with on the ground and in the arena. He tends to become uptight, and nervous when he goes on the trail, even when he has ridden on the same trails and pastures for 3 years. He holds his breath and seems to be very wary of things that he has always seen. Tonight he was particularly tense. It felt as though his barrel was full of air when I got on. We casually walked around the barnyard, where there is a variety of equipment etc. I was going to go on a trail ride but didn’t because a storm was imminent. This is not a new area to him. We stopped by a silo. He kept peering around the corner, and all of sudden he did a full body deep quiver/jump, he spooked in place. He continued to feel as though he was ready to spook at any moment, full of fear. I dismounted, and did some groundwork around the very same objects that seemed to bother him just a few minutes earlier. He became more comfortable. He walked over a tarp that was lying on the ground, without difficulty. When I got back on he once again became wary. Is this about me? Yes, I could sense his predisposition when I got on. He was particularly bothered tonight and we just made the same ride a few nights ago. I pay attention to my body and make sure that I am doing deep breathing etc. There are times when he is not like this at all. He is overweight right now due to all the rain that we have been having, could that have something to do with it? He also tends to chew his bit, when on a trail ride, and I know that it is a sign that he is bothered inside. He does not appear bothered when you catch him up or work with him on the ground. Often, you need to bring his life up. I know that he is holding back in some way, but do not know how to free him up. I would appreciate any suggestions.
Thank you, Carol
As always, it is difficult to diagnose a horse problem over the Internet 😉 As a third party observer in person, I can see the big picture and have a better idea of where the problems are originating. Nine times out of ten, the rider is contributing to the problem in ways the rider cannot see or feel or comprehend. My guess is that, at the very least, this is a problem of co-dependency between your horse and you.
Obviously your horse likes the comfort and security of being in the arena and around the barn in confined areas and does not feel comfortable out of those very controlled settings. Since horses are prey animals that live in herds, he is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of the animals around him; this is an important survival skill for prey animals. When you go out on your own, out of his comfort zone, this behavior is compounded and he becomes even more reactive to the animals and emotions around him.
When you ride a horse a whole lot of your body is in contact with him, so it does not take much to convey apprehension to the horse. He may even start it himself by sucking his air in and holding his breath (just like humans do when they get nervous) and that is probably putting you “on guard.” As soon as you start thinking that he may spook or do something, there are changes in your body that occur as you tense in preparation and to him, that becomes a prompt that something must be wrong, just like he thought. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most often when I see this situation developing, the rider picks up on the reins and that conveys even more tension and fear to the horse.
Your horse gains courage on the ground because you are there, in his eyesight, between the scary thing and him. When you are on his back, he is in front and feels more vulnerable. Also, when you are on the ground YOU are more confident so he gains confidence from you (mirrors your emotion). Conversely, when you are on his back, you feel more nervous (because he is nervous) and that compounds his nervousness.
It is amazing how often horses will act the way you think they will. If you ride your horse with confidence and expect him to do something right, he’ll do it. When you think your horse is going to spook or misbehave, he’ll do that too. I am certainly not the first person to say that; you’ll hear it from many accomplished horse trainers. I know from my lifetime of experience with horses that this is true; maybe not all the time, but more times than not.
We have a horse in training right now that is very spooky, reluctant and balky out on trail with its owner. However, for both Twyla and me (Twyla has trained horses with me for many years and is now my Business Manager), he is steady, relaxed, willing and obedient and we have only had him in training for one week. Part of the problem is engrained disobedience and part of it relates to the confidence and leadership of the rider. We expect the horse to behave, insist upon it really, and we expect him to go down the road like a horse should; and that is indeed what he does. However, he does not yet have that much faith in his owner, and she does not yet have that much faith him (yes, those two things are very connected), but things are improving as 1) the horse becomes more habituated to being an obedient, subordinate horse, and 2) the owner recognizes that her horse can indeed be a good citizen. You may want to consider putting the horse in training to work through this issue and get some miles on him going down the trail. That could help both of you to be more confident.
Doing lots of meaningful groundwork that results in a more confident, relaxed and subordinate horse is always a good thing to do and should help your situation. You also need to teach your horse a calm down cue. We teach most horses that come into our barn, and all horses that are nervous and high strung, to drop their head to the ground whenever we ask, either from the ground or from the saddle. Start on the ground with a rope halter and simply put gentle down pressure from the chin knot, watching the horse’s head very closely so that you can release at the first sign of the head dropping. At first, you must release when the head moves down just a fraction of an inch; as the horse comes to understand what you want and what will get him the release, you can hold the pressure a little longer so the head comes down lower. The first few inches of head drop are harder to get, but in short order, the horse’s head will drop all the way to the ground.
It is physiologically impossible for the horse to be tense with his head down (and impossible for him to be relaxed with his head up). So once the horse is trained to drop his head to the ground (which in addition to causing relaxation also causes subordination) you can ask him anytime he gets worked up or “on the muscle” (which is what you are describing in your question), you can ask him to drop his head down. This is known as “putting the horse in the closet;” the closet is a calm, quiet, safe place for your horse.
Teaching the horse to drop his head from the saddle is a little more difficult but if you have him well trained from the ground, it is much easier. You’ll pick up (not back) on ONE rein (not two) and repeat the steps above, releasing as soon as the horse even thinks about dropping his head. Then pick up the rein again until the horse makes the connection that lowering his head makes the rein pressure go away. Soon he should be happy to go to “the closet” and stay there when you pick up one rein. Remember, you’ll have to release the reins to let him drop. If you ask him to lower his head and he does, but then hits the bit, you have punished him for doing what you asked him to do. By the way, pulling on two reins will always make the horse more anxious because now he is worried about his mouth too and that makes him a whole lot more scared. That is a real common way the rider contributes to the horse’s fear when he becomes spooky.
When your horse feels spooky to you, put him t work, giving him constant instruction and directives so that he has to focus on you and think of you as the boss of him. You might ask him to turn right, then turn left, then trot right and left, then stop, then go then trot then stop and turn around, etc. Not in a harsh punishing sort of way, just in a “here’s something to keep you from worrying about that” way. This is known as replacement training; you are replacing the unwanted behavior with something else.
Another favorite calm-down exercise for the nervous horse is the three-step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I believe you’ll find this on my website in the Q&A section. There are many Q&As on my website about barn sour horses and doing groundwork to establish a leader-follower relationship with the horse, and that will help with your situation too. What your horse needs most are your confidence, leadership and reassurance.
Good luck and be careful.
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