My Horse Spooks And Lacks Focus

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Dear Julie,

I have a 10-year-old horse that was born on my farm. From day one has been an ADD/spooky horse. He has been a challenge! Although we have made progress, it seems like I’m always going back to square one. My background is in dressage, but I do a lot of ground work too; some round pen, longeing, etc. I take him places, clinics and shows now and then, but I still struggle with getting his attention. Once in a while he’s kind of relaxed but progress is very slow. I can’t seem to get beyond the inattentiveness to really start being able to school him. What can I do to help him be calm and focused?

Finding the Focus

 

Dear Focus,

It sounds like you have already tried a lot of different things with this horse with limited success. At 10 years old, he ought to be getting pretty mature and reliable especially with all the work you have done. Without seeing you and your horse in action, it is hard for me to make a diagnosis, but I can make some suggestions, based on my experience in working with horses and people.

First you’ll need to teach your horse how to properly respond when something frightens him—we’ll replace his spooky behavior with stop, think and relax behavior.

Next, you’ll probably need to go back to basics in your ground work, paying special attention to your horse’s focus. Just doing ground work isn’t always productive, unless you’re going about it systematically, with a keen sense of awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Finally, you’ll have to work on nose control with your horse, both from the ground and from the saddle. Just like a child with ADD, sitting at his desk and focusing on the teacher can be tough, but it can be learned, even without the Ritalin!

 

The correction:

I like to teach spooky horses to face their fear. As long as they face it they can stop and relax, and get lots of reassurance from me. So the first cardinal rule is that you must make sure your horse stops and faces the scary thing. When he’s afraid (instead of spinning and bolting), reward him. He’ll soon learn that when he stops he gets praise, a rub on the neck and gets to stop and relax.

Once he takes a deep breath and drops his head in relaxation, I’ll gently encourage him to move toward whatever he’s afraid of; I ask him to move forward one step at a time, stopping him with each step (so that I remain in control, issuing the orders, and so that he remains obedient) and rewarding him. This eventually becomes a game to the horse and he loves to work for the reward. He gets the ultimate reward when he will actually walk all the way up to the scary object and reach out and touch it with his nose. You can practice this exercise from the ground, too.

One big problem with a horse like this is that he doesn’t focus on you and doesn’t look to you for leadership. A focused and obedient horse—one that looks to you for direction, is best accomplished with groundwork, both lead line and round pen. It sounds like you have done a lot of this already, but I have seen a lot of people do ground work without succeeding in getting the horse’s total focus. For instance, the horse may run well around the round pen and do turns and stops, etc., but if his total focus isn’t on you almost all the time, then the round pen work may have been nothing more than meaningless chasing of the horse.

Once the horse is moving away from me well in the round pen and I can control which direction he goes, I want to establish a line of communication with him so that he’s constantly looking to me for directives. If his focus wanders outside the round pen, then I put him to work. Not harshly and not chasing him but asking him to do something like go faster, go slower, turn this way, turn that way, etc.

When his focus is on me because he has to watch me to see what I am going to ask him to do next, I let him stop and relax, for as long as he can stay focused on me. If his attention wanders, he goes back to work. This same concept can be applied for lead line work and mounted work as well. Just be careful that when you ask the horse for more focus by putting him to work, that you’re not getting fast and reactive to him and escalating his tension but just quietly issuing one directive after another to the horse and reinforcing what you ask of him.

Finally, it is very important that you always have control of the horse’s nose, both on the ground and especially in the saddle. Most people let their horse’s nose (and therefore his focus) wander all over the place and look at whatever interests him. This is a root cause of many behavioral and obedience problems. Usually, the very first indication that a horse is thinking about doing something he shouldn’t do is when the nose leaves its position from in front of his chest.

We work very hard with our colts and any older horses with behavior problems to teach this very important rule, “Thou shalt keep your nose directly in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you or riding you.” If you set this very simple rule with your horse and then enforce it 100% of the time, within minutes, your horse will become more focused and obedient.

I think it is important to master this rule on the ground first, but I also work on it in the saddle from the get go. From the ground, all you have to do is ask the horse to stand (that is another very important ground rule we set right away, “Thou shalt not move thy feet unless I tell you to move them.”) and then step back away from the horse. He should stand there on his own volition, not because you have a choke hold on the halter rope. See my Lead Line Leadership video if you have trouble with your horse standing still.

Correct his nose with a gentle bump of the lead every time he moves his nose away from you and point at his nose or twirl the tail of the rope toward his nose every time he moves the nose toward you. Just put his nose back where you told it to stay every time it moves; be slow and calm with your corrections but always consistent and firm when necessary. Work on nose control standing in an open area for 5-10 minutes and the horse will learn his parameters. Then reinforce this rule at the hitching rail and at all times you’re working around the horse.

Carrying over this rule (nose control) to the saddle is very important for a spooky horse or a horse that is easily distracted. He can pick his head up and look at anything he wants to, as long as his nose stays in front of his chest. If it moves to either side, correct it with a gentle and slow bump of one rein (if he’s turning his nose to the right, use the left rein and visa versa). Again, it isn’t a pull or a jerk, but a slow gentle bump up on the rein and keep bumping (not pulling) until the nose comes back to center. If you set this rule and then enforce it, in short order the horse will learn to keep his nose centered and his attention will stay on you.

 

The outcome:

If you set some basic ground rules with your horse, he will respond. Horses are very good at following rules—that’s how they get along in the herd. The alpha of the herd calls all the shots. When she says move, her subordinates move. When she says it’s time to relax and take a nap, they do it. When she says it is time for flight, they respond.

By teaching your horse how to react properly when he’s frightened, by doing ground work to increase the horse’s focus on you and by learning to control your horse’s nose—and therefore his attention—you’ll make a lot of progress with this horse.

No horse wants to be nervous and frightened. Horses seek out comfort and security more than anything else in life. You’ll have to provide your horse comfort when he’s focused and relaxed and give him security by him knowing that you’re the one in charge and that you call all the shots. In knowing that, he’ll find peace and not worry so much.

To me, if I can teach the horse to respond to some basic rules and he can trust me to enforce the rules, his life becomes more predictable and therefore he doesn’t have to worry. My groundwork DVDs will show you a systematic process for getting and keeping your horse’s focus, respect and willing attitude, both in the round pen and on the lead line.

Good luck with your horse and with a little work, you can teach your horse to be a relaxed and focused partner. There’s lots of information on my website, www.juliegoodnight.com that can help you along the way.

Enjoy the ride!

Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician

www.juliegoodnight.com

 

Issues From The Saddle: How To Relax A Spooky Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have broken my arm from the fall. We have snow on the ground and I didn’t want my horse {a forward horse} to run home. I needed to get off my horse when I saw that I was not going to be able to take control. I thought twice about getting off and walking home because of the long walk that was ahead of me. I am a new horse owner with my husband and we have a lot to learn. As soon as I am able I will be working on “drop-your-head-cue” in the saddle. He drops his head with ground work. My horse is a nervous, 16 year old, 13 hand racking horse. He loves to run home. This is not allowed of course but when the trails are narrow I cannot do the circling {relaxing for my horse} game. I am limited with my education in tight situations. I have to be careful with the circling exercise with my horse because he can dart into the turns. My friend says that he is a sports car running a race and cuts his corners well. I am now looking for your Q/A three step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I have looked but cannot find it. I have your new ground work DVD’s and have learned from them. Thank you for everything…your teaching style is easy to understand.

Philly

Answer: Dear Philly,

I am attaching the Q&A on the three-step circling process to calm a fractious horse and make him more submissive and attentive to you. I am glad you are enjoying the DVDs on groundwork. There is lots of information there on the horse’s natural behaviors and how you can make him more focused and obedient to you.

Often when people use circling work to establish more control over a horse, it is done with harshness and quick jerking movements. This will only serve to make a horse more anxious, not less; faster not slower. Speed and harshness will always exacerbate a horse’s emotions and may trigger the flight response.

With any circling or disengagement of the hindquarters, it is imperative that it is done calmly and quietly, encouraging the horse to slow down and soften. If it is done with fast, reactive movements, it will cause the same reaction in the horse. Remember, horses are programmed to mirror the emotions of the animals around them. Therefore, if we let our emotions (fear, anger, frustration) get involved in training, it will always cause more problems.

Training with softness and with a calm and objective demeanor will lead to success in your horse. Also, when you are calm and objective versus reactive and emotional, it is easier to see the ideal moment for the release. Make sure that whenever you give a horse a cue, you release the cue the instant the horse begins to respond; do not wait until you get the finished result or it may be too late. Whatever the horse is doing when you release him, is what you are training him to do. When you are caught up in emotions yourself, it is almost impossible to have the right timing; and timing of the release is everything with horses.

Sounds like you have been through a lot with this horse and I admire your persistence and determination to resolve the problems. Keep the faith and be careful in the process.

JG

Excerpt from Q&A on Three-Step Circling:

“My inclination with this horse would be to use the “three-step circling” process every time you feel her falling apart on you. You mentioned that you could tell when she was going to do her thing; if you have a replacement behavior, then every time you feel her coiling up, you can ask her for the replacement behavior.

3-step circling involves a small circle at a walk, with your hand in three different positions that causes the horse to bend three different parts of her body. You will only use the inside rein; it is imperative that the outside rein is totally loose. It is also imperative that this is a slow smooth circle; do not jerk the horse into a circle or make any harsh movements. When this exercise is done correctly, the horse follows your hand with little or no contact on her mouth.

Step 1, put your horse onto a small circle (3-4 meters) and drop your inside hand down on your knee, with very light contact and with open fingers, flutter the rein until the horse breaks at the poll and you can see her eyeball. As soon as she gives, stop fluttering but leave your hand in the same position, so that she finds slack in the rein. As long as your hand is down on your knee, she should break at the poll and bend her nose toward your hand and hold herself in that position until you move your hand to step 2.

It is important to actually lay your hand on your knee so that it is in a consistent position and to prevent you from pulling back more on the rein when she gives (if you pull more when she gives, you are not rewarding her for the proper response). You are teaching the horse to give to light rein pressure and to seek out the slack in the rein. You must live up to your end of the bargain and let her find slack when she gives.

Step 1 is important because it gets your horse’s attention on you. When she gives in step 1, her inside ear will be back on you and you will be able to see her eyeball. Step 1 causes the horse to bend in the poll and to give her attention to you.

Step 2, still circling, SLOWLY lift your hand straight up, still out over your knee. Now your hand is out to the side over your knee, your elbow is at your side and at about a 90 degree angle. It is imperative that you are not pulling back on the rein but gently lifting up. Make sure you keep your hand in a consistent position and let the horse find slack when she gives to the rein pressure. Step 2 causes the horse to bend in the shoulder and all of her focus will come onto you. Step 3, from the position of step 2, slowly bring your inside hand in and up toward your opposite shoulder. That is the direction of the pull, upward and diagonal; your hand will not make it all the way to your shoulder. Be precise in the direction of your hand; it is an upward diagonal movement toward your opposite shoulder (for some reason people really struggle with this movement). It is a motion like crossing your heart.

Step 3 will cause your horse to bend in the hip and disengage her hindquarters (cross the hind legs). Disengagement causes submissiveness in the horse, so step 3 will bend your horse in the hip and cause her to be submissive, even if only for a moment. You will distinctly feel the horse’s back bend underneath you when she disengages.

Step 3 is very difficult for the horse, so make sure you do not ask her to hold it too long. Also, watch the tips of her ears to make sure that they remain level. If you over-bend your horse, she will begin to twist in the neck and her ears will no longer be level, and you will be teaching her the wrong thing.

After you have done all 3 steps on one side, give your horse a little break and do the other side. Make certain to move your hands slowly and do not pull on the rein, but gently vibrate or flutter the rein until the horse gives; it should be very soft with very light pressure. Make sure the horse finds slack when she gives so that she learns self-carriage and so that she is rewarded for the right response by the release.

Again, this is a slow bending exercise, not a fast, harsh punishment or spinning in a circle. Make sure you use your hands in a precise and consistent place; once the horse learns this exercise, she will automatically bend into position as soon as your hand moves into position. Once the horse is responsive, you can go through all 3 steps in one or two circles; at first, you will probably be making several circles in each step.

This is a great exercise that has many, many benefits to both horse and rider. I teach this exercise in clinics all the time and 100% of the time, even beginners can get their horses to disengage and can feel the horse’s shoulder and hip bend. It is also highly beneficial to the horse as it teaches her to give to rein pressure and seek out the slack in the rein. The mental benefits are tremendous too because with each progressive step you get the horse’s attention, focus and submission. We use this exercise on all the colts we start; generally we begin and end every session with this simple little exercise. It keeps your horse soft and focused.

I would suggest you practice this exercise on another horse while yours is still laid-up. Then when you are ready to get back to her, you’ll have a good feel for how this exercise works. You’ll want to teach it to her during the good times so that when you feel her coil up, you can fall right into this exercise and she’ll know what to do. Then every time you feel a spook or scoot coming on, just gently fall into this exercise until you feel her soften and focus, then let her go straight.”

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

Issues From The Saddle: How To Deal With A Spooky Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hello Julie,

I was glad to see you are doing a clinic in my area in NH. I have a 10 year old who was born on my farm who from day one has been an ADD/spooky horse. He has been a challenge and although we have made progress, I’m always back to square one. I have done so much with him, my background is in dressage, but I do a lot of ground work, some round pen, longeing, I take him places, clinics and shows now and then, but I still struggle with getting his attention. Is it possible that he doesn’t like ring work, he does like trail riding with his buddies, but is still spooky and inattentive most days, once in a while he’s kind of relaxed. Progress is very slow. He knows all the Pat Parelli ground exercises etc. But I can’t get beyond the inattentiveness to really start being able to school him. Any suggestions?

Answer: Holly,

It sounds like you have already tried a lot of different things with this horse with some success, but the progress has been slow. At 10 y/o he ought to be getting pretty mature and reliable especially with all the work you have done. I would like to have an opportunity to see your horse and work with him a little, but in lieu of that, here are a few things I might try with a horse like this.

I like to teach spooky horses to face their fear and as long as they face it they can stop and relax, with lots of reassurance from me. So the first cardinal rule is that when the horse stops and faces when he is afraid (instead of spin and bolt) he gets a reward. He gets a rub on the neck and gets to stop and relax. Then I will gently encourage him to move toward whatever he is afraid of; I ask him to move forward one step at a time, stopping him with each step (so that I remain in control, issuing the orders) and rewarding him. This eventually becomes a game to the horse and he loves to work for the reward. He gets the ultimate reward when he will actually walk all the way up to the scary object and reach out and touch it with his nose. You can practice this on the ground too.

One big problem with a horse like this is that they do not focus on you and do not look to you for leadership. This kind of relationship (focused and obedient) is best accomplished with groundwork, both lead line and round pen. It sounds like you have done a lot of this already, but in my experience, I have seen a lot of people do the ground work but without succeeding in getting the horse’s total focus. For instance, the horse may run well around the round pen and do turns and stops, etc., but if his total focus is not on you almost all the time, then the round pen work may have been meaningless chasing of the horse.

Once the horse is moving away from me well in the round pen and I can control which direction he goes, then I want to establish a line of communication with him so that he is constantly looking to me for directives. If his focus wanders outside the round pen, then I put him to work. Not harshly and not chasing him but asking him to do something like go faster, go slower, turn this way, turn that way, etc. When his focus is on me because he has to see what I am going to ask him to do next, I let him stop and relax. This same concept can be applied for lead line work and mounted work. Just be careful that when you ask the horse for more focus, that you are not getting fast and reactive to him and escalating his tension but just quietly issuing directives to the horse and reinforcing what you ask of him. It is very important that you have and keep control of the horse’s nose, both on the ground and especially in the saddle. Most people let their horse’s nose wander all over the place and look at whatever interests them. This is a root cause of many behavioral and obedience problems. Usually, the very first indication that a horse is thinking about doing something he shouldn’t is when the nose leaves its position from in front of his chest. We work very hard with our colts and any older horses that come for training with behavior problems to teach this very, very important rule, “Thou shalt keep your nose directly in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you or riding you.” If you set this very simple rule with your horse and then enforce it 100% of the time, within minutes, your horse will become obedient.

I think it is important to master this rule on the ground first, but I also work on it riding from the get go. From the ground, all you have to do is ask the horse to stand (that is another very important ground rule we set right away, “Thou shalt not move thy feet unless I tell you to move them.”) and then step back away from the horse. He should stand there on his own volition, not because you have a choke hold on the halter rope. Correct his nose with a gentle bump of the halter rope every time he moves his nose away from you and point at his nose or twirl the tail of the rope toward his nose every time he moves the nose toward you. Just put his nose back where you told it to stay every time it moves; be slow and calm with your corrections but always consistent and firm when necessary. If he moves his feet when you correct his nose, put him back where he was and tell him whoa (standing still is another rule that must be reinforced in the same way). Work on nose control standing in an open area for 5-10 minutes and the horse will learn his parameters. Then I want to reinforce this rule at the hitching rail and at all times I am working around the horse.

When a horse moves his nose toward you, unasked, that is an invasion of your space and an indication that the horse does not respect your space (often because he has been hand fed treats and this has caused major disrespect, see the article on my website called “Trick or Treat”). So when he moves his nose toward me that is a greater infraction than moving the nose away. Depending on the horse, that might get a harsher correction from me, especially if it is a horse that has proven his lack of respect by walking all over me or ignoring me or even being aggressive.

Carrying over this rule (nose control) to the saddle is very important for a spooky horse. When he learns to obey this rule he will not really be able to spook and his focus will remain on you. He can pick his head up and look at anything he wants to, as long as his nose stays in front of his chest. If it moves to either side, I will correct it with a gentle and slow bump of one rein (if he is turning his nose to the right, use the left rein and visa versa). Again, it is not a pull or a jerk, but a slow gentle bump up on the rein and I will keep bumping (not pulling) until the nose comes back to center. If you set this rule and then enforce it, in short order the horse will learn to keep his nose centered. He may still make the occasional mistake and you will have to correct him consistently for some time.

One common scenario I see in horses like this is a co-dependent relationship with the rider. It goes something like this: the horse is spooky or fractious and the rider gets uptight and since horses reflect our own emotions, the tension escalates on both sides. Then the riders, knowing the horse is going to do it again, keeps a tense and tight hold on the reins and begins to look for the next spooky object, telegraphing to the horse that “I don’t trust you and there must be something out there to be afraid of.” Again, horses reflect our emotions so the horse becomes more tense and irritated from the rein pressure, causing an escalation in the rider’s tension that leads to irritation and anger in the rider. So now the rider is getting mad and frustrated at the horse and jerking and hitting, instead of calm and consistent correction, and the horse, again reflecting our emotions, gets frustrated and mad too. This is a terrible dynamic that can go on for days, weeks, months or years but at some point, either the horse or the rider will reach the boiling-over point and a major problem may ensue.

This negative dynamic must be stopped at some point, the sooner the better. When a rider is resentful, angry or emotional toward the horse, the horse is typically reflecting those same emotions right back at the rider and this is a terrible dynamic that has little chance for success. At this point, it is important to look for a way to change the dynamic and do something different. Often, the rider needs to take a deep breath, summon up some patience and most importantly, relax and SLOW DOWN your corrections and communications to the horse. Hopefully you and your horse have not yet fallen into this trap and some of these things may help you break the dynamic. To me, if I can teach the horse to respond to some basic rules and he can trust that I will enforce the rules, his life becomes more predictable and safe and he will relax and know that as long as he follows the rules everything is good and his focus will be on me as his leader. Good luck with this horse and I hope I get the opportunity to work with you both in person sometime.

Julie Goodnight

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