By Annette Nole Hall
Our beautiful, kid-broke Tennessee Walking Horse is a spook. His name is Shadow and he’s afraid of it. We weren’t expecting that part of his personality when we purchased him, and I’ve spent the last three years trying to figure out what to do about it.
When something frightens him, he’ll drop down, splaying all four legs. Then he turns and bolts–into you if you’re leading him, or carrying you off if you’re mounted. Worse, what spooks him one day might not spook him the next. Then, the day after that, he’ll spook again. He’s like Groundhog Day.
His previous owners say they’ve never experienced his quirky side. But no matter how many times we’ve desensitized him to every tarp, bucket, flag, bag, and lead rope, there comes a point where he’ll act as if he’s never seen those horrifying things before.
I worried that keeping him was putting my family in danger. Selling him, though (to someone who might not be willing to work with his special needs) could put him at risk. What to do?
Shadow’s Last Hope
I saw an advertisement for RFD-TV’s “Horse Master With Julie Goodnight.” For a chance to be on the program, people could send in a video of their horse demonstrating a “behavior challenge.” I took a camera out to see if Shadow would show his spooky side on video. He would and he did–so much so, in fact, I knew whether we were accepted for the show or not, this could be the end of my relationship with this unusual horse.
An email from Julie’s producer informed me Shadow and I had made the cut. Soon we were making plans to transport Shadow from Nashville, Tennessee, to Gillsville, Georgia. The Grove River Ranch is where we’d meet up with the woman I considered Shadow’s last hope.
On our first day on the set, he nearly pulled my arm off when I tried to lead him past some tractors. Then he ran back to the barn. Julie explained that rather than sacking out or desensitizing, I was to learn to encourage Shadow’s investigative instincts.
This meant keeping his nose pointed at whatever frightened him–a cone with bags attached, for example–until he calmed down and his curiosity prompted him to want to investigate. Then, I held him back a bit longer when he actually wanted to step toward it; this really switched him into “investigative mode.” There was a noticeable change in him in that moment.
The next day, on camera, Julie rode Shadow toward a waving flag, making him stop and look until he was interested and wanted to move toward it. It wasn’t desensitizing; it was getting him into investigative mode. And it kept him from turning and running to the barn for safety.
Though I came to the filming well versed in equine fight-or-flight reactions, Julie was the first to introduce me to the “investigative side” of a horse’s brain. Shadow and I learned to turn potential spook situations into bravery games, working first with Julie, then under the direction of her able assistant trainer, Twyla Walker-Collins.
The day after our segment, Julie finished off her 200th episode of “Horse Master.” Clearly, she’s dealt with some serious horse situations. When Shadow and I were with her, though, it felt as if our problem was the most important one she’d ever addressed. She wouldn’t give up until we got the help we needed.
I left the experience fully prepared to keep Shadow and confident I knew how to deal with his spookiness. And, on our first long trail ride since our visit to Georgia, he only spooked twice, both times for a pretty legitimate reason. This is a huge improvement! I’m excited about his progress and I can’t wait to work with him more, more, more.
Annette Nole Hall is an Emmy-award-winning freelance television producer, writer, and on-air guide for an outdoor adventure show. A Certified Horsemanship Association instructor, she lives near Nashville, Tennessee, with her family, five horses, and two dogs. When not riding, teaching, or training, she writes an inspirational blog for women at keziahcarrie.com.
First seen in Horse & Rider, March 2016 issue. Used by permission of the author, Annette Nole Hall.
Horse trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight answers a reader?s question about trail riding on a new horse and how to stay calm on the trail.
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.
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
I enjoyed watching you present at Equine Affaire in MA this past November. I have been riding a good 15-20 years but most intensively the last 5-6….I have a 13 year old Thoroughbred cross that I ride in dressage. I have had him almost 5 years. He has always been on the tense, spooky side but all spooking was usually in-place or a short-lived minor scoot. I have an outdoor arena and this October he began bolting with me across the arena. Then out of arena into his “safe” paddock, then into the field where I ultimately bailed out as I felt a fall was inevitable. He does not buck while bolting but just stiffens his neck like a rock grabs the bit and goes, out of control. My trainer saw this happen during a lesson and was concerned this was obviously becoming a habit. I always dealt with it by putting him right back to work, even when I fell off, I got right back on. I did dismount a few times and back him up with the dressage whip and then got back on. He is clever and strong and I cannot find a way to stop him when he stiffens his neck when he bolts. I brought horse to a stables mid-December for indoor arena winter board. Horse did it again, twice, in the indoor, with the trainer there. I fell off twice, got back on….Sadly, I have now become afraid, anticipating the spook that will cause the bolt. I am still working him and he has improved. The bolt, I’m pretty sure is induced by a spook. I don’t believe he is bolting just because. What gets him spooking at home you ask? Roosting wild turkeys in the woods behind arena and revving engines (car) but especially the ATV. In the indoor, again revving engines and any noise from outside arena…of course snow sliding off roof is a biggie. The horse is progressing in his dressage and his musculature has changed dramatically, he is quite fit as well. My trainer describes him as a 4-5 year old mentality even though he is coming 13. I think I need some basic ground manners reestablished….1. do you think your ground manner dvd will help me on my way? 2. If I attended the Heritage Farm clinic do you think I would get enough of what I need with this specific problem? 3. Can you suggest another plan of action for me?
Runaway horses are dangerous for you, for the horse and for others around you and it is a problem that should be corrected immediately; but once again, it takes an expert hand to correct such a serious problem. Regardless of what is triggering his episodes of flight, he is extremely disobedient and he has learned this trick well. Probably, the sounds he is spooking at are just a trigger mechanisms; the runaway behavior is well engrained, learned behavior that he has had success with and there is nothing you can do to unlearn that. A skilled rider can correct this behavior and prevent it from happening and eventually, with no further episodes over a long period of time, the horse’s routine behavior will not include bolting, but he will always know how to get away with it if he chooses to.
There are two keys to dealing with a runaway: prevention and cure. Keep the neck bent to prevent the horse from bolting and be able to use the ‘pulley rein,’ quickly and effectively to stop the horse in a safe and highly effective manner.
Your horse cannot grab the bit and run off without stiffening his neck first. Any time you need more control over any horse, whether he is spooking, bolting, or being otherwise disobedient or fractious, you want to keep the neck slightly bent, with the nose to one side or the other by lifting one rein. In that position, you have more control and can pick up one rein to gain leverage over the horse. When his neck is stiff and straight, you are in a pound for pound tug of war that you cannot win because his head and neck weigh more than your entire body. This is why using one rein is more effective than using two; two reins encourages your horse to stiffen his neck and brace against the pull on the reins.
As with all training, timing is everything and the rider must be able to see ‘what happens before what happens happens.’ Your horse will give signs that he is thinking about bolting, like reaching for the bit, throwing his head up or straightening and stiffening his neck. This should be met with sudden and harsh correction before he grabs the bit and bolts, with one rein to re-bend the horse’s neck and check his obedience.
The pulley rein is described in detail in the Q&A section of my website and is a means to stop a runaway horse, using one rein, but without turning the horse. It is dangerous to try and turn or circle a runaway horse because the chances of him falling are good. The pulley rein gives you a means to apply leverage with one rein, with a slight bend in the horse’s neck and if you are skilled with the pulley rein, you can stop any horse right on his nose.
Your trainer is right to be concerned that this horse’s dangerous behavior is escalating. Certainly doing ground work will help with the horse’s obedient frame of mind, but this is an engrained riding issue that will have to be addressed in the saddle, by someone who is very competent at dealing with runaways. In clinics we always deal with training issues as they arise and this problem of yours is definitely part of a bigger-picture problem that a general horsemanship would address. As long as the horse does not pose a danger to the other riders, you and he would most likely benefit from the clinic; however, I think the MA clinic is already full to riders.
Not knowing your riding and training capabilities and not being able to see the big picture, it is difficult for me to prescribe another course of action for you but hopefully this has given you some food-for-thought on which to make some decisions about what to do with this horse. You should definitely consider some professional training or finding a horse that is safer and more suitable.
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
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.
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 (the trainer that works with me and runs my office) and me, 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 to 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.
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
Question Category: Building a Better Relationship
Question: Hi Julie,
I have a gorgeous 6 yr old Irish sport horse gelding Bernie. I purchased him from a personal friend’s eventing farm almost 2 yrs ago. He was green but well started and I tried him out for 2 days in a clinic before taking delivery of him. He knows a lot for his age and is capable of things he doesn’t like to let on he knows. He is the smartest horse I have ever worked with (I’m 33 and been on horses since I was 3), and has an incredible memory. When he gives, he gives 1000 percent and when he is focused he is super talented!!
I know these are slow growing horses so when I got him I did some light work with him, took him fox hunting a few times and he took to it well. I was able to hack out alone, jump anything calmly and do whatever with him. Then the wheels started falling off, one by one, my saddle was too wide so gave him back pain (now have 2 custom saddles), moved to California for a job and he was stuck in a 12 x 24 box all day instead of grazing 24 hrs on lush acres in Virginia and he turned inside out and started spooking at everything!!! I hunted him a bit this season after moving back home and at first he seemed ok on the trail hunt rides, but once the season started he came unglued– started rearing at the checks (long stops waiting for hounds to be collected), running backwards and kicking out at other horses, keeping his nose shoved up the butt of the horse in front of us, the only way to calm him down was to move up to first field where there were jumps and keep him occupied (but my husband rides with me and he doesn’t jump yet), He started coming off the trailer with fire out of his nose, ready to go. I did the quiescence and stuff like that, but I just felt like I was putting a bandaid on the problem.
He is out 24 hours a day again with only his half brother (who is an angel) on 6 acres, only eating grass and hay, no feed, no supplements. We have no ring or roundpen and it’s been a wet winter so he has had lots of time off. I have recently been trying to hack him out alone and now he has become spooky and started rearing and won’t leave the driveway. At my wits end (I can stay on but it’s getting old!!!!). I talked to several people and your name came up from one of them (manager of Dover Saddlery in Chantilly VA) – I looked you up and read your rules on the ground from one of your q and a’s.
I did the stand still exercise with Bernie the other day in my barn, he was pissed but within a few minutes was licking (thinking) and chewing, and relaxed. I was actually in about 20 min or so able to leave the room to get something and he was still standing there waiting on me. So later that day after doing a session of stand-still I decided to go meet a friend for a ride. (I usually have been longeing him so that I can see what I’m working with), this time I didn’t, got on and instead of planting and rearing and spinning around and trying to go back to the barn or spooking, he marched right out of the drive on a loose rein, I am sooooo thankful for finding you! NOW I want more, he was a little tense on the ride and spooky but it was great to be out again, it made me tear up. It’s so hard to think of where we were when I first got him and the things we were doing to now….where I just want to hack down the road a bit without him balking and spooking or getting frustrated and having a rearing fit.
He can be spooky, doesn’t like things behind him (dogs, machinery, loud buzzing noises) doesn’t full on bolt but will tense up and sort of throw some forward half rearing lunging fits, gets nervous if we are behind another horse and that horse is too far ahead of us. And the memory thing I mentioned – he gets nervous every time we go by somewhere that he knows a dog lives or bees stung him, or cows were grazing (he remembers all those things) In the wild this horse would have definitely been a survivor!!!
Can you recommend what to do next? This horse is smart and amazing and will be a super hunt horse once he sees me as the leader of his herd. I need to get there. He needs a schedule and a plan. Could you help point me in the right direction so that we can be on our way to a great relationship?
Thank you so much for your time,
Your horse sounds like a handful! But at the same time, he seems smart and easily trained—sometimes these are the most challenging horses. From what you describe, he’s a horse that requires more authority and strict rules to follow. I think if you can get him focused on you, give him strict rules of behavior (like you did in the stand still exercise) and engage his mind, you’ll have the horse you’ve been dreaming of.
Chances are that there are small areas of inconsistencies in your relationship with this horse that has led him to disregard your authority. You’ll need to thoroughly analyze all that you do with him– all of your interactions, and figure out what you are doing to erode your authority or leadership with this horse. It could be something as simple as letting him walk off without a cue or hand feeding him treats. Look for any ways that the horse might be controlling your actions (like crowding you then making you step back) or things that you are condoning but shouldn’t be (like asking him to stand, then allowing him to move around without any ramifications).
In my Training Library, you will find several hundred Q&As, most of which have to do with problems people are having with their horses. I suggest you spend some time reading through the list of topics and reading the articles that sound even remotely familiar as the issues you are having with your horse. By reading through the questions and answers, you may discover that certain practices of yours are contributing to the problems or that perhaps you should be taking action when you are not.
Although it is not the answer most people are looking for, the truth is, you need to do LOTS more ground work with this horse. You have already seen that doing one groundwork exercise had a big impact on his attitude—the key is to do lots more! I suggest using a rope halter and 12-15 foot training lead and going through a series of exercises from the lead line, which are explained in detail in my video called “Lead Line Leadership.”
Continue with the standing still exercise. This teaches your horse that he cannot move impulsively whenever he wants. He learns patience and to respect your authority and that he doesn’t get to make decisions about when he moves and when he doesn’t. Add to this exercise strict control over his nose so that he learns he cannot look all around and must either remain focused on you or tune out everything around him.
Next, work on leading—teaching him that he has to move with you, match you step for step and stay in a perfect position beside you and behind you (similar to what you do when you teach a dog to heel). You’ll set a specific boundary for him so he learns that he cannot go in front of you or lag behind you when being led and that he has to focus on you entirely so he knows what to do. In this stage, you’ll do lots of transitions—speeding up and slowing down, and lots of turns—always turning the horse away from you (moving him out of your space) and making the turns smaller and faster. In these exercises, not only will he learn good leading manners, but he’ll learn that he has to focus on you and move his body exactly as you move yours.
He’ll also be learning that you are a very strong leader and that it pays to follow your rules. In fact, you’ll see a shift in his attitude where he starts looking up to you and trying to please you. At this stage, it is important to make sure that you give him lots of praise when he deserves it, so he works ever harder to stay out of trouble and on your good side.
In the next set of ground work exercises, you’ll circle the horse around you on the long lead, cueing the horse to stop at times and change direction at times. With these exercises, you’ll teach him that you most certainly have control over his whole body—moving his nose, shoulder, feet and hip every time you turn him around. And he’ll learn that you have control over his actions—stop, go and change of directions. This is an exercise you can employ when you are riding (with halter/lead under bridle) and he gets a little sketchy—just hop off and start circling and changing directions. Again, all of these exercises are detailed in my Lead Line Leadership video.
I strongly believe that if you invest a little time in ground work with this horse—say, 20 minutes a day for a couple weeks, you’ll have a whole different horse on your hands. After the first few weeks, your horse should be getting very compliant, but it is a good idea to do a few minutes of groundwork each day before you ride, to get your horse in the right frame of mind. It’s likely that through these exercises, as your horse learns to respect your authority, that the spooky behavior goes away. Through ground work, the horse accepts that you are a strong and competent leader and that you can be trusted to take care of everything. Therefore, things don’t frighten him as much.
If you find that even after doing several weeks of ground work, your horse is still acting spooky out on rides, then you may want to read up on de-spooking your horse. Again, this information is all available to you in my Training Library.
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