It’s crucial to teach your horse to stand still when you first mount, according to trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. The lesson will help your horse know you’re always in charge.
When your horse travels downhill, he lifts his back and reaches his hindquarters far beneath him for support and balance. He also uses his abdominal muscles. Help him get into this position by not leaning far back in the saddle, says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
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
Fearful Trail Horse
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’s 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’s 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
Carol, As always, it’s 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 your 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 your horse. Your horse gains courage on the ground because you’re there, in his eyesight, between the scary thing and him. When you’re on his back, he is in front and feels more vulnerable. Also, when you’re on the ground you’re more confident so he gains confidence from you (mirrors your emotion).
Conversely, when you’re on his back, you feel more nervous (because he is nervous) and that compounds his nervousness. It’s 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 your 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) your 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 your 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 your 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 your 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, your horse’s head will drop all the way to the ground. It’s physiologically impossible for your horse to be tense with his head down (and impossible for him to be relaxed with his head up). So once your 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’re describing in your question), you can ask him to drop his head down. This is known as “putting your horse in the closet;” the closet is a calm, quiet, safe place for your horse. Teaching your horse to drop his head from the saddle is a little more difficult but if you have him well trained from the ground, it’s much easier. You’ll pick up (not back) on ONE rein (not two) and repeat the steps above, releasing as soon as your horse even thinks about dropping his head. Then pick up the rein again until your 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 your 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 your 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 form worrying about that” way. This is known as replacement training; you’re 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&A’s on my website about barn sour horses and doing groundwork to establish a leader-follower relationship with your 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.
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician