This article was Published in the Aiken Horse magazine in June 2013.
The Spook-Free Ride
The elusive spook-free ride is the dream of many owners of Nervous Nellies. But the question “How can I stop my horse from spooking?” is the wrong one to ask. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and the spook-free ride isn’t free, either. Think of the horse’s confidence as a bank account. A spooky horse is generally running a confidence deficit, tiptoeing around at a low level of anxiety until something scary causes a withdrawal from the confidence piggy bank and he spooks! If he had more funds built up, that scary thing might cost him a little confidence, but the horse wouldn’t be overdrawn to the point he had to spook. The rider’s job is to make investments in her horse’s confidence over time, building up the account so that even a big withdrawal like a horse show or a group trail ride isn’t too much for him.
Recognizing the Signs of Anxiety
Rather than “How do I stop my horse from spooking?” the rider could ask “How do I invest in my horse’s confidence so that he no longer feels so insecure?” The first step to building a horse’s confidence is recognizing the first signs of anxiety. For a prey animal, this most frequently manifests as increased watchfulness & readiness for flight. Signs include high head carriage, fixed ears, staring eyes, tight lips, rapid breathing or holding breath, tight muscles, quicker speed or reluctance to move, freezing in place or inability to stand still, crowding close to other horses or handler, and frequent or loose manure.
Being aware of the horse’s emotional state and noticing as soon as it changes is the first step to building confidence. If doing a body/posture inventory of the horse doesn’t provide enough information for the rider, there are two other tests she can apply. The first is to ask the horse to stand still on a loose rein for a count of 10. For an anxious horse, this is often impossible… the horse will want to move his feet. The second test can be done in motion: the rider asks the horse for something simple, such as a leg-yield, lateral flexion, a half-halt, or a transition, and notes the horse’s response time. An anxious horse is not as responsive to his rider/handler as he is when he is relaxed and comfortable, because much of the horse’s brain is caught up in worrying. Think about how much harder it would be to concentrate on arithmetic problems if you were in a plane you thought was having engine problems!
To sum up: the rider can test if the horse is out of his comfort zone and beginning to feel insecure if he: doesn’t pass the body/posture inventory, can’t stand still on a loose rein, and has decreased responsiveness to a simple request.
Investing in Confidence
Once the rider reads the horse as uncertain, he has the opportunity to make a confidence deposit… or a withdrawal. Pushing the horse towards something scary before he is comfortable is a withdrawal. So is allowing him to avoid the scary situation and leave (although sometimes that is the best option at the time if the rider is not confident or the horse has escalated to dangerously panicky). So is punishing the horse for his fear by kicking or smacking him. None of these show trustworthy leadership, which is what the horse really needs! A confidence deposit is made by 1.) allowing or directing the horse to move in a direction he feels comfortable going (yes, even away from the spooky thing!), 2.) continuing to direct the horse in a calm way using one rein at a time if possible (this allows the rider to keep control but doesn’t make the horse feel claustrophobic and panicky like pulling on both reins does) 3.) WAITING until the horse shows increased relaxation and even curiosity to investigate or pass the spooky thing 4.) Working near the scary area until the horse is calm and doesn’t need to rush away.
An important point for less confident riders is that this process can be done on foot as well as under saddle. A rider that feels more comfortable working through her horse’s fear on the ground should not hesitate to dismount and follow the process on the ground, remounting when the horse is calm again. It is important for the rider to respect her own fears and limits just as much as her horse’s!
Investing in these strategies consistently over even just one week will increase the horse’s confidence and bring him closer to that blissfully spook-free ride!