Spooky Horse? Desensitization isn’t the lasting cure.

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While instinct, bloodlines and breed will cause some horses to be naturally spookier than others, most of the horses that come into Halcyon Acres are jumpy and jittery due to angst. They’ve been asked for too much too soon, handled with impatience and intolerance, not encouraged to develop self-confidence or handled by a frightened person. Usually, the younger the horse is, the easier it is to reduce or eliminate spooky behavior, but horses of all ages can be calmed and encouraged to enjoy new experiences.

Try listening instead of training

There’s a whole lot of literature being put out there now (and even more DVDs –much higher profit margin) that asserts all you need to do to stop a horse from being concerned is to inundate him with objects, noises, contact and lessons, and thus, by rendering him ‘desensitized,’ you’ll have a ‘bomb-proof’ horse. It usually doesn’t work that way, but if you do manage to create a steed that is unflappable as a result, he’s probably also now devoid of spirit, having been taught to quell his mind.

Instead, if you learn to read your horse, he’ll tell you all you need to know to help him resolve his concerns. It’s not about force, repetition, one-way respect, quick tricks or formula systems – it’s about understanding. Each horse is different. You need to allow yourself the liberty of learning vicariously. Let your horse be a participant in the decisions you make about activities and limits by letting go enough to ‘get into his head’. Most spooky horses have little confidence in themselves and no confidence in their rider/handler. Give them the opportunity to shine with unwavering confidence and support from you and you might be surprised at how courageous your heartless horse becomes.

Get on the ground

Most fearful horses (and that’s really at the core of a spooky horse’s behavior) learned to distrust humans at an early age who failed to keep them out of harm’s way. While it’s not always necessary, there are distinct advantages to going back to ground work as you begin to strive to undo the damage. Body language is huge with horses (both ways) and it’s a lot tougher to ‘talk’ to your horse when on their backs if you haven’t established good communications out of the saddle.  The same holds true for what you say to the horse – if he can see your entire body, he can gather information about what you want much more easily. Just be sure you get good about picking up what he’s trying to tell you and being clear about what you’re asking.

The roundpen isn’t the best place for this long-term. It’s a good tool for early lessons (for you, mostly) if you are looking for a place to keep the horse in close proximity and note how your body movements, positions, eye contact, behavior and requests affect the horse. It’s also a decent way to get a good read on what may be troubling your horse and take small steps to alleviate his concern.  Resist the temptation, though, to use this area for drill sessions or intensive training. Keep it short, light, fun, informative and a stepping stone to really engaging in meaningful connections.

Spending time with your horse in the stall, the pasture, on long lines, exploring areas around the property and beyond with a halter and lead rope and watching your horse without bothering him are more productive ways to build rapport and gain insight than forcing him around a 20 meter circle. Get creative and listen to your horse to find ways to get him eager, excited and confident about your activities together. This is foundation that starts rebuilding the trust and security of a spooky horse.

Oh, and if you’re horse is terrified about an obstacle you face while riding, consider hopping off his back to be the first to show no fear or harm in passing. There’s no shame in providing a more comfortable experience to a new challenge.

Be the rock

If you’re nervous, tense or unnerved, you can’t help a spooky horse. Either learn to get rid of these feelings when you’re around this horse or get someone else to help (and stay out of it until the horse is progressing). Sure, it’s tough to sit aboard a horse that is a notorious wheeler without tensing up, shortening your reins, tipping forward and transmitting concern. The fact is, though, the added tension is going to create more concern for your horse and be sure to spur a spook he may not have considered; no matter how close your hands are to his ears he’s going to do it anyway; and leaning forward and tensing up will increase the likelihood you’ll be dumped. If you give the horse his head to explore; relax; sit back; and calm down, he’s less likely to react and you’re in a better position to over his center of balance (and comfortable in yours) to stay with him if he does.

The same holds true for groundwork. If you can’t be confident, calm, consistent and trustworthy when handling or working around your horse, he’s not going to learn to trust you to keep him safe.

Don’t push your horse to ‘buck up’

Spooky horses are scared. Getting rough or demanding with them is only going to increase their concern. Give them the time and encouragement to carefully approach items that are frightening. Pulling out the whip, chain, spurs or temper is only going to create more fear and less trust in you. If you think beating a horse over water the first time you encounter a stream is going to make happy about crossing it the next time, think again.

Isn't he cute? Buster stood out as special early on.
Isn't he cute? Buster stood out as special early on.

Anyone who is looking for a teacher about the importance of patience and understanding should experience a horse like Buster. He was already an ‘old soul’ when we started him under saddle as a three-year-old. His wisdom shined through from day one. He was unflappable, but careful. The funny thing about Buster was, he’d do anything you asked, so long as you respected his need to be given the time (and head freedom) to survey the situation. One day (he had only had about eight days under saddle), we faced an obstacle course in front of the trail head that would have made a seasoned horse baulk. Contractors had strewn insulation, lumber, packaging, vehicles, tools, saw benches and all kinds of debris so that we had to pick through a narrow, winding path for about 20 feet. Holding the reins at the buckle and giving him the two minutes or so he wanted to survey the situation and choose a path, proved to be a sufficient response to his needs for him to proceed on his own, without prompting or direction. The thing with Buster was, if you pushed too hard for him to tackle a new sight or obstacle before he was ready, he’d stop. Keep it up and he’d go into backing mode. That was Buster’s kind way of saying ‘too much, too fast.’ What a wonderful teacher he was! He’s moved on (his career choice, not our imagined one for him) to an unexpected home that will probably keep him out of the limelight, but with a job that’s going to be very rewarding for him and an owner who will appreciate him more than most. Keep us posted, Sarah!

Help your horse get brave with a companion

The equine buddy system seems to be a standard today for most. It’s easier early, but can create problems later when the horse learns to draw his confidence and direction from another horse instead of the rider. We stumbled on a much better approach (animals can be so intuitive). Gatsby (our 90-pound mutt) provided an ideal solution. In the thirteen years he’s served as assistant trainer at the farm, no horse has ever become herd-bound over a dog. For the young ones just starting to learn how to handle a rider aboard, he tracks at their heels until we hit a spot that alarms the horse. Then, we ask him to take the lead and he escorts the horse through areas they see as trouble. All the horses here get to know him during ground work training (he’s an artful contributor here too), so they learn to trust him before we hit the trails.

Gatsby greeting a newborn foal at Halcyon Acres
Gatsby greeting a newborn foal at Halcyon Acres

If you’re dealing with an older horse that’s spooky, you’re better off having an equine lead that’s seasoned and confident than going it alone to start. The more you can make riding experiences fun and non-threatening, the better. You can wean him off the company in time, but old habits die hard and you’ll be safer, and able to gain more confidence, if you let another horse blaze the trail as you start to work to calm your horse and yourself.

Forgo the formula equine approaches

Spooky horses are usually taught to be so. To undo the damage, you need to get personal. This can’t be done with rote lessons that are planned ahead and applied to all cases. If you’re not willing to customize an approach to meet your horse’s indicated needs, you’re not going to build a trusting, confident and mutually respectful relationship. You might be able to get him to tune out and mollify his brain into an absent state to escape the stress, but it won’t result in a happy partner you grow with. The rewards you get from being open to a communications process that includes the horse will be huge, if you have the desire and patience to go there. Here’s hoping you do!

Do you have a story to tell about a spooky horse? A problem you’re currently facing that you’d like some guidance on? Have a question about how to work with your horse? Please comment below.

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