Spooking and how to deal with it

Now that I have a sound method of dealing with this problem it has generally ceased to be a problem but I remember the sheer frustration of riding a horse that was very spooky. Erik is the only trainer I know who deals with it clearly and successfully. As he says "Bring me any maniac and I will have him trotting around like any old plod within a couple of days"

So how does he do it?

Walking on the buckle consistently and calmly is the perfect antidote for horses that get nervous or excited but you need to know how to do it well. This is a whole other subject and not one than easily translates into words. One needs to practice steering and aiding on the buckle on a calm horse before dealing with a nervous or excited horse and in any case, a nervous and/or inexperienced rider on a nervous/excited horse is a recipe for disaster! Above anything else the rider needs to be completely calm and confident to help this type of horse.

One also needs to learn the "Fire Drill". The "Fire Drill" is a quick and safe way to pick up the reins in one smooth movement without panicking so that you can gain control quickly and calmly. You take the end of the reins in one hand while the other hand (with the whip) is placed around both reins close to the withers. You then draw the reins through your whip hand until the reins are short, then take up the reins in both hands and bring the horse to an immediate halt while saying "whoa" clearly and calmly. (This makes you breathe and gives the horse an additional cue to stop). As soon as the horse has stopped, go back to walk on the buckle. Repeat as necessary but DO NOT HOLD the horses in any way. This needs to be practised when there is no need for it so that when you do need it you react instinctively and easily rather than grabbing the reins in a panic.

There is a slight difference between

  • a horse that is "not listening" and or distracted by something - another horse calling to him for example - and
  • a horse that seems frightened and/or spooks at an object or won't go into a particular area within the school.

In the first instance you have to be a bigger distraction than whatever it is the horse hears or sees. The frequent turns and small circles are essential so that the horse focuses on the work, NOT on the rider. If the rider is engrossed in the work, rather than the horse, the horse will also start to focus on the work as it's small brain will not have space to think about anything else. In the latter case, the horse may be anxious about the actual work especially if he has been over pushed in the past, so it is important that the rider recognises the signs that perhaps the work is overly demanding and backs off or gives the horse a break. It may be that the horse has no confidence in his rider and feels that he has to be on constant alert to any dangers - he lacks sufficient leadership from his rider. However, in both cases the following guidelines will regain calm and establish confidence between rider and horse .

NB. The method below relates to work in an enclosed area as clearly it would be foolhardy to allow a horse to wander around on a loose rein when riding on a busy main road although the riders attitude (1 below) should be the same..

  • It is vital that you pay absolutely no attention to the horse's antics or to whatever it is that spooks him. You see and hear nothing and remain physically, mentally and emotionally calm and detached.
  • Learn the "Fire Drill" so that you can ride him "on the buckle", (ie a loose rein) confidently.
  • Stay at a safe distance from whatever it is that is spooking him. Do NOT try to force the horse into the "spooky corner" or whatever it is. When he is calm and confident he will go there all by himself.
  • Distract the horse by riding small circles and turns left and right on a long/loose rein - "on the buckle". Again, this needs to be done calmly and competently and has nothing to do with twirling the horse around ever decreasing circles. Use an active (gentle, persistent and insistent) inside rein if the horse continues to try to look at whatever it is that has distracted him. This is the only time you can use an active inside rein on its own and it should say "Look this way please, look this way". It absolutely does not say "Get your head down" although the end result when the horse has relaxed and regained its confidence will probably be that he will lowers his head. This is a by-product, not the aim.
  • There must not be any hint of holding the horse , especially at the site of the "hidden tiger" as this will always result in more tension.
  • The legs should remain passive until the horse has regained calm. An active leg when the horse is against the rider mentally and physically would probably have to be quite loud (rough?) to get the horse's attention and therefore would not be useful and would only add to the tension.
  • If the shying is only very brief a gentle "check - soft" on both the reins may be all that is necessary to maintain calm and focus.
  • Bending away from the object of "fear" is also useful in an emergency but it works best if done way ahead of time so that the hand can soften at the actual sight of the spook.
  • No matter how badly the horse behaves it is vital that the rider has no thought of punishing the horse. Smacking him "to tell him he is being naughty" is simply counter productive and generally adds fuel to the flames. Getting off to thrash him is even worse! The horse instantly recognises the anger or fear behind your actions which is why a spooky horse will sometimes be very calm with a novice, non-reactionary, non demanding rider and yet produce all sorts of "bad behaviour" with an experienced but more demanding or aggressive rider.

One of my pupils told me a brilliant story which illustrates perfectly the way to deal with nervous horses - it may not be word for word so I hope she will forgive me for any inaccuracies. She went sailing with a friend who was an experienced yachtsman. While out at sea, a storm got up and she became absolutely terrified. Her friend seemed totally calm and told her it was nothing to worry about but that he was going to take her back to shore and safety. However, he then asked her to help him and talked her through a number of simple tasks to keep her busy. She soon became calm and forgot her fears and they got safely back to dry land.

There are a number of important points here.

  • He didn't tell her that he was concerned about the conditions, quite the opposite in fact; he acted like he sailed in those conditions all the time and it was no big deal.
  • However, he acknowledged her fear and acted on it even if he couldn't see anything to be afraid of himself. This is very important as it would not have worked if he had said "Yippee, let's see if we can make it to France!" which would have escalated her fears considerably.
  • He distracted her from her fears by giving her something to do. He didn't give her some impossible task, just kept her quietly busy so that while she was following his directions she forgot about the fear.
  • At no point did he show any signs of his own misgivings and yet he told her later that it was in fact a severe storm. This is another important point as it doesn't matter if the fear was real or imagined, he acted as if it was nothing.

"She" is like the nervous horse and "he" acted like the knowledgeable rider and the storm was the spooky corner - a tiger ready to pounce and no matter whether it is real or imagined. It is the same thing to a horse.

Horses that are nervous, aggressive or excitable need competent handling and this applies to work "on the ground" as well as in the saddle. In this respect, some "Natural Horsemanship" techniques may be the best starting point for the novice horse owner. However good ground work does not guarantee good ridden work and someone who is extremely competent on the ground may lack sufficient skills in the saddle and , of course, visa versa. Likewise, some horses can be angelic under saddle and evil in the stable. Either way, it is up to the rider to acquire the necessary skills to find a solution to the horse's difficulties. You should also recognise that the horse is a flight animal and even the most unflappable horse can still surprise one. If that frightens you, then stick to mechanical horses!

"The horse already knows how to be a horse; the task of horsemanship lies entirely with the rider"
Erik Herbermann

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