When your horse balks at a banner fluttering in the wind or backs away from an unfamiliar object on the trail, he’s relying on his natural instincts. A spook is an intuitive response to something that the horse perceives as potentially life threatening.
“That may seem extreme, but horses are prey animals and instinctually they must do whatever they deem necessary to survive,” explains Colton Woods, a Lexington, Kentucky-based horseman. “The actions of our horses may be dangerous, but they are not done because they want to be bad.”
To help a horse overcome their natural flight response their brain has to be “rewired” through instilling confidence. This comes from consistency in how horses are asked and guided through all sorts of experiences whether that is showing, trail riding through creeks, schooling cross country, working cattle, jumping a course, or even working at liberty.
Rehearsing the familiar
Fundamental exercises on the ground and under saddle get a horse’s attention and help them relax. When presented with something frightening, returning to a familiar maneuver gives the horse confidence in something they already know how to do.
“A turn on the forehand, a turn on the haunches, leg yields and a rein back can all be great ways to get our horses focused and relaxed,” Woods notes. “The real key in this is how they are initiated.”
Aides such as the rider’s leg and reins, or the lead rope, a flag, or a whip in groundwork are not there to ‘control’ a horse. Instead, Woods believes they should be used as a supportive guide.
“Certainly, there are times where one may have to be firm, but it must be done in a way that expresses intention and desire to the horse,” he adds. “We want the horse to understand what is being asked of them because we too want them to enjoy their jobs.”
Introducing spooky objects
Often horses become concerned by a situation because the rider is worried. When a rider or handler remains calm, a horse often approaches an obstacle with no concern. Woods stresses that a rider shouldn’t go into a session thinking the horse will find the situation worrisome.
“It’s usually because the human had an internal dialogue that went along the lines of, “I am going to show my horse this object because he might find it scary,” he says. “When the human lingers thinking, “I really thought he may be worried about that,” the horse starts to wonder if there really is something to be concerned about. When they check in with their leader, the human, they notice the human has some reservations and concern.
The rider does this without realizing they created the exact situation they did not want to happen. The handler or rider needs to have their mind in the right place before introducing potentially scary objects. When a rider lacks the confidence or experience to remain calm, seeking the help of a skilled trainer may be a better option than trying it on their own.
Take it slow
Before introducing spooky items, be sure your horse has the basic body control skills on the ground and under saddle required to navigate a particular obstacle. Woods also recommends starting slowly rather than rushing to introduce tarps, pool noodles, liver pools, teddy bears, bullwhips, etc. Too much of a good thing can have a negative effect and teach a horse to be nonresponsive.
“Too often horses are presented many different stimuli and taught that they mean nothing,” he says.
Over-desensitizing can create dullness to such a degree that horses can begin to lack impulsion in their gaits. Some horses even develop mental resistances from overstimulation and that can lead to not wanting to move, moving, kicking, backing when asked to go forward, rearing, or even bucking.
“So, when it comes to desensitizing, it is important and a great idea to give your horse a variety of experiences so they can become well-rounded equines that are prepared for what is ahead of them,” he adds.
Tips for using obstacles
Riders or handlers need to begin each experience with understanding, responsiveness, and a willingness to put the horse in a position where they can succeed. That includes being able to recognize the horse’s threshold—the point where they reach emotional overload.
“With tarps, it is a good idea to weigh them down if you are going to ask your horse to walk across it,” Woods explains. “Many horses check out the tarp first by pawing at it.”
If the tarp is not weighted down, the horse may pull the tarp back towards them and it could get hooked on their shoe or hoof and startle them. With an obstacle such as a bridge, Woods prefers to begin with one that is flat, solid and doesn’t move. Over time a teeter-totter bridge that moves back and forth may be used to broaden a horse’s experience.
“Overall, I want to make sure that I am setting my horses up for success by making the experience as positive as possible and ultimately keeping them and the people around them safe,” he says.