In the past, we have discussed important steps to prepare for training on the trail, including reading the horse to recognize his inner energy level and working with him to release it, preparing the rider through warm up and stretching exercises, and building safety and confidence on the trail. We covered training tips for dealing with two of three common trail training issues: the horse that wants to always be in the lead and the horse that wants to run up from behind.
When dealing with a spooky horse, go back to the routine we suggested before to prepare him for his first trail ride. If he is spooky on a trail, it is better to work on overcoming spookiness issues there rather than moving on to a different trail.
If he has been on a trail before and he has spooked or resisted, stop and figure out the reason why it happened. Was he reacting to something permanent that cannot be changed along the trail like a tree stump or a water crossing? Or did he spooked at something temporary, like a gush of wind, a grouse that flushed in front of him, or a sound in the bushes?
It’s Okay to Dismount!
If it was something permanent, to improve his training on the next ride get off his back and on the ground before reaching the object he spooked at. One key to controlling a spooky horse is that you must stop him before he decides to stop and spook. In this way you keep control so the horse can address the offending obstacle before he stops and spooks in fright.
Be alert to the horse’s body language. Watch for these cues that tell you he is getting ready to spook: His ears are alert, his eyes get bigger, and his breathing gets stronger. As soon as you hear stronger breathing than normal, this is the point where you want to stop and dismount.
While on the ground be sure to give the horse his head to let him study the obstacle and swing his head to see it with both his left and right eye. After he studies it and seems to ignore the obstacle, take a few steps toward it. Stop and let the horse study it again. When he appears to ignore it again, continue the process until you reach the spooky spot. Allow him to smell it. This will really give him confidence.
When he seems to accept it, the lesson is not over yet. He must learn to accept the obstacle when it is behind him and when approaching it from the opposite direction. In the first situation, the scary obstacle that he accepted and walked past is now behind him. Horses sometimes show more spookiness when an obstacle is behind him because horses are flight animals. His reaction once he has passed a spooky spot may be to flee or overreact to spook away from it.
In the second situation, a horse may be spooky approaching an obstacle he has already accepted when he comes at it from the opposite direction. This is because a horse sees things differently from each direction. If you get him accustomed to the scary obstacle coming at it only from one direction, when he approaches it from the opposite direction he may ignore it, spook with the same level of concern as before, or spook even worse. Be sure to accustom the horse to obstacles from both directions.
As you start to leave a spooky spot, such as walking past a scary stump, take a step or two and stop. Let him look at the spot with each eye. If he moves and does not stand still, reposition him exactly where he was standing. Do not circle to reposition him. If he moves to the right, reposition him to the left. If he moves left, reposition him to the right. If he moves forward, back him and vice versa until he is positioned right back to where he was originally standing. This is very important to do to keep his respect and keep you in charge of the situation. Get him accustomed to approaching the scary spot from the opposite direction.
On the Ground
When on the ground, be ready to use the “move away from me” commands. The horse’s first instinct will be to herd or get close to you. This is dangerous, and puts him in control of the situation. Do not let him move on top of you—make him move away and respect your space as he learns to accept the obstacle.
When you are between 15 to 20 feet away from the obstacle you can remount and move on to whatever you were doing prior to the spookiness. Continue with the same short segments if his spookiness returns. Take a few steps, stop, study the obstacle, etc. The more time you take time to let him study an obstacle, the less time it will take him to accept it. On the other hand, if you rush this process or force him, it will take you longer to get him to accept it.
The way to handle spooky behavior while mounted is basically the same as on the ground. Stop before getting to the spooky object and allow the horse his head so he can see it with both eyes. Once he seems to ignore it, take a few steps towards it, stop, and let him look again. If he does not stop, but starts “dancing” around, reposition him to the exact point where you asked him to stop. Instead of using the “move away from me” command, use your seat, leg, and hand aids to put him back in position. If he goes to the right, use your aids to make him come back to the left and vice versa. If he backs up, send him forward to the spot where you asked him to stop.
If your horse spooks, turn him with the inside rein quickly and just as quickly loosen the outside rein. Keep him turning in as tight a circle as possible until you get control. Be very careful not to keep a tight outside rein. The horse may react to this by rearing. Do not pull on both reins either, as the horse will only “run” through the reins. Don’t look down at whatever the horse is reacting to, instead look up and away from it. Hold the saddle horn with the same hand that is holding the outside rein.
For example, if the horse spooks and moves to the left, quickly shorten the inside left rein to turn him tightly to the left while loosening the outside right rein held in the right hand. Look over your left shoulder as you turn him to the left. Grasp the saddle horn with the right hand. Keep the horse in as tight a circle or turn as possible until he submits to you and control is regained. Then go back and address the obstacle again.
If you have a horse that tends to be spooky, go with a rider on a gentle horse who can give your horse confidence, or teach your horse how to pony on a lunge line next to a calmer horse that will give him confidence while he is training outside the box.
Make a note that the next time you plan to go out on the trail to exercise the spooky horse by lungeing him before riding more than may have been done before past rides. The goal should not be to get him tired out, but just to make him more humble to accept his new surroundings while on the trail. If possible, make arrangements to go out on the trail ride with another rider mounted on a quiet horse or try ponying your horse with a calmer partner.
Repeat the same trail, but hike it before going out with your horse. Analyze spots where you may need to stop to allow him enough time to accept areas he might be unsure about. By doing this, you will be prepared to help your horse accept spooky obstacles while staying in control of the situation.
Riders must understand that when a horse is taken into a new environment, his level of sensitivity and tendency to overreact will tend to increase. He is being placed in a new situation or being asked to do something he has never done before. Often riders who are surprised at their horse’s spooky reactions will say “my horse has never done this before.” Chances are that is exactly what is causing the spooky behavior—the horse has no experience with the situation, so he becomes overly sensitive and reactive. It is the rider’s responsibility to anticipate that these situations may happen, and be prepared to handle them effectively.
Your Next Step
Here are some tips for the rider when dealing with a spooky horse.
1. Don’t look down at the spooky areas. Always look over and beyond obstacles that could have the potential to spook your horse. Why? Because when you look down and have negative thoughts about the obstacle, the horse picks up these negative feelings. He knows what you are thinking. Give him positive thoughts instead. Say to yourself: “I am going over to the other side of this water crossing.” “I am going to keep my horse responding to my aids and commands.” Be confident and build your horse’s sense of security.
2. If you are hesitant about dealing with issues of spooking, or if you are inexperienced, trail ride in a western saddle. The security of a western saddle, with its easy-to-grab horn, will give you more confidence than an English saddle.
3. Take every negative or nervous thought and turn it around to a positive statement. It is important that the rider has positive thoughts for the horse to be positive, too.
4. When riding away from the barn or trailer, make sure you and your horse are well exercised and warmed up. The horse should be walking quietly. Schedule “forward” work when going away from the barn or trailer. Forward work includes walk to trot, trot to lengthening trot, trot to canter, and yielding at the trot both to the left and right. The more often you change gaits, and speed within gaits, the more it will improve the horse’s concentration on you rather than being worried about the outside surroundings.
5. When coming back to the barn, trailer, or turning around on the trail to return “home,” do “slow down” work to keep his focus on you rather than mindlessly rushing back, and possibly discovering something to spook at. Slow down work includes slow trot to walk, walk to stop, yielding at the walk both right and left, stopping, turn on the haunches and forehand, mounting and dismounting.
6. Don’t get frustrated if a horse continues to spook over an object or situation. Some horses simply take longer to get over these issues than others. The longer it takes and the more patient you are, the more you are building a foundation for advancing his training outdoors.
The key to solving the issue of a spooking horse is not allowing the horse to take charge of his rider. If he does, the horse is being allowed to go out on the trail prematurely. Both horse and rider need to go back to work in a big field or arena until they gain more confidence and skill together.
Until then, follow your dreams…
Lynn’s Training Tip…
Remember… a horse knows what you are thinking. You have to be a positive rider to bring out the best in your horse!