If your horse is spooky or jumpy, it undermines your confidence as a rider. Because you feel uncertain of what he might do at any moment, you ride tentatively and defensively. This makes matters worse, because your horse notices your nervousness and thinks, I’m right, there IS something to be worried about.
Fortunately, there’s a way to develop your knowledge, skills, and abilities to understand and communicate more clearly with your horse. This results in his becoming less spooky and reactive, and gaining more trust in you. It involves a simple stick with a string or cord attached, a piece of equipment I believe to be invaluable. Why? Because it’s one way to help your horse become braver with the unexpected, which in turn helps to make him braver overall.
And when he feels braver, you do, too.
Why this works. As prey animals, horses are naturally wary of sudden movement or noise. They can also get jumpy when something touches them unexpectedly, or they glimpse something in their peripheral vision. A stick-and-string can simulate many of these effects, depending on how you wield it. This exercise enables your horse to learn to become more confident around all stimuli, so he can focus on the job you’re asking of him rather than spooking, snorting, and getting tight.
How to do it. Start with what’s easy for you and your horse to understand and accept, and build from there. With your horse in a halter and lead, hold the lead in one hand and bundle the string against the stick in the other hand. Then rub the stick-and-string bundle all over your horse’s body and legs. When he accepts that, let the string drop and draw it steadily over your horse, then progress to flinging the string lightly and with rhythm over his legs and body. In each case, find the spot where he accepts the stick-and-string most readily, then gradually expand that area.
Your goal isn’t to scare or worry him, it’s to give him a chance to relax and realize that noise and sudden movement don’t have to mean run. If he gets a little excited, which can happen, continue on until you see him calming down (he may, for example, drop his head or lick his lips). That shows he’s thinking, so stop and encourage him with a rub and a little break.
Keep building. Continue to advance the exercise. Stand in different spots as you wield the stick-and-string. Move it faster, always with rhythm. Make different noises with the string by swinging it through the air and slapping it on the ground, away from the horse.
Given time and enough repetitions of this exercise, your horse’s confidence will grow. Be sure to dig in and uncover as much about your horse’s response to the exercise as you can. Often, horse owners avoid doing enough to truly build their horses’ confidence.
Your goal is to have your horse relaxed, no matter how much noise and movement you generate with the stick-and-string. And it’s up to you to help your horse figure it out.
Glenn Stewart, a lifelong horse trainer and teacher, conducts four- to six-day horsemanship camps at his headquarters, The Horse Ranch, near Fort St. John in British Columbia, Canada. He also presents clinics across Canada and the U.S. throughout the year (thehorseranch.com).