Training a Spooky Horse

Good spooks, bad spooks, fake spooks—here's spooky horse training techniques for a more enjoyable ride down the trail.
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With good reason, trail riders are preoccupied with spooking. Some ask for a "spookproof" or "bombproof" mount. When I'm faced with that particular request from a prospective buyer, I have to choke back sarcasm. I want to say, "Wouldn't you rather have a spooky horse that's actually alive?" As prey animals, horses have survived only because of their ingrained instinct to spook. Their ability to jerk all their muscular capacity into a nearly instantaneous response to a perceived threat is their stock in trade.

Besides, you spook, don't you? Humans may be predators rather than prey, but when someone sneaks up behind you wearing a Halloween mask and lets out a great scream, you jump. That's a spook. Adrenalin rushes into your body, and your heart rate jumps. What you don't do is "lose it." You don't run out of the house and onto the street into the path of a speeding car. Your spook is likely limited to one big jump, while you assimilate the nature of the "threat" and decide that it's actually harmless.

And that's the whole point. The issue isn't whether your horse will spook-assume he will. The issue is how he handles that spook, whether he controls it.

To improve that control (and reduce your horse's tendency to spook at all), first understand that there are several types of spooks: Good spooks, bad spooks, and fake spooks. Here, I'll explain each type of spook, and tell you how to handle each one.

Types of Spooks
Good spooks: Yes, there's such a thing as good spooks; I see two kinds. The first "good spook" is the one that shows that your horse is superbly poised to handle natural fears in the face of sudden stimuli. A jackrabbit flashes from a juniper bush with a crackle of branches. Your horse's "startle reaction" is a quick jerk that runs through his frame and then is gone. There's no change of gait, no sudden stop, no attempt to bolt or buck. Your excellent horse has simply shown you that he's alive, that he's a horse, and that his disposition, training, and intelligence have allowed him to quickly dismiss the rabbit as harmless. He continues to do just what he's supposed to do-carry you steadily down the trail at the gait you've chosen.

The second type of good spook results when your horse, with senses far superior to your own, detects real danger of which you, the insensitive human, aren't aware. He's afraid now for very good reason. He hears a gurgle under a thin crust of sod, smells the water, knows that the footing toward which you're aiming him, the footing that looks just fine to you, is extremely treacherous and could result in his bogging down, perhaps even in his death. His spook takes the form of refusing to go where you ask to keep you both alive.

Managing good spooks: The first type of good spook needs no action. It's over immediately, your horse having given that slight tremor or jerk through his frame. If the cause seems foolish or identical to something my horse and I have encountered a few minutes ago, I'll sometimes say "quit" to remind him that he knows better. But for the most part, you can ignore these spooks. As your horse gains trail experience, you'll likely see fewer of them.

When your horse detects real danger, managing the spook is touchier. In the case of the bog, when your horse has alerted you to a danger you've missed, your decision seems easy enough-you don't go there! But it's not quite that simple. You're the leader, after all, and you must make the final judgment as to whether the fear is justified.

Also, the extremely savvy horse, because he gets release when you back off in the face of his fear, may try the same spookiness in a similar situation when it's not justified, such as when he's dealing with a puddle instead of a bog. You often have to pay later for allowing your horse to take charge, but usually you can climb back on top of the pecking order readily enough.

Never allow the possibility of a training setback to push you into insisting on your way in the face of danger. You don't settle an argument with your horse in the path of a speeding train. Get off and hold him if that's the only safe course; you can resume training later under safer conditions.

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Bad spooks: Bad spooks are probably the most common horse-related cause of rider injury. Here, a horse handles his perceived fear by a sideways jump severe enough to unseat a poor or inattentive rider, or by far worse things: attempts at headlong flight; bucking; rearing; or, worst of all, going over backwards. Much of horse training, particularly in the earlier stages, is aimed at preventing bad spooks.

Skywalker's actions when the doe jumped from the patch of shade definitely constituted a bad spook, though not a severe one. He briefly lost control, turned around in a dangerous place, and, in the hands of an inexperienced rider, might've run away. As it was, I reminded him of his training with the one-rein stop and a sharp "quit!" No harm was done.

Another form of bad spook is when your horse perceives an object as dangerous and refuses to move forward. In this case, you know that the object, perhaps a reflective boulder on the side of the trail, isn't dangerous to your horse or to you.

Fake spooks: I'm told that endurance riders, watching their horses' heart monitors during training and competition, have verified what we all suspected-that horses occasionally spook when they aren't afraid at all. Perhaps they do this for the sheer joy of it, or perhaps they're trying to bluff out their riders. Apparently, a horse's heart rate will spike during a real spook, but not when he gives that sideways jump at an object he knows well and with which he's normally at ease.

Have you ever noticed that your horse spooks quite readily on his way out from the barn at things he scarcely notices when he's heading home? To a degree, he's been faking it. Heading out, perhaps still cold under the saddle, knowing work lies ahead, he looks hard for something to fear. Heading home, warmed up, feeling fine, and secure with the promise of a pan of oats at the stable, all's right with the world and there's no need to spook.

The "barn sour" horse often begins his misbehavior with a fake spook. Wanting to return home, he finds something just a little scary-something that, were he in the company of a steady horse, would probably be no big deal. But because he's not really crazy about going on the trail, he gives a little jump. If you're an assertive rider, you simply rein him in the direction you want to go, cue him forward, and all goes well. But if you're a timid rider, your horse might figure out that you're "trainable." This bit of equine insight can cause him to act all the more afraid, because he finds reward in this "fear." Next, he might turn back toward the barn. At this point, you must avoid creating a monster-a horse that's learned feigned fright gets him out of work and back home with his buddies.

Managing fake spooks: To nip this behavior in the bud, drive your horse forward at the first inkling of a spook. Reinforce your cues with the long lead rope of natural horsemanship or the tools of more traditional methods, whichever was used in his initial training when he was asked for impulsion. He should understand that the command to move forward is just that, a command. You can't let him take charge and hesitate or balk at each new object simply because it gives him a chance to rest or sneak a bite of grass. To overcome any timidity in the saddle, work on your horsemanship with a certified riding instructor or reputable trainer.

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Banishing Bad Spooks
To manage bad spooks, you need to step back and see the big picture. Horses, like humans, are products of both heredity and environment. Each is an individual. The excessively spooky horse might've inherited a more sharply honed trigger for survival purposes than calmer mounts. Or, he might've learned quick-to-spook tendencies from his dam, especially if she was the first in the herd to run from any surprise.

Of course, you can't do anything about your horse's genes or his experiences before you owned him. (But don't fall into "the abuse excuse"-laying all your horse's faults on alleged mistreatment by a former owner, and perhaps subconsciously, using these as an excuse for not exerting strong leadership.) However, you can decrease his tendency to spook, which will make spooks fewer and farther between. You can also eliminate those spooks that are truly dangerous. You'll accomplish this through a two-step approach, desensitization and discipline; here's how.

Desensitization. First, take the perceived danger out of potentially fearful objects and situations so that your horse is convinced he has nothing to fear. This is known as "sacking out" in old-timer's terminology or "desensitization" in modern, clinician's lingo. The idea is to expose your horse to a wide variety of stimuli. Board him in a large pasture with varied terrain. Constantly pass a variety of objects over his body, such as your slicker, a lead rope, and a longe whip. In a small, enclosed work area, have a friend ride her bicycle gently toward you, then stop when asked. Push any desensitization routine through to completion. Continue to gently expose your horse to the stimuli until he stops reacting to it, no matter how many passes it takes.

Consider teaching your horse to pack. The weight of panniers, the breeching under his tail, and the sound and feel of packs scraping on trees will help to prevent future spooks under saddle.

If your horse's spook causes a balk, his body language is saying, "This scares me, so I don't want to go there," To manage this type of spook, use the low-stress approach described by John Lyons. Keep your horse facing this new spook, wait until he relaxes, then ask him to move forward toward it. Yes, you can use your legs, weight, and artificial aids to drive your horse toward what he fears, but I'm not sure he learns very much. The idea is to convince him there's nothing to fear, and that takes time. (For more information on John Lyons' techniques, clinics, books, and videos, visit www.johnlyons.com.)

Another way to help your horse overcome his balking spook is to ride out with a patient friend on a steady horse. Make sure your friend understands that you're on a training mission, not a joy ride. Take turns leading. Don't always fall back and follow your friend over the scary place; you may find that when riding alone or in the lead your horse will still be afraid of an obstacle he crossed quite readily while following another.

If you're quite certain you're dealing with a fake spook, however, forget the low-stress approach, and drive your horse forward.

Discipline. When you instill discipline and self-control in your horse, you condition him not to flee even though his genes tell him to. Keep in mind that discipline isn't punishment; it's a system of learning. Your own discipline keeps you from doing something dangerous when someone says "boo."

Discipline training must include two basic curbs on behavior, and these must be absolute. One is "whoa," which means stop and stay stopped until cued to move. (Never use "whoa" as a command to slow down, or you'll dilute the cue's meaning and confuse your horse.) To teach the whoa, give the verbal cue, "whoa," and simultaneously apply rearward pressure on the reins (no more than necessary). Immediately release the rein pressure when your horse stops.

The other fundamental is lateral flexion, which means your horse allows you to bring his head around to the either side with little direct-rein pressure. To accomplish this, he'll need to learn to "give" (respond) to the bit or bosal.

You can then use lateral flexion to enhance the one-rein stop in a panic situation, when a "whoa" accompanied by rearward rein pressure may not do the job. In the one-rein stop, you'll bring your horse's head around until his nose almost touches his shoulder; in this position, he'll have difficulty running away or getting his head down for a buck. If you ever need to use this technique, be sure to release the rein pressure the instant your horse regains his composure, as a reward. However, note that if he's truly afraid, be ready to repeat the drill.

Lastly, look to yourself. Is there anything you may be doing to complicate the situation? When a potentially fearful situation arises, do you tense up? If so, your horse feels that and becomes more tense himself. To better handle a sideways jump, get in shape. The portly torso and weak legs that tend to come with middle age compromise a secure seat.

Dan Aadland (http://my.montana.net/draa) raises mountain bred Tennessee Walking Horses and gaited mules on his ranch in Montana. His most recent books are The Best of All Seasons, The Complete Trail Horse, and 101 Trail Riding Tips. Sketches from the Ranch: A Montana Memoir is now available in a new Bison Books edition.

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