The Key to De-Spooking Shadow - Horse&Rider

The Key to De-Spooking Shadow

Desensitizing had failed. Could a new approach help this gelding—on camera, no less?
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Our beautiful, “kid-broke” Tennessee Walking Horse is a spook. His name is Shadow, and he’s afraid of it. We weren’t expecting that part of his personality when we purchased him, and I’ve spent the last three years trying to figure out what to do about it. I certainly can’t let kids ride him.

Credit: Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco The author (left) with her Tennessee Walking Horse gelding and clinician Julie Goodnight.

Credit: Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco The author (left) with her Tennessee Walking Horse gelding and clinician Julie Goodnight.

When something frightens him, he’ll drop down, splaying all four legs. Then he turns and bolts—into you if you’re leading him, or carrying you off if you’re mounted. Worse, what spooks him one day might not spook him the next. Then, the day after that, he’ll spook again. He’s like Groundhog Day.

His previous owners say they’ve never experienced his quirky side. But no matter how many times we’ve desensitized him to every tarp, bucket, flag, bag, and lead rope, there comes a point where he’ll act as if he’s never seen those horrifying things before.

I worried that keeping him was putting my family in danger. Selling him, though (to someone who might not be willing to work with his special needs) could put him at risk. What to do?

Shadow’s Last Hope
I saw an advertisement for RFD-TV’s “Horse Master With Julie Goodnight.” For a chance to be on the program, people could send in a video of their horse demonstrating a “behavior challenge.” I took a camera out to see if Shadow would show his spooky side on video. He did—so much so, in fact, I knew whether we were accepted for the show or not, this could be the end of my relationship with this unusual horse.

An email from Julie’s producer informed me Shadow and I had made the cut. Soon we were making plans to transport my gelding from Nashville, Tennessee, to Gillsville, Georgia. The Grove River Ranch is where we’d meet up with the woman I considered Shadow’s last hope.

On our first day, he spooked coming out of his stall and right down the barn aisle, nearly jerking free when I tried to lead him past some tractors. Julie explained that rather than sacking out or desensitizing, I was to learn to encourage Shadow’s investigative instincts.

As I discovered, this meant keeping his nose pointed at whatever frightened him—a cone with bags attached, for example—until he calmed down and his curiosity prompted him to want to investigate. Then, I’d hold him back a bit longer when he actually wanted to step toward it; this really switched him into “investigative mode.” I could sense a noticeable change in him in that moment.

Bravery Games
The next day, on camera, Julie rode Shadow toward a waving flag, making him stop and look until he was interested and wanted to move toward it. It wasn’t desensitizing; it was, again, getting him to be calm and curious. And it kept him from turning and bolting in a frenzy.

Though I came to the filming well versed in equine fight-or-flight reactions, Julie was the first to introduce me to the “investigative side” of a horse’s brain. Shadow and I learned to turn potential spook situations into bravery games. We worked first with Julie, then under the direction of her able assistant trainer, Twyla Walker-Collins.

The day after our segment, Julie finished off her 200th episode of “Horse Master.” Clearly, she’s dealt with some serious horse situations. When Shadow and I were with her, though, it felt as if our problem was the most important one she’d ever addressed. She wouldn’t give up until we got the help we needed.

I left the experience fully prepared to keep Shadow, confident I now know how to deal with his spookiness. And, on our first long trail ride since our visit to Georgia, he spooked only twice, both times for a pretty legitimate reason. This is a huge improvement! I’m excited about his progress—and I can’t wait to learn more about his investigative instincts.

Annette Nole Hall is an Emmy-award-winning freelance television producer, writer, and on-air guide for an outdoor adventure show. A Certified Horsemanship Association instructor, she lives near Nashville, Tennessee, with her family, five horses, and two dogs. When not riding, teaching, or training, she writes an inspirational blog for women at keziahcarrie.com. Her segment on “Horse Master” airs May 16 and July 11 on RFD-TV, Direct channel 345 and Dish, 231.