5 Ways To A Spook
Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

Let's take a riding break and do a little analysis for a moment.

What happens during the spook? It helps to examine how the horse spooks, so that we can have a plan.

Keep in mind that all these training tips should ideally be done when the horse isn't spooking, so that he is calm, cool and able to respond and learn. Then when the spook situation happens, you will be relying on all that good practice to come through even while the horse is emotional.

1. Stopping every other stride

This one is a classic. The horse sees something from the corner of his eye, and he stops. Takes a long look. Then... it's hard to know what's going to happen. Maybe a lurch forward to another stop. Or maybe a deek sideways away from the offending object. 

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In this case, you have to teach the horse to move forward - under all (most?) circumstances. Practice getting a strong response to your leg aids in areas that are not threatening to your horse. Then it would help if you can anticipate the spook, and before he stops his feet, urge him onward.

You might want to bend him away from the scary object, so that he looks to a calmer space in the arena rather that to the scary places. But you want to teach the horse to "leak" his energy out forward, through the reins, straight ahead. (Remember the old "keep the horse between your reins and your legs"? This is when it's really helpful!)

2. "Running" through the reins

We call it running when the horse goes faster faster, or even if the horse stays at one speed but doesn't stop when the rider applies the aids. The horse might go straight, but it also happens sideways - as in, drifting out or falling in through the shoulders.

In this case, the horse doesn't stop and does the opposite: keeps those legs moving and going until he gets as far as possible away from the scary object. This can be as disconcerting as the horse that stops hard, because you have to not only stay with the horse, but ride through imbalances and sudden changes of direction.

This problem can be improved by training your horse to respond to your rein and leg aids. Calm the horse down (maybe walk when he wants to trot), keep him "underpower" (for example, jog even if you would normally trot), maintain the same rein length (don't let the rein get longer during the melee), maintain consistent aids. You have to be that ultimate active rider to make a difference. 

It's important that you do this training when the horse is calm and able to learn. It might take numerous repetitions until your horse responds to your leg and rein aids "automatically" (without thinking). Once that happens, you might find that the horse is much more responsive even in high fear situations.

3. Always spooks in that one area

Some horses get scared in a certain area, or under certain conditions, and then seem to behave the exact same way every time they pass that area or are exposed to the same conditions. It's almost like they learned to spook once, and so they do it again and again regardless of the (lack of) gravity of the situation. As we know, horses have very long memories - especially of bad events!

In this case, try to ease their fear (or reactivity) by working close to that area (or under those conditions), but not so close that the horse wants to spook.

So let's say there's a corner that your horse always wants to avoid, at all costs. Don't take the horse there. In fact, do the opposite! Show your horse that he can trust you by working as near to the area as you can without making him anxious. So stay in a comfort zone area, but do keep riding and working.

Then slowly, work closer and closer to and through the corner (don't actually point him into the scary spot). Let your horse be your guide. If he becomes more agitated, go a little further away. Keep him where he is responsive and breathing and able to be calm. Then one time, drift a little closer to the scary corner and see how it goes.

It might take a month or longer to gain your horse's responsiveness and trust, especially if he has completely blueprinted the spook in that area. But each time he feels calmer about the scary situation, you have made progress. 

4. Bends toward the scary object

This is sort of like #2, because while the horse bends all the way around to see the object, he is also dropping the opposite shoulder and getting ready to move in that direction. It can become a vicious cycle: the horse looks at the scary object, moves away, looks again, moves away more....

Like #2, your job will be to anticipate the coming spook and work on getting the horse to bend away from the scary object. Keep the horse moving, keep the shoulders "in the body" and bend away from the object. Once the horse can take his eyes off the object, he might settle down and know that he is safe with you as the rider. The key here is to build understanding and responsiveness under calm conditions, and then develop the same during the spook.

5. YOU spooking!

I had to add this one too. So many times, we become ingrained in our own behavior when we think the horse is about to spook. If it's happened to you time and again, your body takes over and begins to anticipate the spook by "assuming the position", so to speak. 

You think the horse is going to run, or turn toward the object. You lean forward, or even turn to the object yourself! Then the horse REALLY thinks he has something to be afraid of!

This is where self-awareness comes in (and possibly lessons too). If you can feel your body tightening, or maybe starting to point to the spook object, you can change what you're about to do. Loosen through your joints on purpose. Turn you core completely away from the object. Use your inside leg to prevent the horse from falling in. Count 1-2-1-2 (like I do) and focus on each and every step. 

Self-awareness, and then self-control, go a long way to teaching your horse that there is nothing to be worried about. If your body stays calm and contained, there's a much better chance that your horse will mirror you!

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