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44 Issue 3 2013
by Ken McNabb
with Katherine Lindsey Meehan
A spooky horse can be difficult to ride. You might feel you never know
what will set off the next jump, and sometimes one horse spooking will set
off the horses around him. It is easy for a spook to turn into a wreck. So this
month, we will cover how to help your horse learn to control his emotions
and have confidence in you as a rider and leader, even in unfamiliar or scary
There are two reasons a horse will be spooky. One, the horse is young
and inexperienced, and genuinely afraid of something. Two, the horse is
older and experienced but has learned that spooking at things gets him a
release from the work he is doing. The exercises we are going to cover will
help in both situations. For these exercises, you will want to start in a round
pen if you have access to one, and then move out to an enclosed larger
arena. You will need at least one person to help you, and some potentially
scary objects: a lariat rope, a large ball, a tarp, foam water noodles, or a flag
are some suggestions, but you can use whatever you have on hand. Your
horse should be saddled and bridled, preferably with a snaffle bit.
Remember with this exercise, as with everything you do around your
horse, your safety and your horse's safety are the top priority. Don't try to
push it and do something that gets you in a wreck. Take these exercises
slowly, and allow your horse to build his confidence and have success, as
you build your confidence to ride him through situations where he is nervous.
Start without any spooky things in the round pen, and work your horse in
figure 8's and serpentines, focusing on softening his nose at each change of
direction, and keeping his feet moving forward. I like to work these exercises
at the trot if possible. The goal here is to get your horse's feet moving and
his attention on you. Once you have this without distractions, have your
friend come into the pen and start adding distractions. Your responsibility
as a rider is to keep working with your horse on the same exercises as if
nothing has changed. If you lose focus and start looking at the new, scary
distractions, you can hardly blame your horse for doing the same! Have your
helper start small, maybe by just jumping around a little and kicking some
dirt. See how your horse handles this. If he spooks, have your friend just
keep at it while you keep at your training exercises. If your horse does not
spook when something new happens, pet him and let him know that was
what you wanted. Keep adding more distractions and scarier things, and you
can move out to the larger arena once you are feeling confident.
You will never be able to expose your horse to every possible scary
situation and thing he might encounter in his lifetime. So instead of trying
to train for every specific thing you might come across, instead you are
teaching your horse to control his emotions and look to you for guidance in
any situation. Remember, the important thing is not how your horse responds
to the scary object. The important thing is how he responds to you and your
cues in the situation. Don't get after your horse and start punishing him if he
spooks, just keep working on your forward motion, changes of direction, and
flexing. If you start punishing your horse every time he spooks, it just adds
more anxiety to the situation as he anticipates the punishment, and that is
not what you are after. However, don't let the spook be a release. If your
horse spooks, drive him right back up to the speed he was moving forward
before the spook, or even a little faster. If he learns that spooking is a way to
get the chance to stop and rest, your problem will just get worse.
Try to resist the urge to grab your horn for security when you think
you are getting into a situation where your horse might spook. If you need
to, grab the horn once he has spooked, but if you drop one rein and go