Spooking, Kicking, & Anxiety
Common Trail Riding Problems and Solutions : Part 3
By Bob Jeffreys & Suzanne Sheppard
Hello again; we hope you’ve all had success in dealing with obstacle crossings, stopping your horses from rushing home and curing any barn or buddy sour issues. In this final installment of this three part series we’ll discuss spooky horses, horses that kick other horses, and horses that won’t stop or won’t calm down while cantering. We’ll also talk about the “Energizer bunny” type horse who is wound up the instant your foot hits the stirrup and stays that way for the entire ride.
Horses spook because they naturally have flight reactions to danger, whether the danger is real or perceived. Some have bigger reactions than others. To be safe we must initially change this “spin-bolt-get out of Dodge” reaction to one of “stop your feet and look at what is frightening you”. We are not talking about desensitizing horses to various objects here, but rather what to do when they do become afraid. There is absolutely nothing wrong with desensitizing; in fact, the more things you can desensitize your horse to, the better off you’ll be. But there are just too many things in the world and it is therefore impossible to desensitize him to everything. So teach him to stop his feet when he’s scared.
Start off by outfitting your horse in his halter and attach a rope that is approximately 20′ long. Ask your horse to stand while to stand while you face him and back away the length of your rope. Then gently say “Boo!”; if he doesn’t move, then pet him. Progress by introducing scarier sounds and objects. Add a little more zest to boo, and then change to a “poof” sound, or raspberry noise. Graduate to shaking a feed bag at him and build up to shaking a tarp. Each time he stands drop the bag or tarp, and go up and praise him.. However ,if he tries to run, keep doing whatever it is that scared him (let’s say he took off when you shook the feed bag) but lower the intensity and with your lead rope gently encourage him to look in at you and stop his feet. The instant he does, stop shaking the bag, put it down and then walk up to him and pet. This is where the lesson (that stopping his feet and looking at the scary shaking bag causes that stimulation to stop, and the pressure is released) is learned. There are even advanced lessons to teach your horse to “ignore” the scary thing (a subject for another day), but you must begin with this lesson first.
Now let’s deal with the horse that kicks at other horses on the trail. It is the person riding the kicking horse who is responsible for this bad behavior, and simply placing a red ribbon on his tail does not exonerate him/her from accountability. The reason the horse kicks is because he’s paying too much attention to other horses and not enough to his rider. The rider must take the proactive approach to this problem and keep the horse busy doing little things such as giving to the bit, stepping laterally, moving the forehand or the hindquarters, or just about anything else that requires him to think and act. If you continuously give him jobs to do then pretty soon this type of horse will not have time to think about kicking and eventually that bad habit will go away.
The horse that goes into overdrive as soon as you mount, the horse that won’t stop on the trail, and the horse that stays hyper after the first canter are all showing symptoms of a lack of emotional training. Most of us take care of the physical and mental requirements of our horses, such as proper feed, shelter, care and control, but we neglect their emotional training. By this we mean we must acknowledge the existence of a higher level of distraction- the more stimulation/distraction, the more excited horses can get. For example, when we trail ride we usually have to leave the comfortable confines of our own arena and adjust to new surroundings, unfamiliar horses or an increased number of horses. We ourselves might be (and probably are) a little anxious in this type of situation, which can further upset our horses. But with proper emotional training we can resolve all of these problems.
Begin by taking your horse on small trips away from home often, even if in the beginning you don’t ride him when you get there. When at home work on getting better stops, more bending and giving, but now start adding speed to your exercises. Do this in a way that actually helps to train your horse and yourself emotionally. Most typical training sessions start with the horse warming up at a walk, and then some trotting or gaiting and finally a canter. Then we cool our horse down and put him away. What we’re doing in this scenario is training mentally and physically, but we’re only addressing emotions in one direction; up. Instead we need to raise our horse’s emotions by asking for speed, but then follow with downward transitions. For example, warm up first, the trot or canter, canter faster, and then walk. You might then follow up with another fast canter down to a slow one, then walk. Continue with a really fast walk, then trot fast, then slow, then canter fast, then walk again. Mix it up and get those emotions up and down as often as you can. This way your horse practices not only getting excited, but also settling down and getting calm again. All of this training is also producing a more responsive horse that will be far more tuned in to just haw much you’re pressing the “gas pedal”. When you ask for speed you’ll get it, but when you ease up your horse will respond with a downward transition not only with his feet, but also with his mind and emotions.
We hope that the three articles in this series help you and your horse better enjoy your time together in what is far and away our favorite equestrian activity- trail riding!
© Bob Jeffreys 4/09. Bob Jeffreys and Suzanne Sheppard travel across North America teaching people how to bring out the best in their horses.