We don’t know why horses do the things they do. You might think it was the wind that startled them, a bird flew by or the light caught their eye. If we try to nail down the cause of every spook, we would never ride them or lead them or drive them. So how do we manage a horse in those types of situations? How do we help them behave better and protect ourselves?
We don’t want to see anyone get hurt but near accidents do eventually become our teacher. It’s those near accidents that bring the greater awareness to our horse handling. We start watching out for the things that might trigger an upset and result in an injury, to us.
Consider how it would feel if we tried to exist in the personal space of our horse in such a way that we become aware of their environment similar to the way that the horse perceives it?
In the training of coaches several years ago this awareness was termed “with-it-ness". It was about seeing the space and all of its possible threats to the safety of our student riders. There was even a course in which you could view the riding area in 360 degrees and your job was to identify all of the things which could cause an accident. I’m suggesting that we do that for our horses and preempt their tendency to “lose it” by using our awareness of the environment and communicating with kindness in such a way that the horse stays connected to us, follows our instructions, builds trust and defers leadership. This is the ultimate in managing mishaps before they happen.
There’s no yelling at a horse or discipline for scared behaviors – understanding that it is a natural herd instinct for self-preservation. Adding more upset and negative energy to an already frightened or alert horse only increases the emotion of that situation and actually can create a repeatable impression in their mind. They may see that situation as a danger zone.
We cannot control every environment or surprise that happens within it but we can plan some strategies in our own routines to minimize not only how often those events occur but also the degree of reaction that a horse demonstrates.
1. Awareness – foreseeing possible problems
2. Benevolence – deciding to teach instead of discipline
3. Communication – practice skills that build trust
I can’t even begin to list the number and variety of things that have triggered my horses. They were usually something visible and unexpected but sometimes it has been a smell or a sound. Sometimes the trigger has even startled me and in that case, of course my horse will react as well.
What should you do to minimize the chance of getting hurt in any of these situations?
If I act as if there is nothing to be afraid of, should I expect that my horse will deduce that it doesn’t need to be afraid either? I have not found that to be very effective for the next time. My horse is still afraid or if I get emotional it retains a heightened response. Usually, it is just satisfied in getting away from the “thing”. Moments later, there could be something else.
If I get loud and strong with my horse then I may reinforce the fear response it had and increase its reaction.
Here’s where I use the awareness phase. I take the time to make my horse aware of the possible threat before the horse reacts then I’m going in the direction of being the leader.
Benevolence is easier now because my chosen state of self-control allows me to put aside emotions and manage with a plan.
If it is not something sudden or surprising, I could communicate to the horse to stop and back, re-approach and retreat. I could situate myself between the trigger and the horse. This gives some boundary of perceived safety and the horse at least won’t crush my space to avoid the thing.
The communication skills I employ in those situations are small steps, planned directions and are communicated quietly with purpose and clarity. I suggest that you get excellent at small signals for stop, back and forward and also yielding the fore and hind quarters. By being able to direct the horse in their own space you build your ability to manage trigger situations.
Setting up scenarios in your stable environment can be another way to provide opportunities for practice and diffusing high energy reactive horses.
As an example, the bedding bales were dropped off in the aisle. For one of my horses that was a BIG deal (awareness). This gave me the opportunity to softly and clearly use the strategy of approach and back away, allowing her to explore this new threat (benevolence with communication). I was able to improve my communications and build her trust in my leadership when she is fearful. This horse went through the sequence of sniffing (snorting initially), then touching with her nose but when she thought she could scoot past it was evident that she was not as confident with her barrel and hind quarters in close proximity to the bales. By asking her to stop and back up a couple steps, she was eventually able to focus on me more than the bales. I also focused on where she put her feet and how many steps that I would accept instead of pressing her towards the bales. She revealed her level of trust and confidence by how easily she responded to each cue. At first, she simply could not stop. Then, she could only hesitate and finally, she was able to stand beside the bales. Eventually with the bales at her back legs she was could lower her head, take a breath and proceed one step at a time with a calmer demeanor.
Next thing I did was position myself so that she had to squeeze between me and the bales. This gave me a really good feel of how she would lean into my space to feel safer, it was subtle. By stroking her body as she went past it built an awareness in her and confidence that if something touched her in that tight space it was not a danger.
Finally, I stacked some bales on the other side of the aisle so that she had to go between them and take in the information with both eyes at the same time. This was just another way of helping her experience a situation more fully and build her confidence around her whole body.
How long does this take? A little bit every day is best. The important thing is that you need to see a change in her body and mind before moving on. Often, people quit too soon, inadvertently rewarding with release while the horse is still in that escalated state. People will move on because they think getting by without an incident is the desired outcome but really you want to achieve confidence. It is commonly thought that repetition is a good teacher. What I’m saying is that comprehension is a better teacher. The horse that assesses a situation and defers to me as the leader and takes its understanding of the level of danger from me is the safer horse to handle and ride.
This is what we really want from our horses. We want them to defer to our leadership in every situation. It is our responsibility to be good leaders.
How do we get that? We plan and practice simple communications that build trust, confidence and connection with our horse. How does that relate to more than just leading? You become skilled at assessing and preempting situations and environments so that you can prepare your horse to be calm and not reactive when you need it to be even while riding.
Remember, no one learns when they are afraid. Your horse is no different. When you are able to elicit cooperation with calmness your horse will learn to defer to your leadership more easily and more quickly.
Be encouraged, your horse actually wants you to be the trustworthy, lifesaving leader and you can be that by using this simple strategy for overcoming spooky, high energy situations.