Calming a spooky horse

Horses that shy easily can be desensitised to ‘scary’ objects. It just takes a bit of retraining and patience, says Dr Mac.

Calming a spooky horse
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Most riders will know when their horse is about to shy or get spooked. The head comes up, the ears point straight at the scary object and the horse snorts and dances sideways, then swings around and bolts for home. Some breeds shy more readily than others, but training also affects this behaviour. The Arabian, for example, is a breed that has been bred to spook and snort.

And in many cases, this behaviour is encouraged in halter classes. Yet when these horses are used for endurance riding, they are expected to pass unfamiliar objects at a fast pace. It’s hardly surprising, then, that they often become frightened. This is bad news for the rider as it can be very difficult to stay in the saddle. The automatic response is to grip with one’s legs and shorten the reins. Unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect. Instead of bringing the horse under control, it causes the animal to rear, buck or swing round – and head for home.

Desensitising your horse
Curing a spooky horse cannot be done in the saddle during an endurance ride. It requires re-schooling in the basics.
The first step in retraining is to desensitise the horse in a safe area. Although spookiness can be a form of disobedience associated with a horse’s desire to lose its rider and gallop home to its friends, more often than not it’s the result of genuine fear and lack of confidence.

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‘Sacking out’ is a way of decreasing fear of strange objects. Rhythmically slap a saddle blanket over the whole horse until it accepts the movement. Then switch to a (noisier) plastic feed sack. Eventually you should be able to shake it and slap it gently all over the horse with little reaction. At this stage, you can start swinging the sack up and down and around the horse.

Once the horse has been desensitised, the next step in training is to learn how to distract its attention away from the object it fears, onto you, the rider. Hang a piece of flapping plastic on the edge of the lunge arena, preferably on or near the gate. Ride the horse at a walk in a small circle on the opposite side of the arena. Keeping its head bent to the inside, away from the fence, and gently using your inside leg as well, gradually increase the circle until you are passing the scary bit of plastic.

If the horse reacts to the plastic, ride more firmly by increasing the pressure of your inside leg and playing with the inside rein, but don’t tighten the reins. If the horse passes the object without flinching, relax, stop and pet it, then turn in the opposite direction and repeat the exercise. You’re instilling confidence by firm control, rather than by reacting in a panicky way to the horse’s behaviour.

To sum up, the main control mechanism used to stop a horse spooking has three essential elements. The first is that the horse’s head must be turned away from the frightening object, not towards it. The second is that your inside leg should stop the horse from skittering out sideways. The third is that you must remain relaxed yet in control, thus building the horse’s confidence.

Speeding up the process
Once you have taught the horse how to stay calm, vary the stimulus and increase your speed. Make the scary object a chair in the arena, for example, or a broom balanced against the fence, or a piece of plastic on the ground – use your imagination. At the same time increase the speed from walk, to trot, to canter. Then use this now- ingrained method outside the lunging arena and eventually on outrides. A final suggestion: ride with a ‘buddy’ horse that is not easily spooked. This will give your horse added confidence.