Tuesday 5th August, 2014
By nature, horses are flight creatures whose response to anything unusual or unnerving is to get away from the object in question as soon as possible. A spook is usually a sideways movement, however it can escalate to a horse bolting or charging, frequently with the horse owner in tow either as a rider or handler, which can be extremely dangerous to both you and your horse.
Horses that spook have usually been startled, however ill-fitting tack, pain and general high spirits can all contribute to an animal being more flighty than usual, so do bear in mind if your horse has been stabled or in a small paddock with little exercise for a long period of time.
Horses are incredibly intuitive animals who can pick up on our emotions very easily, so the first thing you must do is to ensure that you are calm and relaxed when handling or riding your horse. The more time you spend with your horse the better you will understand each other. A rider who knows her horse well can discern whether her horse is genuinely frightened by the new plant pot on their local hack route or whether he is simply full of beans and needs to let off steam, so be sensitive to his personality and current exercise regime.
The best way to gain your horses trust is through ‘Joining Up’. This is a gentle exercise where your horse chooses to follow you and submit to your authority in a relaxed, non-threatening manner, and provides the foundations of trust in your relationship.
Joining up can be done in a ménage or a small paddock, gently lead your horse into an enclosed area then simply walk around, remaining just in front of your horse, and change direction frequently with no specific pattern. When you wish to turn, turn away from him not towards him, keep your eyes lowered and avoid eye contact. A horse that is completely at ease and relaxed will follow you, also with his head lowered in a submissive, trusting gesture. He will eventually override his innate flight instincts and trust your lead by stopping, starting and turning when you do. It is from this point that you can build your relationship and work with your horse to overcome his fears.
Desensitising training is perfect for horses that have specific fears such as a post box or road sign and this involves repeatedly exposing them to such items on regular basis in a safe, controlled environment. When on the ground, lead your horse past items that would typically trigger a spook and at the first sign of nervousness, change direction and take him away from it. As he follows your lead, keep your body language and voice tone even, calm yet firm to reassure him and he will trust your instincts and happily walk past the problematic item within a matter of minutes.
Regular schooling can be hugely beneficial to pre-empt or counteract spooks whilst riding, as you can apply leg aids to reaffirm your course of direction and use your voice to reassure him whilst encouraging him forward. In addition it is important to be fully engaged as a rider, because a day dreaming rider with a sloppy seat is going to come unstuck in the event of a spook, so work on developing a strong seat and core so that you are physically prepared for any sudden movements.