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How to help behavior Part 1: Spooking

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

The worst psychological effects of bad training and riding occur when the horse is trapped between a relentless curb and spur. These effects range from conflict behaviors to chronic stress to learned helplessness and finally wastage (abattoirs). We need to recognize these conditions and suspect our training style when telltale signs such as conflict behaviors occur, or when colic shows up or when the horse becomes switched-off, dull and slow to learn new things because of learned helplessness. We have to be far better at blaming ourselves.

Andrew Mclean - Excerpt The horse magazine

There are a million different YouTube videos regarding how to deal with a horse that spooks. It’s interesting to me that some of these suggestions actually seem to be confusing the horse and creating even more dramatic reactions. Horses spook for different reasons…sometimes they are in pain and looking for excuses to get out of work, sometimes they are being disrespectful and trying to get out of work, and sometimes, they are truly scared. When we discipline the horse for being scared, we are actually reassuring their fear. If we circle the horse by pulling the nose around, we are training them to whirl around in reaction to their fears. When a horse continuously spooks at whatever they can find, it is not that we don’t have their respect, but more that we don’t have the horse's focus engaged on the rider. Before evaluating a horse's behavior, we need to look at the diet and have the Veterinarian clear the horse of any medical issues that might be causing the unpredictable behavior. A horse that consumes large amounts of grain stores excess energy, this is a horse's natural response to allow the “flight” response. Some horses are already overly excitable and cannot properly utilize large amounts of grain. If you can feed a good quality hay, you should not have to supplement with large amounts of grain, (excluding senior horses.)

Lunging and turnout are helpful to reduce unwanted energy levels.

For the horse that spooks, teach them shoulder fore, shoulder in, turn on forehand, turn on hindquarter, half pass, leg yield. All these exercises should be first taught and practiced at the walk. When you feel the horse is not focused on you, begin a sequence of these exercises at different points in the arena.

If you know the horse is going to spook, immediately use one of the exercises ( preferably shoulder in ) to pass the object of concern. This not only engages the focus on the movement but also teaches the horse that it is perhaps simpler to just relax and pass by the object instead of performing a suppling exercise. Stay aware of what the horse is communicating and try to time your response patiently. Always put your physical safety and the mental welfare of the horse first.

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