Control a Spook in Your Horse

Teach your horse to control his spooky behavior by working him on an obstacle course with Linda Tellington-Jones's help.
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Teach your horse to control his spooky behavior by working him on an obstacle course with Linda Tellington-Jones's help.

A fine spring morning finds you and your horse trotting along a familiar trail. You're feeling at one with your horse and the world around you, when suddenly he spooks violently to one side with no warning whatsoever.

To help your horse to feel more connected with the ground, stroke his legs and tap his hooves. Photo courtesy of Linda Tellington-Jones

To help your horse to feel more connected with the ground, stroke his legs and tap his hooves. Photo courtesy of Linda Tellington-Jones

Once you fully recover your seat, you aren't sure whether to reprimand or soothe him. You continue forward, but at a brisk walk instead of a trot. As you do, you can't help but take up a little more rein and keep your legs closer to his sides. Horses do spook because they're tense or fearful. But some may spook out of habit, playfulness, or because they don't see clearly.

"In certain bloodlines, it might even be genetic," observes Linda Tellington-Jones. "Lady Wentworth, the famous Arabian horse breeder, once wrote: 'If they don't shy from a butterfly, they should be shot.'

"For many generations in the desert, Arabians needed to be extremely aware, as their rider's life was dependent on detecting any movement of an enemy on the horizon even before the rider did," Jones explains. "But let's face it; the odds of an enemy lurking on your horizon are slim. So how can you convince your horse that spooking isn't necessary--or even desirable?

"Your horse's flight reflex has been fine-tuned to be prepared to escape at the first suggestion of a threat," says Tellington-Jones. "Horses that shy are often simply displaying a well-preserved flight reflex. It's our job to teach our equine companions to override this ancient impulse by listening to and trusting the rider, or simply stopping--instead of running off--when unsure."

Why Horses Spook

Tellington-Jones notes that spooky horses often share one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Foot nervousness. Some horses are nervous about things around their feet. Get this horse to feel more connected with the ground, and watch his confidence increase. Often, this is easily accomplished by stroking the entire length of his legs down to the ground, then tapping his hooves. You can use a TTEAM Wand, a four-foot long stiff, white dressage whip with a plastic ?button? on the end that acts as an extension of your arm. (To order, go to www.tttouch.com) Or, you can use a dressage whip.
  • Sensitivity just below the withers. This is an area where many saddles pinch, and it happens to be the acupressure point for the diaphragm, which affects breathing. If the horse's breathing is compromised, spooking may become elevated.
  • Neck tightness. Some horses have tightness in the neck area about six to eight inches behind the ear. An acupressure point in this area affects circulation to the head.
  • Vision problems. "I've seen horses that were spooky from the time they were very young whose vision proved to be less than perfect," says Tellington-Jones. "They're often horses that carry themselves with a high head carriage, as though in an effort to see more clearly.

"Attempting to change a horse's posture mechanically with running martingales, tie-downs, or other aids doesn't seem to affect the behavior in a way that will make permanent changes," she continues. "Whereas, lowering his head and lengthening his neck by bringing his back up and opening his shoulder can affect a permanent change in his posture.

"Change the posture; change the behavior.

Obstacle Course

Set up a playground of obstacles. Use different surfaces, such as plastic, plywood and cardboard. Photo courtesy of Linda Tellington-Jones

Set up a playground of obstacles. Use different surfaces, such as plastic, plywood and cardboard. Photo courtesy of Linda Tellington-Jones

If your horse has fear issues, work on exercises to build trust and confidence--in himself, as well as in you.

Set up a "playground of obstacles." Use different surfaces, such as plastic, plywood and cardboard. By using these items in a controlled environment, your horse can learn to trust and be obedient.
You don't want your horse to just "put up with" doing things, but to actually be confident in what you're asking.

"If your horse believes there are unseen monsters in a corner of the indoor arena, for example, set a shallow rubber tub there with grain at chest level," suggests Tellington-Jones. "The eating will help to override the fear."

Setting up obstacles in these parts of the arena can also be helpful.

Consider using a Balance Rein and, when you mount up, a Tellington Training Bit (both available on www.ttouch.com).

Spooky horses often become even more reactive when the rider tightens the reins in an effort to prevent or control the spook. By using the Balance Rein, you won't have to take hold of your horse's mouth.

The Tellington Training Bit helps steady your horse (and you), while keeping his back up and his head down.

You'll also need: Halter; lead rope; your usual trail-riding tack.

Before you begin: Set up several obstacles in an enclosed corral or pasture with good footing. It helps to use items similar to things your horse has spooked at in the past, such as a log or stump, a plastic trash bag or tarp, cardboard boxes, a piece of plywood, a bicycle, and an umbrella.

Step 1. Lower his head. Outfit your horse in a halter and lead rope, and ask him to lower his head.

Step 2. Walk him through the course. Walk your horse through the obstacles, always asking for a lowered head. Take your time. Stop when necessary, and just stand there. Speak in a low, soothing voice. Praise your horse and rub him as he becomes more accepting of the various objects. Don't feel that you have to accomplish it all in one session, but don't end a session with your horse acting nervous or "antsy" about an object.

Step 3. Ride through the course. As soon as your horse shows confidence when you lead him through the obstacle course from the ground, tack him up, and ride through the course. Ask your horse to lower his head by reaching forward from the saddle and working his neck with your hand. If you become concerned about your safety, get off!

Linda Tellington-Jones
Linda Tellington-Jones (www.ttouch.com) is internationally renowned for creating the Tellington Method, a holistic system of training horses that deepens mutual trust, overrides common resistances, and strengthens the horse-human bond. Her riding style incorporates a sense of athletics, freedom, cooperation, and joy. Tellington-Jones has completed six 100-mile Western States Trail Foundation Tevis Cup endurance rides and held a world record in endurance riding by winning the Jim Shoulders 100. She's been a member of the veterinary team for the United States Endurance Team, and a judge and competitor in North American Trail Ride Conference events.