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.
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."
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:
"A horse can be taught to carry himself differently by bringing his back up to release his neck and shoulders. A more level carriage of the neck allows him to see differently.
"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."
If your horse has fear issues, work on exercises to build trust and confidence — in himself, as well as in yourself.
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 (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.