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Training a Spooky Horse

Photo 1: Manage bad spooks by first teaching your horse lateral flexion— that is, to bend his head to the side in response to light direct-rein pressure; this training enhances the one-rein stop technique, which checks your horse when he spooks.  Photo 2: This horse is showing a lot of “give,” flexing his neck so that his nose touches the rider's boot.  Photo 3: An actual spook, checked immediately by the one-rein stop

With good reason, trail riders are preoccupied with spooking. Some ask for a "spookproof" or "bombproof" mount. When I'm faced with that particular request from a prospective buyer, I have to choke back sarcasm. I want to say, "Wouldn't you rather have a spooky horse that's actually alive?" As prey animals, horses have survived only because of their ingrained instinct to spook. Their ability to jerk all their muscular capacity into a nearly instantaneous response to a perceived threat is their stock in trade.

Besides, you spook, don't you? Humans may be predators rather than prey, but when someone sneaks up behind you wearing a Halloween mask and lets out a great scream, you jump. That's a spook. Adrenalin rushes into your body, and your heart rate jumps. What you don't do is "lose it." You don't run out of the house and onto the street into the path of a speeding car. Your spook is likely limited to one big jump, while you assimilate the nature of the "threat" and decide that it's actually harmless.

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And that's the whole point. The issue isn't whether your horse will spook-assume he will. The issue is how he handles that spook, whether he controls it.

To improve that control (and reduce your horse's tendency to spook at all), first understand that there are several types of spooks: Good spooks, bad spooks, and fake spooks. Here, I'll explain each type of spook, and tell you how to handle each one.

Types of Spooks
Good spooks: Yes, there's such a thing as good spooks; I see two kinds. The first "good spook" is the one that shows that your horse is superbly poised to handle natural fears in the face of sudden stimuli. A jackrabbit flashes from a juniper bush with a crackle of branches. Your horse's "startle reaction" is a quick jerk that runs through his frame and then is gone. There's no change of gait, no sudden stop, no attempt to bolt or buck. Your excellent horse has simply shown you that he's alive, that he's a horse, and that his disposition, training, and intelligence have allowed him to quickly dismiss the rabbit as harmless. He continues to do just what he's supposed to do-carry you steadily down the trail at the gait you've chosen.

The second type of good spook results when your horse, with senses far superior to your own, detects real danger of which you, the insensitive human, aren't aware. He's afraid now for very good reason. He hears a gurgle under a thin crust of sod, smells the water, knows that the footing toward which you're aiming him, the footing that looks just fine to you, is extremely treacherous and could result in his bogging down, perhaps even in his death. His spook takes the form of refusing to go where you ask to keep you both alive.

Managing good spooks: The first type of good spook needs no action. It's over immediately, your horse having given that slight tremor or jerk through his frame. If the cause seems foolish or identical to something my horse and I have encountered a few minutes ago, I'll sometimes say "quit" to remind him that he knows better. But for the most part, you can ignore these spooks. As your horse gains trail experience, you'll likely see fewer of them.

When your horse detects real danger, managing the spook is touchier. In the case of the bog, when your horse has alerted you to a danger you've missed, your decision seems easy enough-you don't go there! But it's not quite that simple. You're the leader, after all, and you must make the final judgment as to whether the fear is justified.

Also, the extremely savvy horse, because he gets release when you back off in the face of his fear, may try the same spookiness in a similar situation when it's not justified, such as when he's dealing with a puddle instead of a bog. You often have to pay later for allowing your horse to take charge, but usually you can climb back on top of the pecking order readily enough.

Never allow the possibility of a training setback to push you into insisting on your way in the face of danger. You don't settle an argument with your horse in the path of a speeding train. Get off and hold him if that's the only safe course; you can resume training later under safer conditions.

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