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Calming the Spooky Horse (and Rider)!
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Calming the Spooky Horse (and Rider)!

Most of us who ride horses regularly have experienced horses who spook or panic. This can be frightening but the worst thing you can do for your horse's confidence is to get stressed-out yourself. Horses take their lead from us so keeping calm can help to manage your horse's fears and enable you to take control of spooky behaviour before it becomes a deep-seated problem. Horses suffer from anxiety too; but what can you do to help?

Scenario 1: While out hacking a pheasant suddenly clatters out of the hedge right beside your horse. Instantly, his heart starts hammering underneath you, his eyes are out on stalks and his whole body goes rigid.

This is equally scary for the rider! At the time of the incident no doubt you coped fine, reassured your horse with your voice and a gentle hand and finished your ride safely. It's only when you're sitting down at home later the anxiety starts to set in and the "what ifs" begin.

Ask yourself if you contributed in some way to the incident. Were your daydreaming and allowing your horse to slop along on the buckle end? Were you on your mobile phone or chatting to a companion? Go over the sequence of events in your mind and try to work out if you would have done anything differently before the incident; maybe if your horse had been on the bit and listening to you he wouldn't have spooked.

Once you've extracted what's useful from this exercise file the incident away at the back of your mind and don't go over it again. Be strict about this; take control of your thoughts. It takes practice but you can do it! Should any unwanted negative thoughts sneak up on you, squash them straight away. Imagine the thought attached to a balloon and visualise it floating up and away; higher and higher until it disappears. Use this image every time a negative thought pops into your head.

Next time you're out hacking and you feel your horse begin to prop or spook at something direct your own gaze as far away as possible from the "monster" in question. Imagine yourself and your horse riding away over the distant horizon and look there. Not only will this make you keep riding forwards but your horse will pick up on your body language and feel that you aren't remotely interested in the cause of his anxiety. Perhaps there's nothing to worry about after all!

A very useful anti-spooking technique is to place your horse in shoulder-in position as you pass the scary place he is trying to shy at. Bringing his shoulders, neck and head away from the object he's worried about makes it physically very difficult for the horse to spin round and get away from you. Keeping him soft and round in his outline and submissive to your contact will also make it easier for you to keep his attention and maintain control. This technique is particularly useful with horses who habitually spook at things.

Scenario 2: This time the horse knows about the scary thing lurking around the corner. This could be a herd of llamas in a field by the road or perhaps a barking dog which always leaps up at the garden fence as you pass by.

Remember that you are your horse's herd leader and thus his security blanket. If you panic or sit there frozen waiting for the spook to come, you have effectively abandoned your charge and left him to cope on his own; something which would not happen in nature and which would only serve to panic him even more. If you can stay calm and relaxed, your horse will feel more confident. After all, if his leader isn't fazed by the barking dog, then why should he be?

When you become anxious your heart and respiratory rates increase. Breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose and exhale as slowly as you can through your mouth. Your intuitive horse will feel this and his breathing will begin to mirror yours, thus relaxing him too. As you breathe out, relax your muscles and consciously make sure that you're not sitting rigid and tense in the saddle. As you do this, run a little film through your mind in which you and your horse stride confidently past the scary object without flinching. The horse's back is swinging and relaxed; he's soft in your hand, and your body is supple and without tension or stiffness. Repeat your film over and over again. This technique is extremely effective and your horse will "see" the VT too as he feels your relaxation through his body.

Calming remedies

Many people swear by Bach Flower Remedies as an aid to helping their horses cope with difficult situations. These are tinctures made using extracts from flowers and herbs. There are 38 remedies altogether and they are all designed to help treat different causes and manifestations of anxiety. For best results and guidance on how to use them, consult a practitioner or check out www.bachcentre.com for help.

I hope you enjoyed my article. If you did, please vote and of course do feel free to comment.

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  1. jst4horses
    This is an excellent article! I liked the part about breathing and being the herd leader. My one addition is that horses that spook need more ground work in a calm place. Join up is a great place to start. We were training a horse with a well seasoned rodeo star. The horse was, and had been from two owners before, both young boys, allowed to really just be a wild horse with young boy atop, racing over hill and dale, very unsafe, for horse and human, not to mention other persons on the trails or in the public arenas. My friend, a 65 year old retired school teacher, was learning join up. The owner could not begin to believe how ONE join up changed that horse. She began to work with the horse, and he kept getting calmer and calmer. It is hard to explain to a person that the worse behaved a spooky horse is, the more afraid and alone that horse feels. Once that horse has joined up in ground work, then realizes that even when the rider is up, they are still partners, and he/she is safe with herd leader watching and being there to fight off monsters.........the horse calms right down. We do something called "lateral lounging" it is a walk wherever you go, on a lounge line. The horse is expected to go around in his/her circles figuring it out. It is so much nicer to ride a horse that does not spook at regular and normal trail events, and it is also much nicer to ride a horse that is not so overtrained that it will walk into a tree, or fence, or plow into a chain someone placed in a gateway because it is more afraid of the rider hitting or kicking it, than changing direction or watching where its own feet are going. Many a horse has to be rescued from falling into a pit, or off the side of a trail because unless the rider tells it to turn, the poor overtrained animal will just keep on walking and fall in, or over.
    1. autumnap
      Thank you! When I was much younger and less experienced, I thought natural horsemanship was a load of hokum. Time (and horses) have taught me that it is anything but. I believe that you can only get the very best out of your horse and develop the strongest bond possible by learning how to "talk horse"! x
  2. TreasureDawn
    Thank you very much! I will use these techniques when I ride tomorrow!

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