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Riding spooky horses

Its a fact of life that some horses are spooky and some arent. We all know horses are naturally flight animals and to an extent i think we have to accept that and work with that when we are dealing with horses that are more flighty and spooky than others.

But we like to use the term 'spooky horse' as an umbrella term when its such a scale. I am always being asked with our sales horses 'are they spooky' and every time i say 'it depends what you mean'. Some horses just aren't fazed by anything, you can take them in any arena. any environment, any situation and they just take it all in their stride whereas others may be spooky. Some may spooky at the designated scary corner in the arena, some may look at the flowers or markers in a competition arena they've never been to before, some are noise sensitive, others might jump if a pheasant leaps out of a bush at them whilst some do a dirty spin and tank off halfway across the arena because someone on the ground breathed funny. And as a rider some of these types of spooking you would be okay with and others you wouldn't but if you ride a spooky horse, no matter whether its a little spooky or a lot spooky i wanted to talk you through a few different things i always try with any spooky horse i ride or teach.

Fixing a spooky horse is a fine line. If a horse isn't more comfortable going past the scary corner but it does go past because its forced to by the rider - is that solving the problem? In short i guess it is because your horse didnt spook but have you fixed the core of the problem - maybe not?

Do your health checks

Its very common for horses to become spooky or nervous or anxious when they are in pain. This could be anything from the saddle not fitting right to a teeth issue, a back pain or something that might require the vet but i always think you want to be able to start with a fresh sheet and know that it isnt any of these things causing the issue. Not just from the perspective that we want our horses to be happy and healthy and comfortable but also from a training perspective. If we are riding our spooky horse in the arena and they are there, spooking away and we are thinking 'im not sure if they are in pain or if they are just being naughty or evading' then most riders tend to ride very passively, we dont want to push through and keep going incase our horses are in pain; but equally we dont want to get off if they are being difficult so we end up not really doing anything.

If we can tick off that we know they aren't in pain and the saddle, teeth, back and so forth then we can get onto working through it in training.

Another thing to talk about is nutrition, some feeds naturally can make a horse more energetic or more susceptible to ulcers which can also be another reason for horses spooking, especially if came on suddenly and they didn't used to do it. Most feed companies will be able to advise you on the right feed for your horse and feeds suitable for ulcer prone horses too. We want to make sure they are getting all the right vitamins and minerals and nutrition that they need but we also want to make sure that their feed works in line with their behaviour and the workload that you are doing with them. Im not going to go down the dark and dangerous route of discussing calmers but i know people that have had huge success with calming cookies and different types of calmers and equally i know people who it has never worked for so i live by the rule that if it works for you and your horse is happier then thats good enough for me!

Find the pattern

So, once you've ticked off the health side its now time to start looking for a pattern. It might be you know it already, its always at a show, its always in a certain corner or on a certain rein, all this information is so useful to have to help us build a picture of why our horse are spooking in the first place. You could even try riding your horse at different times of the day or with a different routine to see if that improves it. All you need to do is just keep a note of where and when the spooking happens and what you were doing when it happened. You dont need to write detailed notes about it if you dont want to but just keep an eye on it and you may start to see a pattern.

If it always happens at the end of your session, or always at the beginning, does it always happen on one certain hacking route or during a particular movement or exercise in training, at one particular venue or at every venue, does it happen at home ? All of this will help you to build a picture and the more information we have the easier it is to start to work out why your horse is spooking in the first place.

Nervous vs evasion

The age old question. Is your horse spooking because they are trying to get out of doing the work, they're evading you or they've found a clever way of getting out of it or is it because they are genuinely nervous, stressed, anxious or in pain. How do you go about working out whether this is your horse evading or if they are genuinely nervous or even in pain? If only horses could talk our life would be made so much easier, unfortunately they cant, so we do really have to listen to them and often it ends up being a process of elimination and, when you find the cause you'll look back in hindsight and wonder 'why did i not realise this before'. I think this happens to me on a daily with horses as i learn more and more and i think its the same for everyone but i think its why its so important to get those dentist, saddle, vet, physio and so on and get it all checked out so you can be sure this isn't pain related. That almost ends up being the easy bit because the next part is working out whether this is your horse being genuinely nervous or scared of whatever they are spooking at or if they are evading.

And this is where finding the patterns and knowing when, how, where, when the spooking happens can help you to work this out. For example, if i had a client come to me on a horse that always started spooking halfway through the lesson when things started getting difficult and once they spooked the rider would always get off and stop - so long as i was sure it wasnt pain i would lean towards this being an evasion, especially if the rider has gotten off soon after the spooking.

But if the spooking always happened on a certain rein or during a certain movement i would definitely be looking deeper into the pain side of things and perhaps something going on there.

But if there was a horse that was spooking always in new environments or when things changed or equally if that horse always spooked in the same corner or at a certain noise but the rider did everything right (and ill get onto what right means later on) i would lean towards this being more about the horses confidence.

Now often things wont be as clear cut as that, it might be harder to unpack but i am a big believer in finding the root cause of any problem you face in dressage because you dont want to spend weeks and months working on something only to find out it wasnt the cause of the problem in the first place. So take the time now to find out why your horse spooks and it will be far easier and quicker to fix and improve in the long run.

Exercises to try

So now we've spoken a bit about why and how the spooking may be happening we can start to go into some things that might help.

Generally, I've found horses tend to spend more time spooking when their focus isn't on us as the rider. No matter whether it is because they are a bit nervous or anxious in a new environment, they are a bit nosy, they are trying to evade working hard; no matter the reason for them spooking, generally giving them something to do and getting them to focus on us as the rider nearly always works every time. A really great exercise i love is to ride a serpentine with a transition every time you cross the centre line, if you want to be even more adventurous you can add another transition each time you touch the track too. This keeps your horse thinking as you keep changing direction and pace and they don't know what you are going to ask them next so it keeps them thinking and listening to you a bit more. For those of you that have a lazy horse that has a tendency to go behind the leg, forward will be your best friend, it gets your horse focussed on you and thinking about you and paying attention to you rather than coming behind your leg and ignoring you, which, quite often is a bit of a pre warning for a spook anyway.

Nearly all the horses i have come across tend to spook at things on the outside of the arena rather than things inside the arena. Banners, chairs, letters, flowers, entrances. people all tend to be on the outside of the arena so another great tactic is to get your horse focussing on things inside the arena. Spirals (where you start on a 10-12m circle in the middle of the arena and then push out onto a 20m circle and repeat) are great for getting their focus into the arena and on you but is also great for getting them more supple and relaxed too. If your horse knows them you can also try adding in shoulder ins and leg yields both of which also get your horse bending more around your inside leg and more supple and relaxed too.

Hire an arena away from home

This is definitely necessary for those of you that have horses that are always spooky at competitions. When you are warming up and competing theres a time pressure on you: you have a time you have to be warmed up and ready to go in, you have to ride a certain test, you want it to go well and not lose marks for spooking - there ends up being quite a lot of pressure put on you as the rider but also then on your horse.

Hiring an arena or going to test riding clinics or lessons away from home will really help give you that extra time to get your horse comfortable and confident and used to these different environments. You could even go with your trainer and get them to help give you a few different tools that you could use in the warm up and in the test to help your horse if they do get a bit spooky. But i think arena hires are great, you have the time to just get your horse comfortable, you can work them in and around all the spooky objects and you can take your time, circle away, come back round, repeat a movement or exercise as many times as you like with no pressure and i think it can really help to build a riders confidence too as well as the horses.

But even if your horse is great at a show but always spooky at home, changing the scenery a bit can be hugely helpful for you to have a positive, effective training session where you aren't having to deal with your horse spooking every three seconds. Its so easy when your horse spooks a lot at home to either give up and call it a day or just focus on getting your horse past whatever they are spooking at - neither of which is very beneficial from a training perspective. So sometimes, training away from home if your horse is better in a new environment will help give you a positive session and help you keep progressing alongside working through the spooking at home.

What is your influence in all of this?

I think its important, no matter the subject in dressage, to talk about the riders influence but even more so when we talk about spooking because so often its easy to feel really powerless in those situations. So often i hear really blanket statements like 'my horse will spook at that' or 'i have to cut off half my school because my horse always spooks at A' or 'there's no point me having a fight about it so i just stay away and if it gets really bad i just get off and call it a day'. I think its a lot easier out of context, away from the yard and talking here, to see that none of those things are going to be beneficial for you or the horse but they are things i hear from riders on a daily basis because, when its happening again and again its so easy to feel like you cant do anything about it but hopefully this will at least give you some tools and things to try when it does happen.

So, a few big no no's that i like to tell everyone from a riders perspective and the things we can do to help improve our spooky horses:

  1. (Unless its unsafe to do so) never ever get off, stop or turn away from the spooky thing straight after your horse has spooked. All these things teach your horse that the spook was something that lead to them getting away from the spooky object, they either got away completely or didn't have to go back to it again. This isn't helpful no matter whether the horse is nervous or evading.

  2. Don't forget about your training. Its so easy to become hyper focussed on whatever it is your horse is spooking at and just trying to get them passed it that we end up forgetting about what we were working on beforehand. If you stare at something thinking your horse is going to spook, chances are, they probably will. The lesson this teaches our horses is that when they spook, the training stops. If the horse is genuinely nervous about something, giving them something to focus on is going to help to refocus their attention on you as the rider. If the horse is evading, the horse can quickly learn how to get out of working hard whereas if you carry on with whatever you were working on and ignore the spooking they will realise it is a futile effort.

  3. Ignore the spooks. Stay on the direction you were aiming for. This is kind of on similar lines but when a horse spooks the last thing we want to do is stop them or carry on in the direction they took us in. It teaches the horse that they can decide where they are going and we will follow which, especially in dressage but even just from a simple control aspect, we need to be able to go in the direction we want at the speed we want. But it is also natural that our horse wants to get away from something they perceive to be a threat but handing the reins over to your nervous horse and saying to them, 'yep ill come with you' isnt going to fill them with confidence. So the rule i always give people is to, as soon as you feel your horse spook, as quickly as you can, get your horse back on the line and pace you were doing before the spook happened. The more you can keep that system of getting back to your line and your direction and getting back to the speed you wanted as quickly as possible, you will find the effect the spook has on your horse and you becomes less and less and it starts to diffuse not only the effect of the spook but the spook itself.

  4. Dont try to get your horse passed the spooky object. I know this sounds counter intuitive but let me explain. I always think that forward and straight are your two best friends when you ride a spooky horse; as soon as you feel your horse spook, focus your attention on where you want to go, lock your eyes onto a point that is further off in the distance on the line you were wanting to be on and ride for that. When riders try to ride past a spooky thing, especially in tests we end up forcing our horse sideways into the thing they arent wanting to go past in the first place; whereas if you use that pressure to push them forward and on past the spooky object or thing the horse naturally is more inclined to follow you.

  5. Prepare dont anticipate. This point goes back to what we said before about if you stare at something thinking your horse will spook the chances are they will. However, the problem comes that when our horse does spook we need to be quick to get our horses back on task and focussed as quickly as possible to diffuse the situation. So i like to use the phrase 'prepare don't anticipate', you prepare and you're ready in case a spook does happen but you don't anticipate or assume that your horse will spook. If you sit on a horse that you think is spooky then plan out some exercises to get them focussed on you; lots of transitions, changes of direction and bringing the focus to you as the rider. Try not to look around the arena and guess where your horse might spook because chances are they will. Keep them focussed on you and have your game plan in place of what to do if they do spook, but don't anticipate where this will happen.

Know when to ask for help

The final thing i want to talk about is to know when the time is to start asking for help. I have people coming to me on a daily basis asking me to help them get their horses more supple, more forward,, help them teach their horse a new movement or improve their position or help them be more accurate in their tests. It happens much more rarely that i have someone come and say can you help me with my horse spooking and i think its because we so often see it as something that just is, that we try and fight through and carry on but dont be afraid to ask for help, whether that be from your trainer or coach or from someone else.

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