dancing horses

dancing horses

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Let's Talk About Spooking

A friend posted on FB about feeling confident after riding her horse through a spook. This led to some discussion about how best to handle it.

 The issue with spooking is not so much the initial 'argh' but what could potentially come after. The biggest worry in riding a green horse or an unknown horse is that you may get hurt, depending on what they do. It's the unknown. And we all know that fear of the unknown leads us to ride defensively, which actually is not helpful. When I feel defensive, I tend to curl up into a ball. This is far more likely to lead to a fall than riding upright. However, it's hard to tell that to your unconscious when it's in 'oh my god we may die' mode. It tends to not believe you and throw curse words at you.

This is why its sometimes hard to leave the ring. In the ring we feel more in control or that we can contain any problem that may arise. But there's a lot of fun to be had outside of the ring. Plus there's the potential for personal growth.

 There are lots of theories and lots of advice out there on spooking. I've read and/or heard a lot of it and I've tried most of it. Some of it worked, some of it didn't.

Here's the thing- the horses haven't read the books or heard the advice.

Here's the other thing- all horses will spook. It's hard wired into their DNA. Being prey animals they need to respond to imminent threats quickly.

The truth is that I have no tricks but I do have an approach. It involves three things that I will try to explain:
1. expecting that a horse will spook and try to be aware of the possible spooky things.
  I don't mean freaking out about everything but just keeping my awareness of what's around. I truly believe that the horse senses if you are paying attention and learns that he doesn't have to worry as much if you know what's going on. I've gotten quite good at explaining stuff to Irish like "that's the dog, and she's likely to come bouncing out". That seems to keep him settled.

2. having a plan beyond "I really hope that my horse doesn't freak out"

This is not new, I got it from Jane Savoie. She talks about the importance of self-talk. The basic premise is that when I'm riding Steele I have a plan in my head in case he spooks at the dog sleeping in the grass. Believe it or not thinking clearly in my head that if Steele freaks out I will keep my legs down, my shoulders back and look to steer him in a small circle really works. Often it means that he won't spook because I'm riding prepared and if he does spook I have a plan that kicks into gear without me having to think about it.

3. knowing how my horse spooks.

This helps me know what to plan for. Steele's spooks seem to be a quick quarter turn away from what spooked him and then come to a halt. These are pretty easy to ride. Irish tends to slam on the brakes, suck back and then turn. This is not so easy to ride and has unseated me many times. When I hack out Irish I allow him to have a long rein but not so long I can't shorten them up if I need to.

That helps with the sudden 'surprise' spook.
Then there's the recurring spook. You know what I mean- that part of the ring that the horse always shies, or with snow falling off the roof, or when the mounting block has been moved and 20 mins into the ride the horse is still a bit freaked. With those, I ignore the spook and correct the move. Let me see if I can explain. If I'm riding Irish and he's worried about the mounting block when we go by he will drop his shoulder and change his bend to bend way from the scary thing. I simply correct the bend and carry on. By focussing on the behaviour that I want and ignoring whatever is causing the issue I change the terms of the discussion.
Instead of:
Irish: Oh my god, it's going to eat me. 
Me: that's nothing to worry about. 
Irish: Yes it is.
Me: No it's not
Irish: Yes it is.
Me: No it's not
Irish: Yes it is.
Me: No it's not

The discussion goes like this:
Irish: Oh my god, it's going to eat me. 
Me: hey, we're bending to the right, not left. 
Irish: But it's going to eat me
Me: so we need to bend this way
Irish: but...
Me: oh good for you. nice bend
Irish: sigh

I've been overheard to say 'yes dear' when my horse spooks underneath of me. It gets me some strange looks from others. But it works for me so I keep going.

what are you doing? do I need to flee


  1. This is a great post. And I love the conversations you have with your horses ;)

    1. thank you. do you know that some people think that I make them up??

  2. Jane Savoie is awesome! Great post :)

    1. I love Jane Saovie. I've read a lot of her stuff. I'd love to do a clinic with her some day!

  3. Replies
    1. thank you for all your comments on my blog. :)


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