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Spook-Proofing a Horse
WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor [October 21, 2000]
I have a 15yr old QH. Wonderful to work with on the ground, generally quiet under saddle. There are times though when under saddle he becomes extremely nervous at not only new things/places, but familiar things as well. It's as if once he gets nervous/excited, he can't get out of his own way. He does this in hand as well, but I'm going to try your Q&A dated 8/9. In new environments, such as a new field, he might be a little tentative, but a twig breaks in the woods and he's off like a rocket. In familar enviroment, such as a quiet indoor in his own barn, we can be working well with no obvious fears and both relaxed, another horse may "knock" at his bucket and my QH freaks out. Once this type of thing happens, getting him to relax is next to impossible. I attempt to deal with the shying, snorting, skittish behavior, but any attention I had with him is lost....his fear/flight takes over. What can I do to help him get over his fears and keep myself in check?
In my experience with working with "spooky" horses, I have found that sacking out doesn't always work. The reason sacking out doesn't always work is because you can only introduce him to so many objects while sacking out. There are many, many objects that the horse will encounter in his life that you have not sacked him out with.
So, my first suggestion would be to sack him out with as many objects as possible. For details on sacking out, read ground manners. When done properly, the horse will begin to see frightening objects in a whole different light.
When the horse becomes spooky of any object, what you have to do is keep him busy. Try to anticipate when your horse might become spooky. When you think he might become spooky, give him a series of cues. Keep him busy. As long as you keep him busy, he will not have enough time to really think about that scary object that could have frightened him.
For example, if I know my horse will most likely spook as we are walking past the chicken coop, before we even get there, I will begin asking him for a series of many different cues to keep his mind busy. The cues you decide to use at this point must be ones that your horse has learned to obey consistently 100% of the time.
I will ask the horse to stop, back up, turn left, turn right, lower his head, back up, walk forward, turn right, stop, lower his head, turn left, stop, walk forward, etc... you get the point.
If the horse has been conditioned to respond to these cues properly 100% consistently, you will be able to walk right past the scary object without the horse even flinching. The reason for this is because you will have the horse's attention. By giving him a series of cues such as the ones above, you will be demanding the horse's attention, therefore, taking his attention off of the scary object.
A very important point to make right here is that you should not wait until you are introduced to a scary or distracting situation to begin this exercise. Practice it many times in a calm stall, arena, paddock...wherever your horse feels safe -- before hand. Then, work your way slowly to potentially more distracting areas like next to the pasture that other horses are in, down the road, etc. By working up from a calm area to the more distracting areas, you are conditioning your horse to listen to you no matter where you are, and no matter what object is trying to distract him.
He will be focusing on you. He will begin to get into a pattern of focusing on you and waiting for the next cue or your next request. He will not have time to be looking around for things to be scared of, because you will be keeping him busy enough where his attention is focused on you.
If you do not keep him busy with your cues or requests, he will begin searching for other things to focus on and to respond to. It might help to develop a pattern of cues to use such as: 1. turn right 2. turn left 3. stop 4. back up 5. walk forward 6. lower your head 7. yield to the left 8. yeild to the right 9. repeat.
By defining a pattern such as the one above, you will be ready to respond immediately when needed by following the cues in your specified order. If, at any time, the horse ignores a cue, it means that he has never learned it thoroughly. You must take him to a quieter place to work on that cue until he responds 100% consistently.