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Question:

Dear Nancy,

Some days, my horse is terrified of a certain spot in the arena. What can or should I do, to stay safe?

Anne Marie
Dhoppler
Answer: Although Anne Marie is the person that actually put this question in print, it is a question I get a lot. The first thing we have to remember about horses is they are flight animals. What this means is that they are programmed to run away from danger. When your horse is confronted with something he perceives as dangerous he is not only saving himself from this life threatening situation, but he feels like he is saving you also. He does not know that we are not always able to stay with his quick movements. In order to change his reactions to fear there are several factors that we need to take control of.

  1. Teach your horse from the ground, before you mount, to stop and go on your command. Use your body language, the bridle, stick and voice. Be clear. When you do not get the result you want work patiently until you get the correct response from the correct aid. Praise when you get the correct reaction. Start small, ask little, and reward a lot. This is the beginning of the reprogramming process. I like to stand beside my horse with the reins in my right hand and a stick in the left hand. My horse at my shoulder. My ultimate goal is that when I walk off he walks off, when I halt, he halts. When I trot off he trots off, when I halt he halts. It takes several training sessions to get to this point, in addition it needs to be repeated daily to become reliable. To start one walks off, that is the aid, when your horse does not understand you stay at the shoulder and make a forward kissing noise. If you get the walking off you praise with voice and perhaps right hand on the neck gently, if you do not get the right answer use the stick back and to your left behind the girth. Again stay at the shoulder; if he goes forward you go forward, reward. When you stop he should stop. Start by stopping, with purpose, still facing straight ahead. If he does not stop use you voice, brrrr or whoa, calmly in a downward scale. When this does not get the result use the reins nicely. When you get the result of the halt, praise immediately. Then start again, start from the beginning. Your horse can only be as sensitive as your first aid. So start simple, walk off. Repeat, if he does not clue in use voice, if he does not clue in use stick. Praise when you even see the slightest body language going forward. Then the stop, use voice, then rein. Eventually you will not need voice, and then you will not need rein. Only your body language will be enough. However, never take it for granted. Always be clear. Always pay attention to your horse's body language, the same as you want him to pay attention to you. When this becomes one hundred percent reliable then you can take the exercise to the scary place. Be just as relaxed and clear. Do not change the rules. Break it down into small pieces if the place becomes overwhelming. Walk, halt, fill in the gaps if your body language is not enough. Use voice, calmly, use reins and stick, thoughtfully. Get used to thinking this way. Instead of resorting to strength and confusion when he lets the spooking get the best of him get used to thinking you are rewiring his reactions. Praise him for making an effort to stay with you. But, ask questions of him. Work. Walk halt as a job. So he is interested more in you and what you want, not in the scary corner.

  2. When you come to the scary corner and you are on the ground with your horse, pay attention to your body language. Are you telling your horse by accident that the corner is scary? Work to control you muscles. Breathe calmly. If you are worried that your horse is going to jump on you he could perceive that as you being worried about the corner too. You know that there is no tiger in the corner. It is important that your body language projects that to your horse. In the beginning you will have to work at this, later it will feel easy. This feeling of breathing and not tensing your muscles by accident needs to be taken to your saddle. So practice on the ground.
Dhoppler
  3. Train your horse to stop and go from the saddle in a safe place. People make the mistake of going back around and around to the bad thing, getting the wrong reaction and then repeating this. I like to teach my horse the aids first, in the part of the arena where he feels safe. Much the same as I do from the ground. It will feel easy after you have seen that your horse can be so responsive on the ground. Your expectations will change in the saddle. When you get on your horse should not walk away until you give him the aid to do so. Every day. He should not need to be held back by the reins at the mounting block. If you need the reins ask him to halt, but then relax the reins again till he stands on his own relaxed and waiting for the cue to move off. Make this part of your daily ride. I use sugar as it also gets the mouth soft, but different trainers have different thoughts about this. I never scare my horses at the mounting block. I always make sure the girth is tight and the horse has walked before bringing them to the mounting block. The horse must feel happy and safe when being mounted. "Why are we talking about mounting?" you ask, "this is about spooking". It is all part of the rewiring process. The horse needs to trust you at all times. He needs to take cues from you. When you require him to make these small adjustments in his habits, he will start to make a habit of listening to you first, and the voices in his head second. In the less scary part of the arena you practice your halt and walks, the same as you did from the ground. You may remember in the ground work your horse did not need you holding him in the halt; he did not need the stick on him all the time to go. So ride with the same feeling. Halt first from body language, if it is not enough, voice, if it is not enough, reins. As soon as he halts the feel in the rein is lessened. He should stand until you say go forward without you holding back. This may take some teaching, praise and relaxation, but it is an important part of the reprograming process. Then to go forward again, body language, voice, legs then stick. When he goes relax the aid. Do not grip. Hug, but do not grip. Always go back to neutral. When this works try in trot and canter. Slow and fast, small steps and big steps. This is training. You make the aid, he reacts, and then praise. No holding, no gripping. When this is easy you take it to the scary place. For me I try not to focus on the scary place. I look past it and keep my body relaxed. The same as I practiced from the ground. Remember that feeling. Breath. Take charge, not by holding and gripping, but by asking questions, getting answers and rewarding. All of a sudden you are more important than the scary tiger. However, every time you go by, the tiger could reappear, so stay focused. Remember your horse wants to save you from being eaten. It is up to you to tell him there is nothing there to eat him, every time. Also, things escalate when you let the pressure build up. You do not want to throw everything away when you go by the scary corner, but you must not grip. Half halt and lighten, wait and give. Try to use the lightest aid, then go through the process, get the reaction then reward. People become so obsessed with the scary thing they forget the body language they are communicating to the horse. I try to make the horse feel like there is a way out, but because I am there and we are busy stopping and going and working together he does not have to go. If you close all of the doors the horse will make one of his own out of panic. No matter how hard you hold, if they want to go, they can go. Do not create that scenario. Teach the horse to make better decisions. Teach him to trust you and to listen to your cues to stay safe. This is not by holding him together pressed into a frame, this is relaxed, balanced riding with clear aids and rewards.

Take it day by day. Always pay attention if the pressure is building stay in the safe part of the ring until you can give without your horse going faster and you can take the legs off without him slowing down. When things are difficult always simplify and then build it up again. Sometimes put yourself in your horse's shoes and think "what is he feeling now". It will help you to notice that your legs have gotten tight and if you are breathing! Now who is scared of that tiger?

Have fun, ask little, and give lots of reward, and the progress will go quicker than you think.

Happy Riding!

Nancy
Dressage: Where Sport Meets Art - Come Ride With Us!