It often happens in a show situation. You and your horse are out of your comfort zones, when suddenly the flowerpot in the corner takes on menacing proportions. What can you do?
Well, not much, unless you have given yourself the tools you need before you get in that situation. Now’s a good time to train those tools. Then you can deal with the gremlins in the corner of your own arena, too.
To be able to effectively communicate with your horse while he is anxious about something he has seen or heard, your horse needs to know a few things so well that they happen almost automatically.
- Go. He should go forward from either a light squeeze of your legs or from two light whip taps. Having either at your disposal in a scary situation is very helpful.
- Stop. He should stop reliably from light rein pressure to the point that you can stop him in three steps from the trot.
- Turn. Think about it: a shy or spook is jut a turn that you didn’t ask for. It doesn’t really matter what caused it. Being able to turn back onto your line without the horse just bending the neck and carrying on his line is essential. Train two light whip taps on the shoulders for reinforcing your rein cues.
If those three responses are installed, you’ll be able to address the scary object problem in any situation.
Approaching the Scary Object
Give your horse as much rein as is safe to move his head around so he can focus on the area or object that has caused fright. Tell him to go towards it. This is why it is important to have a light and well trained go response. Your horse is likely to rear if ‘go’ is not light.
Before he wants to stop himself, ask him to stop. Continue approaching the object in this manner, a couple steps at a time, until you feel he will no longer go straight if you ask him to go. In this spot, step back and forwards. You will find that his attention is taken with the object, and go and stop will be heavy. Continue backing and going just a couple steps each with clear releases of pressure for correct responses until go and stop are light again. You will now be able to approach closer.
Correct any sideways shoulder movements with your whip taps on the shoulder and repeat the forward-backwards procedure until it is light again. This process is called overshadowing. You are training your cues to be more powerful than (or to overshadow) the scary thing.
Investigating the Scary Object
The average time it takes a horse to begin to want to investigate something it startled at is 13 seconds. If you can keep your horse facing the thing for that long, he will likely begin to show inquisitive behaviour. If he offers to go closer to sniff, let him and reward him.
Once he is done sniffing, repeat the forward and backward overshadowing procedure until the responses are light again. Correct any sideways shoulder movements that you didn’t ask for with shoulder taps, but don’t force him to walk sideways towards the scary thing.
Leaving and Returning
Leave the scary object before your horse tells you he wants to. Right after he has sniffed and you’ve made sure stop and go still work is a good time to walk away.
Circle back in a fairly large circle. You are going to walk past it now. Don’t try to get too close to it yet. I also prefer not to insist on a straight line yet. Walk a wiggly line around your circle. If it is a right circle, turn one step to the left, go straight a couple strides, turn two steps to the right, straight a couple strides and so on to complete the circle. In this way you will ask your horse to step one step towards the scary object and as soon as he does, you will ask him to step away again.
When turning one step towards the object is easy and light, ask for two. Try a straight line past it, correcting any random shoulder movements with the reins and/or whip taps.
If you stop near the object, don’t stop for long and give scratches or a small food treat near it and then continue.
When Time is Tight
In a show setting you don’t have time for all of that. But if you have done this many times at home with different scary things, that experience will transfer to the new situation. If you and your horse have done this before, your command of go, stop, and turn should be good enough that you can ask your horse to go towards the object with slowing and going faster instead of stopping, and by keeping his shoulders very steady between the reins, correcting any random steps.
Training a better ‘turn’ is the single most effective way of reducing shying and spooking—so never fear, you won’t have to take ages in the warmup ring or pause your dressage test to do some training. With some practice of this, you’ll be able to feel the tiniest un-cued step and correct it before it turns into a shy or anxious response.
Horses explore things on their own in a round-about way. We can take advantage of this through wiggly lines and gradually getting closer. They also habituate to new things fairly easily through overshadowing because they can only pay priority attention to one thing at a time. It is either you or the object. We can take advantage of this to help systematically reduce fear and anxiety by diverting attention to your cues instead.