I’ve been bringing a horse back into work who, to put it mildly, can be a bit spooky.
Around the same sort of time I saw an article about how to tackle riding spooky horses, which took the same logic as me.
It can be so frustrating. When the thirty-first time you pass the mounting block it’s terrifying and you shoot sideways across the arena…
If I’m riding a horse who tends to be spooky I begin working them as soon as I get on. I have a rein contact, not tight, but so they can feel my presence. And I start engaging their brain and focusing them on me. Just in walk initially I do circles, changes of rein, transitions, until they feel settled and stop peering through net curtains. Then I continue this in trot, adding transitions within trot, serpentines, and some lateral work. My theory is that if I demand their attention then they have less brain power to devote to spooking. Once they are settled I will give them a stretch and a break, but I find it is usually easier to regain their attention after because I had it in the first place.
You have to create a bubble for you and the spooky horse so that both of you are focused on each other and the job in hand, and aren’t concerned about your environment and distractions. It’s often as much about the rider stopping thinking “ooh they’re going to spook at that puddle” even though as a rider you have to be prepared to sit the shying.
Now when the environment is new, or full of monsters, the worst thing you can do is outface the spooky horse. First establish an area where the horse is comfortable, it may be a twenty metre circle in the middle of the arena, away from the mirrors on the walls, or the shadows of the fence.
Just work on the circle, focusing the horse on you, and then slowly edge towards the monster, paying no attention to it. By the rider acting naturally, and being a quiet but confident leader, the horse will go quietly past any scary objects without realising. If they do become distracted, then the rider needs to be quick to refocus the horse on themselves.
Sometimes horses who are spooky are using spooking as an evasion tactic, which I think the one that I’m bringing back into work is guilty of. She will walk past the jump blocks happily, but tries to skedaddle past in trot. However, I’ve found that the first time I ride past the blocks if I’m very strong with my inside leg so that she doesn’t take one sideways step, she seems to give up the idea of spooking. As a rider you need to be quick to correct any shying, and just as quick to reward them if they’ve gone past calmly, or to reassure them if they are anxious, so it’s definitely about knowing your horse and reading the environment.
It’s also about exposure for these types of horses, so that they have their horizons widened and learn to work in a variety of environments, however tempting it is to ride the spooky horse at the quietest part of the day when there’s no wind! Hacking, first in company, and then alone is also great for getting horses to put their brave pants on.