A) “What? Where, where? EEK!” The rider cries and looks just as wide-eyed, clamps on with her legs, and gives the go for the horse to hightail it out of there.
B) “No, stay, stay, staaaaaaay.” The rider demands, holding the horse tightly wound around her leg to stop his feet dancing.
“Stuff you!” The horse says, and goes crazy bronc to get rid of his baggage.
C) “It’s fine, lets keep going.” The rider says calmly, pays no attention to the threat, and continues with the job at hand.
D) “It’s fine, here, lets look at it together.” The rider coos and reassures the horse.
The horse eventually goes up to the scary thing or place.
A little generalised, but generally these are the four reactions the horse and rider share. But what is the correct one? Some riders are defiant against pandering to the horse’s spooks, and advise employing a bend away from the object and to insist on forward or controlled lateral movement. Other riders believe that if you want a partnership, it’s essential to teach the horse to be confident and to get over his stress and fear.
It would be interesting to ask our top riders or horsemanship gurus what their go to response is. However I think while it would be great to see how they handle it, it’s also a very unique formula that depends on the horse and rider individually and as a pair. I can say with embarrassment, at some point in my riding life, I have experienced all four responses, with varying levels of success. But the main result I discovered, was that it depended entirely on what the spook was from and the horse I was riding.
As with lots of things relating to horses, it’s trial and error, but it’s calculated and thought through. The main tip, I found, is to employ a gentle but firm, consistent method. Once you found one that works. Let me tell you, number one and number two are not ways to deal with it.
Number one because if you are freaking, how can your horse not freak?
Number two because if your horse is that frightened, keeping him still (while it keeps you safe for a moment and may de-escalate the problem), often just builds the stress in the horse due to his flight response being restricted. Leading to a blind explosion. If the space lets you, the one rein handbrake can work in a large circle, spiralling in as the fear disappates. But what if there is no space, like a narrow alley?
Maybe the point is, recognise before it gets too bad, if the signs are there?
Definitely I am a firm believer of groundwork for preparing a calm and confident horse, and also building a partnership. However, groundwork can’t get rid of all the holes, or all the spooks. Hey, you’re riding a prey animal not a predator!
There are so many styles of groundwork you can follow, but I’ve never found just one that works for every horse. I dip in and out of multiple theories, which I suppose contradicts my “be consistent” tip, but *touch wood* it seems to be doing okay.
I think horses thrive on consistency. If their rider reacts the same to their spook every day, I believe it will either heighten the spook and encourage it, or it will inspire them to think through it before it reaches the peak explosion period. Your response is your responsibility. If you react all over the place like a bipolar crazy horse lady, how can the horse trust you? If you react in anger, do you think it will help? If you avoid the issue, are you doing your partnership a favour?
I’m not saying any one way of dealing with a spook is the right way. Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts and opinions, and everyone has a unique experience and knowledge base to work off. Every human and every horse is different, and how you react to a 10yo cheeky spook to a 4yo greenie spook may be different – and this consistency may be okay, I mean the horses don’t sit in the paddock complaining. Bob doesn’t complan to Jerry that Barbara made him circle and face the flag, whereas with Jerry she just rode him past it.
I believe you’ve got to figure out what works for you, but it’s essential to keep yourself and your horse safe. If your gut tells you this spook is out of your control, don’t be stupidly brave and risk a serious injury. Get off the horse. “But that teaches your horse he wins!” Well if that situation is going that bad, I predict that no one, except maybe a professional, could win. And st professionals won’t get that reaction if they’ve done the steps before… if a horse is shaking with fear, it isn’t going to think about it’s lovely owner who gave him an apple before the ride. He’s thinking he’s got to do whatever it takes to survive, and you’re just extra baggage.
Serious note over as I don’t want anyone feeling like they have to put the,selves in harms way to be a good rider. What do you think? Do you have a go to way to deal with a spook? A story of a moment gone wrong (or good!)? Do you deal with it the same all the time, or is it horse specific for you?