Where the Horseshoe Meets the Road – Helping Your Horse Overcome His Fears
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin D Roosevelt
If you can understand and help your equine partner to understand FDR’s theory, you will be on your way to the relaxed, confident ride of your dreams.
We have all heard folks say (or said ourselves) things like, ‘Please keep that plastic bag away from my horse, he is terrified of the noise”, or “we can go on this trail ride only if you can assure me that there are no goats, my horse believes that goats eat horses!”, or “Keep your voice down around this mare, she spooks easily.” But let me ask you something. Are you in control of every errant breeze that may bring an empty plastic sack blowing into the arena? Can you prevent your neighbor’s growing interest in raising Boer goats? Can you even make certain that no child will ever come running into the barn, so thrilled to see the horses that she is yelling with joy? Of course not, we cannot perfectly control our horse’s environment, and frankly, an attitude of “don’t do this, don’t do that, always speak quietly, move slowly, and etc. etc.” will only encourage your horse to overreact when he IS faced with a horse-eating boogie plastic sack. As the saying goes, “Quiet riders make nervous horses.” By trying to protect your horse from things he fears you are actually helping to create a neurotic, spooky animal!
How do you help your horse overcome his terrors?
First, you must remember that you are the rider and the one your horse should look to for guidance. If you clench up, pull rein, and start a steady stream of “easy boy” at the first sign of something that might frighten your horse, you have just alerted his sensitive flight instinct to Defcon Four. You are telling him that YOU are nervous, and a horse is incapable of rationalizing that it is only your fear of how HE will react that is making you uncomfortable. So, calm down! You are his leader. If you aren’t afraid, why should he be?
Second, don’t try to hide the scary object or creature, even by allowing him to run away. Stop and investigate. Take five minutes if he isn’t immediately sure. Take an hour. Take all day. Let him thoroughly investigate the scary thing/goat/child until he finally loses interest, relaxes, and turns his attention away. If at all possible, unless it really IS a horse-eating monster, the last thing you should do is allow him to rush away. This allowing him to calm himself down with investigation will reinforce your leadership in his mind. Give him his head to allow him to reach out and sniff, as well as bobbing his head up and down which will allow him to see it better. Remember that horses cannot see well when they are in a “collected” frame, so loosen up and let him move that head around to check out the scary item. Whatever you do, do NOT put him in the situation so fast and far that he enters into full-blown panic. You want to show him the item or situation and then back down a step, let him relax, and start over.
Third, apply yet another adage. “Familiarity breeds contempt.” I would much rather see boredom on my horse’s face rather than fear, so I will put my horse repeatedly into (safe) situations or around (safe) objects that he fears until he gets tired of spooking, blowing up, or acting foolish. If he is scared of plastic sacks, and most horses are, I will sack him out regularly with a plastic bag first folded up and shown to him to allow him to sniff it and check it out. Then I’ll begin touching his shoulder with it, all the while speaking confidently and quietly, keeping my movements methodical and my manner assured. I won’t look the horse directly in the eye, as this indicates alarm to a horse. I’ll keep my body language relaxed with my shoulders down and my limbs loose. Once he has relaxed and allows me to touch him on the shoulder with the folded-up sack, I’ll unfold it a bit and brush him a bit more. Eventually with your confident repetition, your horse will think “plastic, smaschtic” and give a deep sigh and quit worrying about it. From that point on, you can tie the bag to a riding crop or short whip and rub it gently on his body, allowing it to crinkle and crackle and prove again that it can’t hurt him.
One trick you might try is to feed your horse a carrot or treat out of your plastic sack-enclosed hand. Many horses cannot resist treats and their sweet tooth can prevail over their fear! Take care with this, or you may find a particularly sweets-oriented horse chasing the plastic sack that blew into the arena!
Apply the same principals to almost anything your horse fears – going into noisy places, being around barking dogs, loud voices, trailering, water hoses, whatever. Show him that there is nothing to be afraid of, then calmly approach and retreat until he learns to overcome his fears. Each time he accepts a baby step “forward” in learning to deal with something, give him a small breather to relax, at least several seconds. Let him process in his mind the fact that he DID the scary thing, and it didn’t kill him. Always give him time to figure things out before you move him up to the next level. And when he does allow a situation or a scary item to be near him, make sure that you reward him with a kind word or a pat so that you are giving him a positive emotional experience.
In the process of helping your horse overcome his fears, you are learning how your horse will react and how to help him. Your own confidence will grow as you help his do the same.