Allowing a horse to stop and look when scared? - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 20 Old 06-06-2011, 09:39 PM Thread Starter
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Allowing a horse to stop and look when scared?

I wrote a while ago about how my mare, a pleasure to work with about 95% of the time, is prone to explosions if she's pushed really hard in a terrifying situation.

For example, and this pretty much sums everything up: today, some huge, loud tractors were working in the field across the road, clanking and sending up dust, the whole production. (*Just as a note: I haven't been able to ride her in months, so everything is relative to me walking her from the ground*) When my mare caught sight of them, her head shot up and her ears went forwards and she wanted to halt. I walked her a few more steps and then told her to stop, and she stood there like that for 30-60 seconds watching them. When I sensed she was less worried about them, I quietly asked her to do some yielding to pressure exercises, and calmly asked her to bring her attention back to me. We went for a walk down a long stretch of road by the tractors and she remained nervous at first, but by the end she would walk by them pretty calmly. Now, it ended well today, but that was because I allowed her to stop and watch for that first, crucial minute. If, in that minute, I had pushed her and made her work and forced her to listen to me, I have zero doubt that I would have been dealing with another explosion.

Normally, there's three "levels" of her spooking:
1) When something takes her by surprise and she flinches or starts. In these cases, I don't even react or say anything to her, and she never takes it to her head and she too acts like nothing happened.
2) When she's wary and looky of something and a bit nervous, but she's not likely to bolt or flip out over it. In these situations, I carry on as normal and ignore her as much as possible, but if she's really, really upset and refuses to calm down, I'll talk to her calmly but that's about it. I'll do yielding to pressure stuff around the scary object and basically just stand there for a good while until she doesn't care anymore, and then we walk away.
3) What she did today-something REALLY concerns her, she'll tense up, her head will shoot up, ears go forwards, eyes widen, flaring nostrils, the whole bit. This is the state right before a blow-up where it really matters how I handle it. As I've discovered, if I work her or attempt to engage her mind, she can't handle it and keeps getting more and more anxious until she explodes. So, I generally just halt her and give her a minute to look and assure herself that it's not going to murder her, and then when I start to feel her relax, I'll quietly ease her mind back down to earth. Luckily, this stage of terror is fairly rare.

Letting her stop and look in these really stressful situations has seemed to decrease the number of explosions, but I'm not sure it's the right thing to do. On another forum, one member said that allowing a horse to stop dead and look was the worst thing you can do, because then they learn they can do it to stop work and will start becoming balky and then are a pain to work with (or something along those lines-it was a long time ago I saw the post). This mare isn't really the type of horse who takes advantage of me, but it's always a possibility.
When I'm on the ground, her stopping is good. It is much better and easier to handle a horse who is stopped than one who wants to bolt or take off bucking. But it's when I start riding her again, I'm unsure of what I should do. When I'm riding, I would really rather she bolt (even buck) than stop dead and refuse to move. I can channel and harness forwards motion, but pushing a stalled horse is only going to make her rear. I am lucky that the lady who broke her put a very good "go" button on her-forwards has never been this mare's problem, but I'm concerned that my allowing her to stop when she's really scared will teach her bad habits. She's not likely to take advantage of it, but she's a good learner, and she will learn whatever I teach her.

If I'm riding and she's mildly scared, I just act like nothing is wrong and try to react as little as possible; I will say "eaaaasy" or react to correct her short little bolts or whatever, but I try not to feed into it. It's these terrified fits that I don't know how to handle.

Basically, what I'm asking here is: do you think I should be allowing her to stop and take a moment to recuperate and collect herself when she's terrified? Is it the right thing to do?

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post #2 of 20 Old 06-06-2011, 10:01 PM
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I know there are lots of people on both sides of this, but if my mare wants to look, I let her look. It sounds like you handled everything very well, and like you really know your horse.

If she's got a good go, I wouldn't worry too much. Let her have her look, gently get her attention back [sweet talk her a bit, as opposed to "Ok, we are going now!" does that make sense?]. I imagine she will walk a few steps and stop again, but I would just keep slowly working her through it, and hopefully the more you can desensitize her to things, the easier this will all get. Good luck!
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post #3 of 20 Old 06-06-2011, 10:10 PM
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I let Toby look. If I don't it could mean the difference between him exploding vs. calmly moving on. In addition, the more you know your horse, the easier it will be to tell the difference between the horse being really scared and tense or trying to take advantage.

I like the way you drew her attention back to yourself after she had her look. It sounds like you are handling your mare's needs well.

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post #4 of 20 Old 06-06-2011, 10:10 PM
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I think you KNOW already that this is the right thing to do. If it works for you and your mare, then it is the rifht thing to do. This is how I handle spooky things, and I personally recommend this approach to anyone. If a horse is really scareed about something, and doesnt know enought about it to know that he CAN continue on, then he needs to have a little time to process before moving on. I think by pushing them on you ony add anxiety. What the rider must do is be calm and BE there for the horse, WITH him , not pushing him .

I think if the horse is genuienly scared, they probably CANT move on for a bit. They are trying to make the decision wether or not they need to save their own life. If you let them stop and look at the scary thing, neither forcing them closer nor allowing them to turn their back to it, you are saying, "this thing is ok, so ok that we can look at all that you need to"
I wait until the horse does something that is a release of tension, such as a sign or blow or lowers the head or looks away, then I ask to see if he can move on without needing to run past it. If not ready , then turn him back toward the scary thing for more contemplation. If he gets to the point where he is ready to make a new decision, then I step in and make the decision that it's time to move on. Sometimes , the horse takes it back, but usually, at that point a little firmness is helpful.

I believe you handle the different levels very well.
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post #5 of 20 Old 06-06-2011, 10:27 PM
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Originally Posted by AllThePrettyHorses View Post
Basically, what I'm asking here is: do you think I should be allowing her to stop and take a moment to recuperate and collect herself when she's terrified? Is it the right thing to do?
First, I believe you're handling this very well. The fact that your mare is stopping to look means that she is afraid but not yet to the terror point, and is still thinking (which is good). As you've found out, pushing these horses over the edge is not productive, and you don't want to be on a horse where instinct has taken over thinking (or listening to you).
You also see this stop and look behavior in horses that are extremely curious, and in both cases, this does very much tend to diminish with experience. Many horses will never be the bravest ones in the world, but they do remember when all these 'new things' you come across don't hurt them. Keep doing what you're doing.

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post #6 of 20 Old 06-06-2011, 10:57 PM
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I totally agree that you seem to be reading your horse well and doing what will be a positive training experience for her. Good job of evaluating different advice and choosing what works best for your horse!
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post #7 of 20 Old 06-07-2011, 12:47 AM
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This issue all depends on the horses personality IMO. I exercise a friends TBred that if she is aloud to stop, look and watch it she works her self up over the object. Then every time she sees it she will act the same or worse. So instead she gets pushed into harder work, and if that doesn't work she gets smacked on the shoulder. After that she focuses back on work and won't act any worse the next time....then a few times past and she won't look at it.

I have also rode horses that sound like yours, that can't handle being pushed. In which case I just try to work them gently until the are focusing then face the object again. I frankly don't like letting them stop and stare, for the balking reason. But if it works with your horse I say keep at it.
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post #8 of 20 Old 06-07-2011, 12:50 AM
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In my opinion, you can't train the 'spook' out of a horse. You can only train how they react to the spook. Spooking and bolting is not okay. Spooking and misbehaving isn't allowed either. If they are scared, I allow them to stop and look. I don't try to soothe, I don't try to talk them down, I just wait.
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post #9 of 20 Old 06-07-2011, 01:59 AM
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I completely agree with the previous posters. It sounds like you handled it really perfectly.
I've found that there is definitely a different feel to a horse that is stopping and about to explode vs. one that's just stopping to check the scary thing out. In the case of the stopping to explode horse, I don't let the stop happen but with the one that's just stopping to look at things and calm themselves down, I totally allow that.
In my experience, a stopping to look horse is generally not being snorty and they're generally not too tense, but a stopping to explode horse generally feels like a powder keg that could go off at any point. Usually, a stopping to explode horse will have also already tried to get away, tried to turn around, what have you, while a stopping to look horse will most of the time just slow down to a stop and stand with ears pricked at the scary thing. Obviously there are no hard and fast rules for that, but that's just what I've found.

My mare used to keeping going past a scary thing until we got up right to it where she'd explode because she's naturally a "stop+looker" but her previous owner hadn't understood that and would force her to keep moving, when she just wanted to examine the scary thing, which caused her to become even more scared since she hadn't checked out what she was going past.
I taught her that it was totally ok to stop and look and now she'll stop when she first sees a scary thing, before she's actually really worried, and start going when she's ready, all on her own.
I would feel her just start to tense at the scary thing and I'd have her stop. Once I felt her relax again or sigh or both, I'd have her walk on. If she tried to take advantage of the stop by turning away or something, I'd smack her with my crop and that would get her walking. She used to have a terrible habit of backing up full speed on the trail when she was allowed to stop so I carried a crop for quite a while on trail rides to reinforce that my legs mean "go forward" and that's the only reason why I'd smack her with the crop for that. Otherwise, I would hesitate to use a crop on a scared horse just because I'd worry about adding to the worried-ness the horse already has.
She's even gotten so brave that now when she sees something scary, she wants to run at it. I'm not sure how that helps in her mind but she obviously has some idea behind it. Lol! I don't let her run at scary things, just because that scares me a bit and scared human+scared horse=bad things, imo.

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post #10 of 20 Old 06-07-2011, 02:04 AM
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Originally Posted by Horsesdontlie View Post
This issue all depends on the horses personality IMO.... if she is allowed to stop, look and watch it she works her self up over the object. Then every time she sees it she will act the same or worse. So instead she gets pushed into harder work...I have also rode horses that sound like yours, that can't handle being pushed...
This has been my experience as well. Some horses respond well to being worked when they get spooked and others really don't. I rode a little Arab that would freak himself out if you let him look for more than a moment, so he got to work in tiny circles whenever he would spook. He quickly decided that spooking was much more trouble than it was worth and stopped spooking at all.

On the other hand, I am currently riding a brown mare that only gets worse if you try to do anything with her when she's scared. She responds much better when given a few seconds to look and breathe. I've spent a lot of time teaching her to just freeze when something spooks her because her first instinct from day 1 was to fling her head and bolt. Freezing and looking are acceptable, bolting is not.

I think you are doing everything right. You know exactly what your mare needs and what she reacts best to. So long as you stay consistent with her, she'll continue to get better.

Always remember that feeling of looking at a big, open country over the ears of a good horse, seeing a new trail unwind ahead of you, and that ever-spectacular view from the top of the ridge!!! Follow my training blog:
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