Help for the nervous horse?
My horse is a nervous creature. Currently, I'm having a real hard time getting a decent ride out of him since I have to ride in the dusk/semi-dark. I have access to a small, outdoor arena that is not very well lit - it's lit enough that you can see the entire arena, just not very clearly. Shadowy illumination, I guess. There's some dark shadows, but no dark corners.
I get to the arena early enough that there's some light, and that's where it begins. He starts shying away at specific objects - a particular tree that birds have a fondness for, a drain pipe that's outside the arena, the corner where a muck bucket is, a pink jump standard standing outside the arena and the spots along the rail where trot poles are resting parallel to the wall. I make him circle at these spots until he passes by without reacting. Usually doesn't take more than 2-3 circles.
When the sun sets and the shadows come out, he gets very hyper-aware of the surroundings and gets scared. If I try to work him hard, he just explodes with fear and tries to bolt all over the arena (have a solid, reliable whoa in him, so he doesn't run more than a stride, but he really wants to). Working him hard, in other words, just fires him up. Going too easy on him, encourages the spooking. He is athletic and fit enough that I can work him hard and he can make his body listen to me but I can't quite capture his brain once he gets scared enough.
I have a breastplate with LED lights on it, and that helps some. I also ride him with bells, that also helps a bit. Without those crutches, he can't keep it together and just starts leaping around like a deranged rabbit.
Now here's where it gets even better!
He is fine in the same arena will full daytime light. These are the same objects in the day and at night. He doesn't seem to make the connection. His fear feels genuine. I can feel his heart race and he will tremble sometimes. I don't believe he's faking it. If I do groundwork* with him, he is flawless and relaxed. If I lunge him, he is flawless and relaxed (reaches down and forward, licks/chews, snorts). At liberty, he takes sidesteps away from the scary spots, but doesn't full on spook.
Basically, if he can see me, it's not so bad. If I have him in hand, it's fine. What on earth else can I do to make him calm the heck down?
I hate when my horse makes me feel so incompetent!
* Groundwork entails of lunging, changing directions without stopping on the lunge, halt on the lunge, backing up on the lunge, the 'sending' exercise, disengaging the front end and back end, side passing, backing up, etc. Doing these exercises under saddle do not help to calm him down.
Background info: 9 year old Straight Egyptian Arabian gelding, backed at 4, shown extensively from 4-5.5. Lots of indoor arena work, lots of outdoor arena work. 2-ish years experience on trails (the first year of trail work was on trails always within sight of his herd and field so I don't know how much that counts). Goes out solo without batting an eye. Spooky around other animals (deer, cows, gophers, coyote, turkeys) on the trail but okay outside of that. Has had lots of exposure to 'bombproofing' clinics, often wins small prizes. Has been ridden through fire and all sorts of crazy obstacles without much fuss. It was easier to ride him through the double rows of lit flares than it is to get him to walk nicely around the arena!
* I'm often reading and posting from mobile and Siri loves to make a mockery of the English language.