Working on Spooking over Something Specific - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 12 Old 02-16-2020, 10:02 PM Thread Starter
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Working on Spooking over Something Specific

My mare, Dreama, has been spooky over something very specific for a while now. I have been trying to work through it and I feel like we are both making progress, but I have seen some training videos with differing opinions so I just wanted some advice to make sure I'm doing the right thing and not potentially making this worse in the long run.

Months ago in the fall, she spooked while I was on her in the round pen and with no where to go but in a circle, she spun and I plopped over her side.

It was not a bad fall, I was not hurt and she looked contrite after realizing what she'd done. Barn owner was observing, asked if I was ok, and helped me get back on. Even though falling inevitably makes me nervous, everyone involved stayed calm and tried to continue on about business as normal. We keep practice sessions in the round pen short, but we ride in a round pen because there's no arena to practice in yet, so it's either the round pen or the trails.

This is what she spooked at:

Across the road, the barn family's two dogs were running down a hill through lots of dead leaves on the ground, and crashed into a leaf pile at the bottom, wrestling and playing. She isn't generally afraid of these dogs, I'm sure she was scared because she couldn't see that what was actually coming was just the dogs (if you can't see what's making noise, it's probably something that's going to eat you, right?)

Ever since this incident, she gets nervous specifically when there is noise coming from that area, even when she sees the dogs coming from a distance, running and playing. And again this is across the road, it's not right up next to the round pen. There are a few dead leaves left in that area but not many now. I have never seen her spook because of a dog when she's not in the round pen - she's not afraid of these dogs up close, they run with the horses all the time, she has ridden past a pack of barking dogs off property, and generally does not bat an eye at dogs except in this very specific setting.

What I've been doing:

We've been doing lots of ground work in the round pen, since the trails have been muddy and gross and my schedule in general hasn't lined up with the barn family to go on more trail rides anyway. I've been getting pretty successful results treat-training her to stand better while being mounted, since this was a problem in the past. Teaching her to walk at my shoulder without passing me without having to have my hand on the lead rope or reins, turning with me, backing up, trying to learn to stop on voice command etc. for a treat reward.

So when the dogs run and make noise and she starts to get nervous, I don't let her run away from me, keep my hand on the lead rope, if I can't get her to stand still she turns a circle around me before I stop her facing the noise again. Once she stands still, facing the issue, I reward her with a treat. Sometimes after she realizes it's just the barn dogs, she wants to go and look over the fence at them, and I walk up with her, talk to her, reward her again if she's calm. Over time her reaction is decreased, she doesn't have to run circles around me anymore before she realizes it's "only dogs."

Today, we were doing similar ground work, dogs ran do the "scary place" and she started to spook, jerked away from me, but when I reached out my hand for her it was like she remembered all of a sudden she wasn't supposed to run away, and she stopped and looked instead. When she stopped before running away, I rewarded her with another treat. After a short moment she settled down and continued on doing what we were doing in the first place. I haven't been on her back yet while this happened since the first incident, so I'm not sure what her reaction would be or if she'd remember to stop without me standing beside her on the ground.

I guess my question is, am I doing the right thing or am I potentially making things worse for the future by "showing her the scary thing" over an over? Her reaction seems to have gotten less and less violent and scary, but she still gets nervous every time that happens while we're in the pen, usually less each time though. I saw a training video from an older man (can't remember who) who was doing work with a horse who was terrified of turkeys specifically, and he blamed the owners and said they had caused it by "showing" the horse the "scary thing" and babying it.

I think I've been wondering this because it seems like progress on this has been so slow and it seemed like a strange issue to begin with since she's not typically a terribly spooky horse to begin with... just wondering if I've made things worse, or if it's just taking her a while to get over the "bad" thing that happened.

Thoughts? Advice? Cease and desist, or continue on?

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post #2 of 12 Old 02-16-2020, 11:05 PM
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I Think there is some truth to causing problems by spending too much mental focus on the scary thing. But, if you aren't actually MAKING her go up to the scary thing, and you are asking her to continue to do ground work tasks, and you don't cease asking even if the scary thing is near, then that seems a good approach.


It's possible that your own anxiety about the potential for her to spook , (especially since you fell), may be influencing her more than you realize.


Personally, I would keep her on a line, do your ground work, and keep her attention. If her attention starts to wander outward, I would do something to bring her focus back on me. That can be a wiggle on the rope, or asking her to back up from you, or asking her to trot off, or change directions. If you know she may spook and leap somewhere, keep care that you are not blocking that. have her positioned so that she has a place to go in a sudden leap , if she must. But, don't back away from her unless absolutely necessary, that can invite her into your space.
You don't want her to feel like she should be very close to you. Some horses get so that they want to be 'on top of' the handler when they are scared. The thing is, they really aren't even much aware of the handler, so it can be very dangerous, as they may plow right through you.


Let me go see if I can scare up a video someone posted the other day that I thought was excellent in how to handle and lead a spooky horse . . . . .be right back!



It's only 'work' that stretches the hrose's focus and connection if
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post #3 of 12 Old 02-16-2020, 11:09 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CopperLove View Post
My mare, Dreama, has been spooky over something very specific for a while now. I have been trying to work through it and I feel like we are both making progress, but I have seen some training videos with differing opinions so I just wanted some advice to make sure I'm doing the right thing and not potentially making this worse in the long run.

I think I've been wondering this because it seems like progress on this has been so slow and it seemed like a strange issue to begin with since she's not typically a terribly spooky horse to begin with... just wondering if I've made things worse, or if it's just taking her a while to get over the "bad" thing that happened.

Thoughts? Advice? Cease and desist, or continue on?

Overall, sounds like you are doing okay.



I myself actually do not (in general) like them to look at the spooky thing at all. The way I approach it is that I keep my horse busy. You can do it from the ground or in the saddle, but just keep them busy doing things- yield the hindquarters, side pass, back up, pivot, etc etc. My thought process is that if I can keep their attention on ME, rather than on the scary thing going on across the yard, then I've removed spooking as even an option to them, and I've instead taught them to pay attention to me no matter what.



For the right horse, I don't mind if they want to look at something like that, unless they are the kind that is prone to blowing up, bolting, spooking, etc (then I don't like to let them even look). So some of it comes from reading the horse and knowing your horse.
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post #4 of 12 Old 02-16-2020, 11:11 PM
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there are lots of good videos on handling spooky horses, leading themn. I liked this one:
(skip first 5 minutes)


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post #5 of 12 Old 02-16-2020, 11:22 PM
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or this one:


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post #6 of 12 Old 02-17-2020, 12:33 AM
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I love that Warwick Schiller video. There have been multiple times I've seen another boarder struggling with their distracted horse dragging them all over the place, and they think it's magic when I ask for the lead rope and let the horse hit the end of it a few times while I'm walking in the opposite direction then I hand back a cooperative horse. I'm obviously not a magician nor even a "real" horse trainer, it's just some people let their horses walk all over them and call the shots.

I agree with everyone else, it's not how I would approach it but if it's working for you and your horse, great! Sounds like you're on the right track.
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post #7 of 12 Old 02-17-2020, 07:24 AM
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Working on Spooking over Something Specific

I think itís ok to let the horse ďseeĒ the scary thing. IME thatís the easiest way to prevent a bolt out on a trail... the horse wants to run AWAY not towards the object so if they have to face it they arenít going to run off.

BUT, I wouldnít keep giving the scary thing attention. Once itís been seen and the horse relaxes (even just a bit, just to the point past ďstartleĒ mode) then, I forget it. Move on and go about your business like itís not even there. I think thereís definitely middle ground.

My horse has a scary spot in our outdoor arena, a sewer drain off to the one side. One time a cat popped out of it... and he was startled. Once. He doesnít spook there now, but he will try to drift to the center to avoid being close to it when we first start riding. And gives it side-eyes waiting for that darn cat

I work him gradually closer to the area, switching directions, until he passes it both ways on track without drifting, and then we move on and finish our ride as usual - forget it. They have amazing memories, so Iím not sure how long it will take him to forget the cat completely... or if he will ever. And heís not afraid of cats in general, itís just the spot where he was startled. But, each time I feel like it takes a little less ďworkĒ to get him over it and thinking about my requests instead being worried about side-eyeing the drain. As long as we can work through it and then we can get on with our day, Iím OK.






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post #8 of 12 Old 02-17-2020, 07:50 AM
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I love the analogy in the Warwick Schiller video. Pony tends to also be distracted easily; I might try this with him. "Stop looking at the bikini girls!"

To the OP, I think that if what you're doing is leading to improvement, then you're on the right track. Sometimes it does just take time. I also agree with another poster that you may have some residual anxiety that you are maybe not aware of, and it could be affecting her.
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post #9 of 12 Old 02-18-2020, 07:50 PM Thread Starter
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Thank you all for your responses! I read them Monday morning from my phone but wanted to wait to respond until I was back on desktop.

@tinyliny and @ACinATX you're both probably right... as much as I would like to say and believe I am not anxious about it, I don't feel consciously anxious about it from the ground but I do worry about what happens the next time I'm in the saddle and this event repeats itself.

I like Warwick Schiller's videos a lot in general. It's either that video, or one very much like it, that I used as an example when I first started handling her, trying to teach her to lead without getting out ahead of me or pulling me. Maybe even by another suggestion from tinyliny? That's improved a lot and she's gotten quite good at paying attention and usually leaving me my space when she's on a rope. There are still times we have to stop and work on it especially going into a right hand turn, but she has learned to be so much better about this.

A lot of our work in the round pen lately has been without a lead rope, or with the lead rope looped over the saddle horn if she has tack on. So since I had Monday off, I went back and took her out with only halter and lead rope to try to duplicate events and see how much easier her attention would be to redirect with the lead rope. I couldn't duplicate the scenario on this day - the dogs weren't interested in play.

But back at the barn I almost immediately had the chance to put the rope technique in the first video to use. After I just told you all in my first post that's she's not generally a spooky horse, she spooked in the barn while I was trying to lead her back out, we were in a slightly narrow spot coming around the turn to go down the side aisle and back out into the run-in along the side of the barn. At what, I don't know (there was a different vehicle parked toward the back of the barn, I guess it had something to do with that but I still can't imagine why.) But she jumped sideways and really wanted to come over on top of me. After a tense moment I finally got her to back up a few steps, she wanted to stand and stare at "the thing" but I led her forward without letting her dwell on it, and once we were out into the larger space of the run-in where I felt safer trying to redirect her steps, we spent probably 5 minutes doing what the man in the first video did.

"I don't care what you do... you don't have to worry about what's in the barn, you don't have to worry about moving anywhere specific, but you're not coming into this space. This space between us that I'm putting pressure into, is my space. I'm not putting any other pressure on you but no one is leaving through that next gate until you simply don't exist in this space, and you don't exist in this space even when I go to open the gate. That's the only thing you have to think about in this moment." Just stood there, slowly swinging the end of the lead rope around. We've actually done that before, back in the beginning, but not for a long time. It didn't take her long to figure that out either. The first two times I went to open the gate she stepped into the space and I backed her away with the rope again. When I could finally approach the gate without her stepping into that space, and with her head lowered and calm, then I opened the gate and let her back out with the other horses.

I will say, even though I know it's mostly just an excuse, that she has been cooped up in the barn for about 3 weeks while treating a cut on her leg. It has been so muddy and gross here we didn't want the bandage to be constantly wet and dirty. So she just recently got turned back out with her buddies and has been doing a good job of not being distracted by the other horses while we're in the round pen, but has definitely had some pent up energy for a while. I am definitely not the best horse person, I've had a ton of help from the barn owners and we have both made improvements... it doesn't mean I should ever allow her to crowd me, but she genuinely usually isn't like that anymore.

@beau159 The first time it happened when I was in the saddle and I fell, I was trying to turn her but she wouldn't budge. There was suddenly this rock-hard statue of a horse under me; I knew what was about to happen but could not get her attention back on me. Our solution if she gets antsy on the trails was always to walk circles, or even walk back up and down the trail we'd just been on if the barn owners at the head of the group had to stop and clear the path of something. That's why we've been doing so much work just standing still and relaxed, standing still while mounting, etc. I haven't been riding very long so that was the first time that I had experienced that, not being able to walk her in circles to distract her. Next time we are in the round pen doing ground work and she's distracted by the dogs, I'm going to try to keep her moving and not let her stop to look at them, and see how that goes. I have only really seen her spook at something a couple of times, so I wouldn't really say she's prone to blow up, but I certainly don't want it to become something that I'm too focused on and let my anxiety over it make her worse.

@Aprilswissmiss When I first got this horse a little over a year ago now, she had already learned that she could throw her weight around and pull through a person on a lead rope. I watched a lot of Schiller's videos and others (and had lots of help from more experienced people like the barn owners) and I am happy to say, aside from these spooky moments, that she is thankfully not the horse who's dragging anyone all over the place anymore The fact that I could get her to stop and take a few steps back inside the barn when she spooked speaks volumes about the corrections that have been made in her training, especially that I did it by myself even if it was a little messy. A year ago if the same thing had happened, she'd have been gone and I'd have been lying on the barn floor. We still have our bad days but when I think of it that way, I'm happy that the good days outnumber the bad.

@ChasingDreams The barn owner's initial advice was to try to keep the horse facing the "scary thing" but after reading and watching more about it, I think that's most likely better advice for the trails, and even an arena like you mentioned - to keep them moving past the object in question. Whereas in the round pen, there's really no way "past" the scary thing, just round and round in circles, so it's counter productive to be standing there facing the thing. Also, I got a chuckle about the side-eyeing for the cat
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post #10 of 12 Old 02-18-2020, 09:12 PM
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Are you using a rope halter with her? something that has a bit more bite on the face than a flat nylon halter?


I cued into your description of this mare being a 'freezer and bolt' type. She see something scary, stops dead (freezes) and then explodes. You could feel it coming, but she was so deeply into her fear trance that you were unable to reach her, mentally, and she totally forgot you were there, and so when the freeze 'broke', it broke hard and fast.



Some people try to train a horse to accept things that scare it by asking a horse to stand still while the trainer swings a line , up , around, smacking the ground, etc. The horse is expected to tolerate this, even with the rope gently wrapping around his legs, he should stand still.



But what happens with some horses is that they stand still out of fear of the handler (who will make them work hard on a short line if they DO move), or they stand still because they want to be a good boy, or, they learn if they stand still long enough, the commotion goes away. However, they never really feel ok about the commotion. They never real accept it, nor feel that they have any CHOICE in it, so the fear is just tamped down , tighter and tighter. Then, when they can no longer hold it in, they explode.


When does that happen? When they take the first step. So, the horse can 'deal with' fear only as long as they freeze. As soon as they start to move, and the scary thing is still there, they will explode. There is no in between, because they have never learned how to calm themselves through movement, and movement that is directed and joined in by their rider, who become their savior.


So, part of any desensitizing training should be working with a hrose with a flag, or a rope, etc, that is moving on the horse, while the horse is in motion. So, the horse is trotting along, and the flag is brought up very gently, and moved on the hrose's neck, withers, back, and if the horse speeds up and gets scared, the flag stays there, moving a little bit. As soon as the horse shows sign of calming, while still moving (even a slow walk is fine), or gently easing down into a halt that is soft, the handler can remove the flag.


The handler can rub the horse , at a halt, all over the body, under the belly, between the legs, calmly and with NO intention put into the flag. just a friendly exploration, very passive. Then, with the flag resting on the horse's withers, using the lead rope, the handler can ask the horse to walk forward. The 'ask' can come from the flag lightly tapping on the hrose, if horse increases gait in a calm manner, then you can remove the flag. That's because you used the flag to say, "go a little bit faster, in a calm manner'.


If the hrose gets really nervous, and leaps forward in fear, the handler will keep the flag, just quietly on the horse's shoulder/back area, and let the flag stay there until the hrose calms.


It's about teaching the horse to move forward even with that flag on him. Can be done with ropes, tarps, etc. The idea is you have a clear intention in how your use the scary thing; either totaly passively, or as a tool to signal him to move on out, not free in a frenzy, just a nice trot depart , just like you'd like if you were in the saddle.
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