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How do I re-teach my horse to spook in place?

2420 Views 11 Replies 7 Participants Last post by  Foxhunter
My mare seems to know how to spook in place. She will do it when it's too hot to move much or when she's tired. Lately she started spooking by cantering away. Ok, it did get very cold suddenly and she's been stall-bound because the fields are completely flooded but still.

I'm most probably doing something wrong. Should I shut her down harshly and immediately? I've been trying to stay out of her face generally, so when she spooks I try to stop her gently, with my seat and a little bit of hand. It's now starting to get on my nerves and I don't think it's good for her training to be allowed to just do whatever she pleases, even if I do get harsh with her.
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My approach to riding a spooky horse:

"I understand startle reactions. I understand caution. I do not understand spinning or bolting.

If you spin I will do my best to keep you spinning until you end up facing the threat anyways ("This will not profit you"). If you try to race away, I will do everything in my power to shut you down ("This will not profit you"). If you ask, we MIGHT turn 180 degrees and WALK away. But we will not spin and we will not run. Not until I tell you...and I've never yet told a horse.

I keep slack in the reins when I can. If a horse decides to spin or run, then no more slack. I'll jump in a horse's mouth with combat boots on to deal with spins and running away.
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What calms a horse depends on the horse.

Horses startle sometimes. That is not, by itself, something to respond to. A quick hop sideways or forwards, swerving 45 degrees, etc - if the startle reaction is followed with a pause where the horse is receptive to your direction, then it is just a startle reaction. It happens. No big deal.

Where I differ is I see no reason for a "One Rein Stop". I prefer the normal "Two Rein Stop".

If it is more than a hop, if the horse tried to move in a way that can hurt both of you - spinning away, or trying to run away - it is more than a startle. It is a startle followed by the horse trying to decide on his own how to respond. That can be quite dangerous.

I have to ride on pavement to get to trails. A horse who spins, particularly if shod, puts me at risk for a fall with my horse on pavement. A horse who takes off running can run places that could kill us both.

So if I'm riding outside of an arena, I always use a seat that is defensive enough to keep me on during a startle. And defensive enough that I can take control if the horse starts to spin or run. I use slack reins the vast majority of the time when riding, but will be as directive as needed to regain control quickly.

And in dealing with a spin or run, I think it is important to respond in a way that says "This will not profit you" - a phrase from Tom Roberts. It has nothing to do with punishment. It is interfering enough with the horse's bad response that the horse needs to seek out a better one - something the HORSE has to do. I cannot impose a good solution. But I can block bad ones, making them ones the horse finds unhelpful to himself, until the horse decides to look for a better solution. The "better solution" that works for me is a startle, followed by a pause that allows ME to say, "Here is a good way to handle this thing."

If my horse startles hard, then pauses, MY SOLUTION depends. It might be, "Let's turn away calmly, then walk away until we are a safer distance, then reassess." It might be, "That isn't scary, and I'll let Steady Eddie come up past you and stroll by to show you it isn't scary." If might be, "Let's move into this open space, and with slack back in the reins, you tell me how much space you need to feel safe." It might be, "Let's trot past." It might be, "Let's move into this open spot until the scary thing goes past us." It might be, "Let's walk back a way, and when you feel safe again, I'll dismount and then slowly lead you past, showing you it is safe."

It is important to think about what profits the horse, what does not profit it, and how that teaches a lesson.

When I first started riding, on a spooky mare, people told me that if she spooked and ran away, then 'get after her'. If she runs away, and you get her stopped, make her disengage, turn her in circles, make 'doing the wrong thing hard'. But the problem with that advice - which I tried and it failed spectacularly - is that you can only do those things to a horse AFTER IT PAUSES. So, the horse tried to run away. You get it to stop. Then you make life unhappy for the horse. You have just taught the horse that stopping makes her life bad. If anything, it taught mine to run away harder and faster. After all, if you are going to be punished for stopping, why stop?

If my horse has run away, and I get her stopped, I need to reward her. I need to calm and reassure her. Once I get her stopped, it is no longer possible to punish her for running. Only for stopping. Which is the opposite of what I want to teach.

Marty Marten has a good discussion with diagrams on how to handle a horse who is afraid of something ahead of you. But if a horse spins, make spinning unproductive as a reaction. Keep the spin going until the horse is facing the scary thing. Do that consistently, and the horse soon figures out that spinning leaves him facing the scary spot - so why spin?

If the horse starts running, block the bad reaction. Do whatever it takes - One Rein Stop, Two Rein Stop, Pulley Rein Stop, Curb Bit, Harsh Bit - whatever it takes to stop the running away as quickly (and thus making it unproductive) as possible. If trying to run away doesn't get the horse very far, then why try to get away? And if a pause always gets you a good solution from your rider - one that keeps you safe and makes you feel good - then why not START with listening to your rider? A horse who feels safe every time he listens to you will soon want to listen. In my limited experience, at least.

It is to avoid using any expression that could possibly include punishment as a normal teaching procedure that I suggest you think in the terms:

“That will profit you – that will profit you not.”

These terms mean exactly – exactly – what they say.

“To Profit” is to benefit or gain: to be better off. The profit to the horse can be any reward or encouragement the trainer may think his pupil should receive – and it must, of course, be available to give.

“To Profit Not” means that the horse will gain or benefit not at all. Just that. It certainly does not mean that he will suffer a loss or be worse off – as he would be if he were punished.

This is what is so important about these expressions – and why I use them. By no stretch of the imagination can “Profit you not” be construed as punishment.

It consists of withholding any gain, reward, encouragement and profit. That, and only that.

Quiet Persistence

“It will profit you not” means that the horse will not be encouraged to follow a line of conduct other than what we have in mind for him. We withhold any gain – which means we quietly continue with our demands, whatever they may be.

We persist. We quietly persist with our demands.

This gentle discouragement of “quiet persistence” is something that horses seem to find irresistible. Whenever you are in doubt as to what course to follow, mounted or dismounted, revert to “Quiet Persistence.” Your quiet persistence is the real “That will profit you not.” It discourages the horse without punishing him.

“Horse Control – The Young Horse” by Tom Roberts
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