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Handle your horse’s fear in steps — as a team!

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - September 25th, 2009 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY: I went on a trail ride with my friends to the river bed, and all was well until we got there. All the horses went across fine except for mine and one other horse. We tried everything to get them to go, but nothing worked. Someone told us to back them in — it worked on my friend’s horse, but when I tried it, my horse reared and scared me. I tried to be tough, but he just got worse. So, I decided to go home and felt terrible. What should I have done?
— Natalie of Norco, CA

HEY NATALIE: I’m glad you made it home safely! You were dealt a losing hand and did the best you could with what you had. When you play cards, sometimes it’s okay to bluff as long as the other players aren’t packing. Assume that when you work with a horse that they are always packing.

What I like about what you did was that even though you found yourself losing, you accepted it and minimized your loss. It could have been worse — you could have gambled the whole farm away. When working with a horse that is afraid, you need to be clear about what your plan is and how you’re going to execute it. There is no room for bluffing.

Let me tell you what your plan should be. You need to let the horse know you are on his side. He needs to believe that it doesn’t matter whether he goes or stays as long as the two of you are together. You don’t want him to perceive you as a threat. You should be someone who presents options, information and suggestions. As long as he feels he has freedom of choice, he won’t panic and become more dangerous. You have to allow him to play this out, and your purpose is to create consequences for his choices. You are nothing but a referee, so you have to know the rules.

The most important part of this approach is that the consequences you provide should NOT be punishment, but instead rewardable exercises. What I mean by that is that we should look for the excuse to reward — not for the excuse to punish. Catch your horse doing something right. What you simply need to do is find an exercise that we know he can do, so we can say “Good Boy!”

I basically have three exercises that I use in any situation. If my horse rears and I’m still on his back, I would spiral him to get him to move his feet until I feel he has made an effort. Then I would stop him, pet him and give him a few seconds. What this will do is take his focus away from something fearful and make him work for a reward. If I make the horse confront his fear and somehow punish him for not being courageous, I run the risk of associating myself with his greatest fear and create a huge resentment. Some might think that this horse just needs a good swift spanking to get him into the water. You could be taking a huge risk if your judgment isn’t clear and you’re not on top of your game. My feeling is that if you need to urge your horse on by tapping him, do it in the spiraling exercise away from the water. This results in a rewardable experience, and then you can offer him another chance to go forward. If he refuses, continue this process until he recognizes that refusing to cross the stream just means “Can you please spiral me and tell me I’m a good boy.” You should be okay with this because it’s his choice. You need to make it clear to him that he will be spiraling and getting rewarded for it for the rest of his life. It won’t be long before he will reevaluate his choice.

The other exercise you can use is to back him up from the ground. This exercise comes in handy when you find yourself coming off your horse regardless of the reason. You simply back him up, praise him and get back on to offer him another chance to go across. The beauty of this approach allows you to reward your horse shortly after he has refused or done something wrong and keeps the relationship intact. This approach applies to the refusal of any obstacle.

The three rewardable exercises are:

  1. If you are in an enclosed area, not attached to your horse: Simply chase him off.
  2. If you are on the ground, attached to your horse: Back him up.
  3. If you are on your horse’s back: Spiral and flex to a stop, and wait for him to give to the rein — then pet him.

Remember, we are doing these things NOT because the horse made a mistake, but because we are looking for an excuse to reward them. You should know how to do all these three exercises well so you have an excuse to reward.

Thanks, Natalie. I’m sure there are many riders that are in your shoes who can appreciate your situation. Be conservative and safe. If you find yourself working beyond your capabilities, trust your instincts and get help.

Ray

Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horseand human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco, Calif., at his bustling Starbrite Riding Academy, where he currently has 50 horses in various stages of training, including Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Paints, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Mustangs and more. Ray attributes his training success to the support of his wife and partner, Pippa, and a system he calls S.W.A.P., to which he credits his multiple championships in several disciplines. His passionate understanding of the “human-horse” relationship was evident when he took on the challenge of training a wild Mustang and — in just 100 days — produced the highest-priced adopted Mustang ever — $50,000. Does your “horse-human relationship” leave you with a question for Ray? Click here to submit one!

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