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Dear Dana: How do I get the spook out of my horse?

By DANA HOKANA - Horsetrader columnist - June 21st, 2012 - Q&A Dear Dana

Most of us have been on a jumpy or spooky horse, one that is ready to jump at anything! In my opinion, it is no fun to ride a horse that is afraid and reactive. Some horses are genuinely more afraid of things than others. They may be more sensitive than others and may notice sights and sounds more acutely than other horses as well, but many horses have learned to be spooky. I feel that often it has become a habit, or a learned behavior. I am going to give you some techniques that will help you to change your horse from a spook into a confident, less reactive horse!

Most responses in horses are the result of learned behavior. It is possible with patience and time to change a behavior pattern and ‘relearn’ a response in a horse. I often tell the story of Pavlov’s dog when I teach people how to train their horses. If you don’t know that story- here it is; Pavlov was a scientist who studied behavior and formulated behavior modification. Most of training an animal is behavior modification. Pavlov took a dog and found that every time the dog would see and smell food, it would salivate. He then found he could train the dog to salivate to the ringing of a bell. To do this, he would bring the food and ring the bell and bring the food at the same time, and the dog would salivate. After awhile, Pavlov could ring the bell without bringing the food, and the dog would still salivate. The dog’s response (salivating) became conditioned from seeing and smelling the food to salivating when hearing the ringing of the bell. This story really struck me and I think of it often while training horses. I believe that this is often what happens to a horse when they spook. They see a stimulus and it frightens them. Then they see another and another and another and become conditioned to be afraid at a new stimulus. Whether they be sights, sounds, etc…, their response (fear) has become conditioned to every new stimulus.

I feel that you can break this cycle with a lot of reconditioning, which will include time and patience. Also, keep in mind that some horses are more sensitive than others! What I would recommend is to do your best to change each and every negative stimulus into a positive one, or at least build acceptance in your horse. If you can turn each time of fear into a positive experience, your horse will soon forget about it. For example, if your horse is afraid of one particular thing, don’t leave the situation until it becomes a positive one for him. At first this may take you hours, but I recommend that you stay with it until you win. If you can stay with a situation until your horse accepts it, they will get over it. Be prepared to spend the time.

I will give you an example: Let’s say my horse was afraid of the golf cart parked next to the arena. First of all, I never punish my horse if I feel he is afraid. Remember, I want to recondition that response and if they are afraid and I punish them, I only build upon the fear response. I don’t allow my horse to refuse me or refuse to go forward, because then they learn to ignore me. I will, however, face my horse to what he is scared of and let him see it and think about it. So, if my horse is afraid of the golf cart and I am going along the rail and he spooks, I will stop and let him see it. I don’t punish, but give him a moment to think about it until I feel him relax. I will go by that golf cart again and again until I know that I have truly “broken through” so to speak. If I feel my horse is still afraid, I may get off and tie him around the arena where he can see the golf cart and think about it and realize that it is okay. If I had to, I would feed my horse there and tie my horse there the next morning, but I would do my best to win.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to punish your horse for his fear. Work through it and change that conditioned response. However, I will correct and get after my horse if he disobeys me. But I feel it is wise for you to read your horse! Is your horse afraid, or has he learned to balk and refuse you? It probably started out with genuine fear or insecurity and turned into a situation where he learned to refuse you, and now has become a new conditioned response. It may have turned into two conditioned responses, the first one being fear, and the second one of refusing your cue. Great horse trainers are usually great thinkers also. Invest time in figuring out how to deal with specific problems. If your horse is genuinely afraid of something, it may take 100 or even 1000 times to undo that fear and change that conditioned response. Negative stimulations can make a greater impact on horses and people than positive ones. So think it out and reframe that negative experience into a positive one.

Now that you understand this principal of learning and learned behavior, you can apply this to all of your training! You can also see how a slightly timid horse can turn into a full blown spook. Now, check your own reactions out. Are you programming your horse to spook because you are giving him a stimulus warning him of trouble by tensing your body? If you give him a body signal that trouble is coming, he can get tense off of what you are doing before he even gets to the potential spook. I have had different riders that program every horse they ride to spook! I had this situation recently with one of my own horses. I found myself tensing up every time we went by a certain area in the arena. The horse would jump and react so badly I noticed I was getting nervous. What helped me was to first work on relaxing my horse. I stopped her, just walked small circles, and changed up her routine in that general area. Then I worked on my own reactions. I practiced deep breathing, which as simple as it sounds is a huge help to relaxing your horse. When we take short, shallow breaths, we tend to lean forward and this lifts our sacrum up off of our horses back. Our horse feels our body signals and this is one way that he knows what we are thinking. When we take full, deep breaths, breathing through our diaphragm, we position our sacrum and pelvis down on the horses back. So if you are nervous, focus on your breathing. You can actually “breathe” your way past a potential spook. This instills confidence in your horse and he will not react off of your signals. You can also try singing, talking to someone else, or saying a poem. Do what you can to relax yourself!

The other important tip I can give you is to talk to your horse! When I am riding at home, I talk to my horses all the time. My voice can become a positive stimulus to reward or relax my horse. Horses are sensitive animals, and they definitely respond to the sound of a voice. You may feel a little silly at horse shows or events talking away to your horse, but I will tell you it works!! Touching and patting your horse can also be a positive stimulus.

Knowledge is wonderful and many times just understanding how horses learn and how habits are acquired can give you the breakthrough you have been waiting for!


Do you have a question for Dana? Simply go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Dear Dana” section, then submit it! If your question is selected, you will be entered into a monthly drawing for a FREE “Winning Strides” DVD from Dana’s training video series.

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