Tackling Horse Problems -
Why Do Horses "Spook"?
Does your horse seem scared of everything? This is one of the most common horse problems we encounter and the question of why horses shy or "spook" is one that has kept equine behavioural specialists very busy.
We look at three determining factors and offer some helpful advice to help you work with your horse and confidently resolve horse problems as they occur.
A horse that appears to be scared will display a variety of responses when he spies an object that frightens him.
Some will stand stock still with their eyes out on stalks and refuse to go past, others will jump skywards or rapidly back away from the object perhaps catching the rider or handler completely unaware and the most extreme reaction is where the horse spins around and bolts flat out in the opposite direction.
All of these can be frightening to the rider to the point that they lose all confidence in their mount. This can have the effect of drastically worsening horse problems.
A one-off incident can quickly escalate into a vicious cycle when the horse senses the rider or handler's nerves and feels that there must be something scary if the rider is scared too!
Horse problems such as spooking must be addressed quickly to prevent a habit forming. It is possible to tackle this problem with the right advice and consistent, confident handling but if you have been scared by your horse this may sound easier said than done.
Let's look at the three factors that have a direct bearing on your horse's behaviour.
- Pain - this is the first and most important factor to check. If your horse seems reluctant to ride no matter where you take him (ie out on a hack or in the arena) then he may be in pain.
Ask your vet to check him over to eliminate any injuries or muscle spasms that could be causing his behaviour to be problematic. Do this even if you think there could be absolutely no chance that he is injured. Unless you are with your horse 24 hours a day it is hard to tell what they get up to in the field or if he banged himself getting up in the stable.
- Diet - the second consideration to focus on is your horse's diet. Some horses will "hot-up" on a cereal diet designed to produce copious amounts of energy. Ideal for a racehorse who has to work hard but not so ideal for the leisure horse that is ridden perhaps only 2-3 times per week.
If you feed your horse concentrates or supplements, check with your feed supplier as to the quantities and recommended workload required.
A horse fed too much energy-producing food and given insufficient exercise is like giving a child too much chocolate. The energy has to be expressed somewhere and the chances are your horse will become a much livelier and more testing ride.
Spooking at objects in this case may just be an outlet for his energy or frustration and an expression of high spirits but is nonetheless just as dangerous if he becomes so hot-headed that you are unable to contain him.
- Rider Confidence - There is no doubt about it a confident rider will infuse confidence into the horse.
Many horse problems can be linked to a lack of confidence or consistency on the part of the rider/handler which sends very confusing signals to the horse.
You may have noticed that your horse doesn't "spook" or play up with a different rider on board or perhaps his behaviour is worse with a particular handler? This is because horse's are very good at picking up on human emotion.
A slight shift in the rider's bodyweight for example, may be interpreted by the horse as "ah Mum has just spotted something up ahead that she's tense about - therefore I need to be prepared to make a run for it".
If you know that your horse has a particular dislike for red buses or pigs for example, and you are riding near where your horse has spooked before, you may subsconsiously freeze in the saddle, tighten your contact on your horse's reins and generallygive him the impression that his fears were correct.
However hard it may be, you must take the lead in these situations - your horse must see you as a confident, fearless leader whom he can trust with his life. Remember - every time you take him out of his field and away from his "herd environment" you are taking him out of his comfort zone and he has to understand that you are his leader not that he is leading you!
If he is genuinely scared of something, you can rebuild his confidence by soothing him and encouraging him positively but firmly that there is absolutely nothing to be scared of and that he should go forward because you ask.
Hitting a frightened horse is frankly stupid and irresponsible and will give the horse even more justification to treat his rider or handler with contempt, making horse problems ten times worse.
After all, if you had a pathological fear of spiders and someone whacked you with a stick because you wouldn't go up and touch the spider, do you think you would be more inclined to go near the spider a second time? Not likely.
Tackling Horse Problems -
Overcoming Your Horse's Fears
Horse problems such as this can be overcome by going back to basics for a while. Concentrate on building both your horse's confidence and your own by getting off his back and doing some groundwork.
Lead him out in hand alone (use a bridle not a head collar) and lead him past the objects that seem to be scaring him.
Build up his exposure to these gradually so that he starts to relax and realizes that you aren't scared so he shouldn't be either. This will help him respect you and build his trust in you as his leader which in turn will help him trust you when you are in the saddle.
It may take a couple of weeks of regular walks but you must stride out confidently and even if you are nervous inside you must not convey this to the horse - this is alot easier if you aren't actually on his back.
If he does spook - calmly but firmly walk on give him a gentle tug on the reins to encourage him to continue but do not back away, or turn around as this will "reward" the horse for being scared which is not your desired response.
We would not advise taking the horse right up to an object at this stage, as this could present the horse with "too much information" and set his confidence back a few steps.
When he moves forward keep walking and then when safely past the object give him lots of praise and a treat if desired. Make him feel like the bravest horse in the world. Every obstacle he overcomes will be one less you have to face in the future.
Over time he will be happier to go closer once he realises that walking past the object didn't result in anything bad happening to him. His natural curiousity will take over and he will become more inclined to investigate previously scary objects if you are there to provide reassurance.
Sometimes horses are more scared of what they can't see rather than what they can and if his nerves are worse away from his companions in the stables or when hacking out alone he needs to learn to rely more on your commands and direction than being distracted by his stable mates.
If he is trying it on rather than being genuinely scared, he will get bored of it if you consistently maintain your firm but fair stance and repeat the groundwork regularly.
Remember - the most rewarding relationships are derived from putting your heart and soul into resolving problems and becoming stronger as a result.
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