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Step 9: Don't Be The Headless Horseman

Despooking

Back to Step 8: Driving & Dragging    Next to Step 10: Steering the Shoulder

Editor's note: This article is part of a multi-lesson training series.

Horses, by their very nature, are easily spooked. In the wild, they rely on their senses to anticipate danger. They also live in herds and rely on each other to raise the alarm for danger. You'll never see an entire herd lie down at once because at least one horse will be on alert for danger. If you have 3 horses in your backyard and ever see all of them lying down at the same time, that's an excellent sign that they're completely at ease in their environment and feel quite safe from harm.

Our horses won't understand us if we say to them, "It's OK, don't be afraid." But we can teach them several things:

  1. To stop and think about something before reacting;
  2. That we're part of their herd and if we aren't raising the alarm for danger, then by default, everything is safe and OK; and
  3. To keep their attention on us instead of the world around them.
Any single one of these methods will make your horse feel safer, but by combing all three, you'll have a safe and reliable partner. So let's now discuss how each of these things is accomplished.

First, by working your horse on the previous training Steps and gaining his respect and trust, you'll have established yourself as the head of his herd — you'll be the "lead mare". You can test whether or not you've accomplished this by conducting an experiment: Try riding your horse over something scary, such as a big puddle, bridge, or a tarp, that you're pretty sure he doesn't like doing on his own. Then, dismount and lead him over or across that same object. If he willingly follows you on the ground, but won't perform under saddle, he's telling you something. He's saying that he trusts YOU because you're his leader, but when you're not IN PLAIN SIGHT, he can't do this on his own. This is good to know because it's a starting point. You now know you've succeeded in getting him to recognize you as his leader, and now need to work on teaching him to use his brain and focus his attention on you even more.

To focus your horse's attention on you, all you have to do is keep him busy. Horse's have short attention spans. If they're paying attention to you, then they're not paying attention to scary things around them. A frightened horse wants to flee — NEVER try to hold them down or you could get hurt. But, this doesn't mean to let them go, either.

If you're on the ground, let the horse jig around and keep his feet moving, but direct him where you want him to go. Lunge in small circles or back him up until he realizes that stopping his feet and relaxing is a good thing to do. If a nervous horse whinnies to his pasture mates while I'm working him, I'll keep his feet moving until he stops making noise. When he stops, I stop making him work and soon he's watching me and no longer paying attention to his buddies in the nearby field. If your horse has trouble walking past a scary object, then lunge him back and forth past it while slowly getting closer and closer until he wants to stop and take a closer look. When he can stop quietly alongside the object, then he's rewarded by being led away from it.

This process of lunging past scary objects leads into explaining how to desensitize a horse to scary objects such as clippers, a hose and water, or something you want him to carry, such as a flag in a parade. Before starting this exercise, be sure that you're in full control of your horse on a lunge line and that he'll yield his shoulder and hindquarters, and not try to jump into you when afraid. You're going to intentionally raise your horse's level of anxiety, so you need to be sure you'll be safe on the ground near him.

Stand on the ground holding your horse's lead line in your left hand while holding the scary object in your right hand. Then, start bringing the object towards your horse's shoulder and withers on his near side. To your horse, this is a safer part of his body because he can easily see, smell, hear, and if need be, even bite the threat. He may get a little anxious, but it's the least threatening. (Conversely predators attack from behind because the loin area is unprotected by ribs or bones and the horse cannot see, smell, or easily defend — all they can do is kick, but it's often a blind kick with the intention of investigating later. So the horse is most protective and anxious of those back, exposed areas.)

When your horse wants to start moving away from the object in your hand, keep it the same distance away as where it triggered a response from him and let him move his feet in a small lunge circle around you. When he decides to stop, reward him by pulling the scary object away to where he's more comfortable. Give him a few seconds and start again while also moving it a little closer this time. Always remove the object when he stops his feet. Keep repeating this process until you can rub the object at his withers. If he moves his feet when the object touches him, you need to let him move his feet in a circle and KEEP the object on him until he stops, then take it away again. Continue this process until you can rub the object all over his body, including his legs, belly, and face. It may take days to achieve this goal, but he'll be learning that when he's frightened, if he stops moving his feet, the scary things will not be so scary anymore. He'll start using his brain to think about what he's seeing, hearing, or feeling. After this kind of training, even if you've never encountered a certain scary sound or object before, you should at least have your horse pause before deciding to run, and it'll give you the chance to reassure him and send his energy into a circle to get his attention back on you.

The more objects you work on with him, the more trust he'll build in you and not be so afraid of anything anymore as long as you're with him — even if it's while you're mounted on his back.

Back to Step 8: Driving & Dragging    Next to Step 10: Steering the Shoulder

Jennifer Goddard has been training horses of various breeds for over 20 years using her natural horsemanship methods. She has also ridden and shown in multiple disciplines and is owner of Levaland Farm, a 30 stall horse farm in Massachusetts. Jennifer has a degree in Finance and Entrepreneurial Studies from Babson College, and is also President of Equine Business Solutions, a business specializing in the starting and running of equine businesses.

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