Spooky horses are a nightmare for the dressage rider.
Any signs of tension and lack of attention will be penalized by the dressage judge, and an untimely spook at an imaginary tiger lurking in the floral arrangement beside ‘B’ can ruin an otherwise promising test.
So, how do you deal with spooking?
Is it possible to control your own emotions when your horse starts ‘being silly’, and what causes horses to spook?
The psychology of spooking
As prey animals, it is only natural that the horse’s survival instincts have given him an incredible ability to jerk all his muscles in an instantaneous response to a potential threat.
Horses, in general, can react a lot quicker than most animals of a similar size and weight, as most people who have been dumped by a spooky horse can tell you!
Spooking has many different causes. However, whether it is inexperience, legitimate fear, intentionally naughty behavior, or just a chronic ability to see ghosts where there are none, spooking is an irritating habit!
Whatever the reason, there is no benefit to using punishment or losing your temper with the spooky horse. This only reinforces the horse’s initial flight response and can make the habit worse.
How to control spooking
So how do you go up the grades with a horse that can barely trot in a straight line without spooking?
Patience, patience and more patience!
Certainly, an ability to control your emotional reactions to a spook is important, as anger and frustration have no place in the saddle.
Explaining the situation calmly and repeatedly can help some horses to settle and relax.
For others, your dressage test can become a damage limitation exercise where you seek to control the spooking to a manageable degree.
Here are some don’ts to bear in mind when riding the spooky horse.
- Don’t punish a spooky horse. Shying comes from fear. If you punish your horse for shying, you convince him he was right to be afraid in the first place!
- Don’t soothe your horse by patting him while he’s shying. This action just rewards the behavior you don’t want.
- Don’t make a nervous horse walk straight up to something scary. That’s the most frightening thing you can do to a flight animal. It’s effectively like asking a horse to come face to face with the tiger at ‘B’, when every instinct tells him to run from danger.
- Don’t stare at the scary object. If you focus on it, your horse will too. Look up and ahead of the hazard instead.
Tips to help conquer spooking
If the scary object is at one end of the school, circle in the center. As your horse relaxes, gradually work your circle inwards toward the scary end of the school.
This slow way of dealing with spooking usually ends up getting the fastest results, and you can achieve your goal with a minimum of resistance and trauma to your horse and to you.
When you’re at least 15 meters from the scary object, use your inside rein to gently but firmly bend your horse’s neck enough to the inside, so he can’t see it with either eye.
Remember, a horse has both binocular vision (like a human), and monocular vision where he can see with each eye separately. So, you need to bend the neck enough so he can’t see the object with either eye. He won’t shy from what he can’t see.
Once you are directly beside the scary object, relax both reins. Many horses are claustrophobic, and you don’t want your horse to think he’s being forced against something with no escape.
Breathe! If you’re holding your breath, you’ll convince your horse there’s a good reason to be afraid. Inhale deeply and, as you exhale feel your bottom lowering down into the saddle.
If your horse begins to shy away from something in the dressage arena, try positioning him in shoulder-in as you approach it and ride him forwards.
This positioning will make it difficult for the horse to focus on the scary object as he won’t be able to see it, and he will find it physically difficult to spook away too.
Look up and ahead to where you want to be, not down at the tiger as you ride past.
Unfortunately, there’s no absolute cure for horses that are inclined to be spooky. You can, however, learn how to ride your spooky horse more effectively to make life safer and less frustrating.
If your horse is inclined to become tense and easily distracted at competitions, try arriving at the venue well before you want to begin working in, so that your horse can have a good look around before you ask him to settle down to work.
When you ride your dressage test, try to relax as much as you can, so that your horse doesn’t sense your tension and react to it.
- How to Ride the (Nearly) Perfect Dressage Test
- How to Encourage Your Horse to Relax at Competitions
- How to Manage Competition Nerves
- How to Manage at a Dressage Competition on Your Own