The Fine Art of De-spooking
By Frank R. Bell

When I first arrived at the Rocky Mountain Training Center in Larkspur, Colorado, I thought I had plenty of experience with spooky horses. Starting the catty Argentine thoroughbreds for polo had certainly been challenging. Even my own Anglo/Arab had left me in the air several times. But nothing prepared me for the lightning speed that typified the Arabians. These horses could flinch sideways or reverse at a dead run. Without a decent seat and balance to match, it would have been a lot of long walks to the barn. It all really hit home while watching a video of the finish of a hundred-mile endurance race. Coming down off the mountain at a moderate pace after a hundred miles I witnessed mature horses still spooking! Then and there I committed to making a project of this phenomenon, common to all and chronic to some.

Self-preservation is clearly the reason for spooking. If we were to take that away, we would be riding very dangerous animals. That self-preservation is what allows us to trust our horses in umpteen dangerous situations. That same horse that spooks also takes us across fields filled with boulders and leg breaking holes. Is it fair to get upset or beat that same animal when he is legitimately afraid? I choose to respect it, once we have built a working rapport.

Nurturing the Horse

I view this topic much like child rearing. Though I have no children of my own, I can certainly imagine nurturing a child through a scary time. And I sure wouldn't get upset or scold a child for being afraid. Instead, I would be right there to support and help. Well, to me it's exactly the same with a horse. From the moment I make first contact with that horse, I am building a mutual level of trust and confidence, not dominance. I want that horse tolook to me when bothered, because he knows I'll be there.

To develop this mutual confidence, we need to be friends first. I search for those places they all love to be scratched, rubbed stroked etc. I call it search touching. I try to kind of put the horse in a trance by zeroing in on just what feels best to the horse. It's a searching process and the horse will tell you when he really likes something and conversely, when not. I deliberately ask him to get into vulnerable positions. A horse's head with his nose to the ground or touching his side with his nose is a trusting, relaxed animal. There are too many of these positions to list, so get creative. When he starts working his mouth and licking his lips, he's getting relaxed and it's sinking in, a great sign. Just think about the horse that can, at a suggestion, bend his head around to the girth as the handler covers his outside eye. This is big league trust.

The rest of the world does not exist. 'Just the two of us. We can make it if we try.'

Confidence Building

From here it's simply a building block process. Find those uncomfortable places and help the horse through it. Can he tolerate the lead rope doing circles over his head, behind his back legs, or around his legs first while standing, then moving? When saddling, bring the blanket or pad up the neck over his head. If he handles that, leave it over his head blocking his eyesight, first momentarily, then longer. Now take a discovery walk and deliberately find something scary. When he puts on the brakes, stroke his neck, talk soothingly, and ask the head to drop, then to the side. Reinforce the earlier maneuvers that developed the initial trust. Help the horse learn that there is nothing to be afraid of. Search for discomfort, don't avoid it, and then nurture through. Watch for the mouth working; it's a sure sign he's working through it.

Once in the saddle, again reinforce the bending and lowering of the head, and then go to work finding something that does spook the horse. The second it happens allow the horse to stop. Now go right back to that safe place even if it means backing away a little from the spooky object. Be patient. Spend as much time as it takes. Once quiet, encourage forward movement to the point of the horse getting uptight again. It will be a little closer than the last time. Nurture, relax, back if necessary, then move forward again until right up to that horse-eating rock or puddle or stump. Stay with this process until you can walk right up to the scare, walk by, take a sniff etc. As the horse builds confidence, so will you. Constant soothing talk, neck stroking, and slight leg encouragement will help and give the horse the confidence and encouragement necessary to build onto this process. This is the classic advance/retreat principal. You'll find yourselves feeling of each other, much like walking a child across the street for the first time. A firm handhold at first, then walking side by side, and then one day that little person will walk across the street alone with you watching. Baby steps.

Once you've worked this process deliberately enough times, your horse will know that when afraid you're going to work through it as a team, no matter what. We are going to walk up to that thing quietly and check it out. When this is working well, speed up to the trot. As the horse tightens up, stroke, provide leg support, clucking, soothing words. Divert his attention by tilting the nose to the opposite side away from the scare and bump with your lower leg or stirrup on that side. Pull that attention away from the problem. Once past, release all pressure and reward heartily. Make a very big deal out of this success. They do understand. It's the same process at the canter. But don't be in such a hurry. If you can't get it at slow speeds, don't even think about moving up. Remember, the long way is the short way; it's all a matter of supporting the animal.

Imagine a huge fire consuming a house with a group of horrified people watching intently. Now the fire truck is heard approaching. Now it's here, sirens blaring loudly. Where is your attention? The point: Pull the horse's attention away from the scare, now! Get as aggressive as deemed necessary, but change the horse's mind.

Another effective approach is using the circle to get closer and closer at each pass. This requires serious leg and body support while approaching the object. Again, the circle should begin by pressing the edge of the comfort zone, then get progressively closer and closer while supporting the horse. The horse gets plenty of relief in the rest of the circle, then is supportedthrough the challenging area. This approach is also useful for developing water/mud confidence.

Special Situations

There are clearly times when these crafty animals can play pretend and try to get out of a job by acting spooky. This comes down to a judgement call, and determining what is real. When the determination is made that the horse is messing with your mind, it's time to get to work by firming up and insisting, or getting very busy and changing the horse's mind with various maneuvers. Usually there is an abundance of energy to deal with so I'll reach into my bag of tricks recalling just where the horse needs catching up and use that energy to my advantage. For instance the horse may be a littlesticky at backing, or backing in one direction, or side passing, or doing any number of simple exercises that lead to the more difficult ones. These foundation exercises must be perfected at the basic level before moving on. So get to work right now. Put that thinking cap on and start asking immediately. Circle right, left, go back, forward, to the side, reverse, roll back, step hind quarters over one way, then the next, then the front etc., all the while distinctly aware of that object and inching closer. Now drop the reins while right next to it. There's a pretty good chance that horse will just be so happy to relax that he'll forget about the scare. If not, back to work. This system does wonders for antsy, hyper horses while using that energy constructively.

Sudden sounds and noise are also issues that are easy to address. Very early in my interaction I am desensitizing the horse to this problem by intentionally creating it. From the ground I start by slapping the saddle, first with my hand softly then building to the point of snapping the stirrup leathers hard and even slapping the end of the lead rope on the saddle loudly. Again, this is a building block process. If the horse is really bothered, I'll be making very little noise while providing much support by stroking the neck constantly. I'll try to stop just this side of trouble. Pause, start lightly and build again. If this is done properly, the problem can be diffused quickly thereby raising the horse's confidence level.

On the trail I am constantly working on desensitizing by slapping my leg, reaching out and brushing branches with loud dried oak leaves, twirling my lead over the horse's head and down around the legs and hind quarters. Several dogs are always with me on the trail, darting here and there, appearing suddenly, and making constant noise- perfect. Again, before long it has completely become part of life and is no issue at all. Walking between a couple of horse trailers and gradually building to the point of slapping the side of the trailer, first while going by, then while stopped, is a great exercise. Try opening and closing the windows and doors of the trailer. Of course opening gates while on the horse is not only a welcome convenience, but also helps build confidence. Your imagination is the only limit to the number of tasks you can ask of your horse.

Some years ago a magnificent Argentine thoroughbred stud named Refugi had serious spooks, but was otherwise an elegant fine moving horse that took fences with unequalled grace. For a couple days he lived with paper feed bags attached to the saddle, then dragged them, one on each side. When he had accepted this as part of life, we went back to those same jumps. The blue ribbons that decorate his owner's tack room attest to his success. He is now a relaxed, happy, confident horse that had to sweat a little at the front end to realize his full potential.

In dealing with these various problems that we all encounter, I'm constantly reminded of the steeds that police use to control unruly crowds and even riots. That didn't just happen. They weren't born that way. Someone took the time and helped these animals learn to tolerate something that most of us will never ask of our horses. The sight of a policeman riding into a bar in Steamboat Springs one fourth of July some years ago will always inspire me.

Feed and Space

The final two issues that can contribute to unreasonable spookiness are overfeeding and confinement. A good place to start is an honest review of just how much hot food is in the diet. Huge changes in behavior can take place with diet changes. Also allowing that same horse a chance to unwind is not to be overlooked. Horses living out are seldom as wound up as those confined. It's just so individual and requires real observation and empathy. Think like the horse and the answer usually becomes obvious.

Several years ago just after Thanksgiving I worked with a striking sorrel quarter horse at the Marriot Cattle Ranch in Virginia. He was spooking at everything and bucking his riders off. I learned that he was being fed a large can of grain morning and evening while cooped up in a small pen. The grain ended immediately. I gave him a job to do as we worked cattle in the steep hills of Virginia. This clearly took the edge off him. The food issue along with some basic trust building changed the horse's life. Within three days he was carrying rank beginners. Instead of selling the horse, he doubled as a lesson horse. Novices were riding that horse with big smiles. I think the striking sorrel was smiling too!

Review: 7 Steps to De-spooking

l. Address the feed issue.
2. Is the horse confined too much? Is he able to get out and be a horse and run wild and free on a regular basis and experience life as horses are meant to?
3. Learn to nurture the horse. Help him relax and build trust, both on the ground and in the saddle.
4. Learn how to change the horse's mind to pull that energy away from the scare.
5. Deliberately deal with progressively scarier situations on the ground, then on the horse.
6. Build to more difficult situations and increase speed.
7. Feel for the horse. Be observant and patient. Encourage, reward, and give a lot. Keep a smile on your face. Remember, the long way is the short way.

Frank Bell's company Dances with Horses offers a variety of products to help horse owners of every discipline in their quest to become better communicators.

"Dances With Horses has assembled an extensive Video and Audio library to help horse owners on all levels become better communicators: 'Discover the Horse You Never Knew' - Frank's Foundation Video detailing his 7-Step-Safety-System, Communication in the Saddle, Spooking/Shying, Trailer Loading, Solving 7 Common Horse Problems, Mounting the Difficult Horse AND Problem Foot Handling, Water and Bridge Crossing, Working with Young Horses, Starting the Young Horse, Retraining the Racehorse, A Day in the Life of a Horsewhisperer, AND audio book- The Gentle Solution- 7 Steps to the Horse You Always Wanted.
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Updated: October 2005.