For me, October is the month where I start to truly feel like fall is in the air. For many of us, this may conger up fond memories of colorful leaves, brisk winds, a surplus of sugary sweets, and spooky ghost stories!
But unfortunately, colorful leaves, brisk winds, and sugary sweets may have many of our horses thinking they see ghosts, making them the spookiest of all souls this ghoulish season!
Horses are by nature scaredy cats. In biological terms, they are considered flight animals. It is their defense to run when they sense danger… and I do mean “sense” by every definition of the word, as sometimes, they seemingly spook at nothing!
So how do we enjoy riding and how do we stay safe whilst the spooky season (and all year round, for that matter) is upon us?
First, know that not all horses are going to be bomb-proof, quiet, “Do-das”. Period. Every horse is different, and some just tend to be more skittish than others. Know your horse, trust your judgement, and never do something unless you are comfortable doing so. The point is to establish confidence in your horse and yourself, and make the ride SAFE.
Success in building confidence in your skittish or spooky horse is going to start with a lot of good groundwork and patience. Establish a leadership role with your horse; you are the boss. This doesn’t mean that you need to be harsh, but it does mean being as firm as necessary to make future situations safe for both of you. Stay calm, and exercise that patience! Building good ground manners and a trusting horse takes time.
Note: Over my nearly 20 years of horse experience, I have started four of my own horses and had countless other learning/training opportunities. I don’t make my living as a professional trainer, but I have practiced the methods I will talk about today, and I can tell you, they do work. These training techniques come from true experts, so I will leave most of the detailed explanation to them! Please read on for my prefered professional references…
I believe that part of good groundwork, aside from teaching respect, is also “desensitizing” your horse (exposing them to scary things). This practice will help greatly in teaching a horse how to react when exposed to a situation that might otherwise be frightening for them.
Remember, they are flight animals, and so while we may never be able to make them completely ignore that instinct, we can help teach them to control it better.
Below is an example of me desensitizing a colt under saddle with a plastic bag on a stick. This colt, who happens to also be being ridden for the first time, has had extensive ground work and desensitization performed by his owner (a friend of mine).
I encourage you to practice desensitization with your horse from the saddle, but NOT before you are both well comfortable with it from the ground.
Notice this colt’s relaxed expression and ear position. He is very comfortable with this exercise, and thanks to his owner’s hard work and patience, has the proper beginnings to being a calm, cool, and safe riding horse.
One trainer who teaches the values of desensitization, is Craig Cameron. You may know Craig from the show “Extreme Cowboy Race”. Follow the link here to the Equus Athletics YouTube channel, and click on the first video on the right under “Education” to watch Craig demonstrate how to desensitize a horse from the ground. I like this example because it also shows him practicing in a safe, controlled environment.
Once a solid foundation of groundwork including desensitization has been made, your horse will be better prepared to handle spooky situations.
Ok, so this alone a bombproof horse does not make. It takes time and repetition, but it also not a guarantee for a spook-free horse all the time.
All horses spook. So how do we teach them on a trail ride, for example, to work through it safely? Or, probably more accurately, how do we as riders learn to work through it safely?
Here again is where I am going to refer you to the pros. Following the same link above, click on the second video under “Education” to hear natural horsemanship trainer Clinton Anderson talk about methods you can use while on the trail (or in an arena for that matter) to help your horse work through a spook and prevent future spooks down the road.
So, with fall in the air (and perhaps a plastic bags or two!) I hope with the help of the methods discussed in the refered videos, you are able to enjoy riding amongst leaves and brisk winds, without a spooooky horse lurking beneath you!