Question: My 5yr old has a very bad problem with things jumping out at him. The only thing is there is nothing there. He thinks the trees are going to get him. He just started doing this, every time we go up the road, he keeps his attention on the trees or the ditches. Cars don’t bother him and deer don’t one bit. I don’t know what his problem is and would like to know how to fix it. I’ve had him since he was 3; he is an excellent horse, great with cattle, barrels and responds well to leg pressure and reins.
Answer from April Reeves: This is so typical of horses right when the leaves begin to fall off the trees. Although we can’t ‘see’ anything, there are changes in the way everything smells, especially to the horse. Since we keep our horses in an environment that’s fairly sterile, in the sense that the horse does not have the ability to learn about these situations for himself in the wild, he resorts to snorting, stopping and refusing to move quietly past these things.
So what can you do?
We are going to be using two methods: approach and retreat, and ‘hustle your feet’. As you begin your ride down the road or pathway, the second your gelding even thinks about reacting, by bringing up his head or snorting, turn him around and walk away for about 6 strides, then turn again and approach the spooky area. This is ‘approach and retreat’ and it is what horses do in their natural state. Do not get mad or raise your energy while doing this or you will be telling your horse there really is something to be frightened of. Continue to approach and retreat, with the intent of moving closer each time. Do not move into the spooky area until the horse is ready. I had to do this with a horse last week, and she was tough. It took about 15 minutes, but eventually we got through that quietly and she carried on without a single incident for the rest of the ride. As you do this exercise, do not stop. Always keep the horse moving. Also, do not keep the reins tight; give them some slack, enough to have control but slack enough that the horse does not feel pain or pressure. When I do this exercise, the reins are very slack, and all I do is sit quietly and just turn right, left, right, left…..for as long as it takes.
Eventually they begin to feel comfortable that you are not going to force them into anything that could be life endangering. That’s all they ask. This method also gives them confidence.
However, there are times when this is not enough. Horses can get ‘big’ when faced with ‘fairies in the trees’, and snort, blow and get faster. This is where you, the human, gets faster. Continue to use the approach and retreat method, and without raising your energy as before, hustle his feet by asking him to walk very quickly or trot this exercise. Do this until he shows desire to soften and relax, then go back to being quiet, still using approach and retreat until you walk past the area quietly. This is making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. Horses do not like to expend their energy this way, and will decide to lower their responses and get quiet. One thing to remember, as you turn him, go left on time, then right the next, then left, then right…and never let him decide which way the turn is. Always get the turn YOU want.
Trot toward the area, trot away, turn, trot toward, turn away at a trot, turn…you get the picture. Continue this over and over until he gives. For the first time he shows relaxation, continue the trot until he is tired of it. This is where the lesson sinks in. this is where the learning begins. By now he will likely be quite tired and just walk past without the slightest quiver. Move past the area about 10 strides, halt and let him spent a minute thinking about this. Let your horse process the new material you have given him. This is a secret to horse training. Most people just move into the next phase of training or riding without letting the horse ‘soak’. If you want to speed train a horse, let them think after every good response they give. I only stand for about 20 seconds for the smaller things, but something like this is worth a minute.
Continue along the trail and if you come across another spooky area, repeat these methods, hustling his feet and going back and forth until he relaxes. Once he gives in quietly, slack the reins and sit softly as you walk past. I always say to my students, “if it doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to him”. Horses take their cues from their riders. 90% of spooky horses get this from the owner. Even your breathing affects their choices. Remember to breathe, relax and let the reins soften. This is my clue I use on horses to tell them there is nothing to worry about. When my horse begins to react on a trail, I breathe and let it out so he can hear this, relax my body and drop the reins. He then lowers his head and gets soft and quiet. He is allowed to look but not react. This is important. Horses will always look. Your job is to train him to think instead of just reacting. Horses don’t think first. We have to teach them to think.
Think of your next trail ride as a lesson ride. Go out with the purpose of doing this exercise, and take the time you need to get it. Do not get frustrated or tired of doing this and give up, or you will have just taught your horse that his reaction is what you want him to do.