Question: I have a mare she gets spooky when leading sometimes. My friend told me to speak softly and quietly and pat her when she is like this but she is just getting worse. Should I be nice to her, speak nice? It seems to make her worse. Why is this happening? Does she not like me anymore?
Answer from April Reeves: Here is a classic example of humans expecting the horse to react and think the way we do. Let’s break this scenario down into how each is thinking at the point where your mare spooks:
Mare: “there’s something not good up ahead, I can smell it.”
Human: “it’s okay, you will be alright (patting the horse).”
Mare: “she’s patting me. Must be a good thing to be ultra aware and sensitive to these issues. I’ll stay on guard!!” (horse gets more anxious)
Human: “It’s okay Fluffy, I’m here. Don’t jump on me (pushing horse with hands).”
Mare: “wow, human is confirming with more soft voice and hands, that there is likely something of great danger. Must move in to pressure!! (horse jumps on top of human).”
Human: “FLUFFY, GET OFF ME! (human pushes horse again, but horse throws shoulder into human and runs).
Let’s go over this scenario.
First, the mare’s instincts are aroused by smell. She is currently not reacting other than her head may be elevated. This is the moment or tipping point where the handler can either give the horse confidence to keep moving quietly, or accelerate the problem.
Then this human pats the horse and speaks quietly. While this may appear comforting to the horse, it is what will only comfort another human, but not a horse. To the horse, this message says “I agree, and I will reward you for noticing. Good Fluffy. Make sure you continue to keep vigil and react if necessary.”
So the mare gets more anxious and nervous, and begins to move closer to the handler. This human then tries to move the horse away by pushing. The horse’s natural instinct is to move in to pressure. In the wild, as horses are being chased by predators, they move into the predator, because if they receive a bite, and pull away, the bite will tear flesh and the horse’s chance of survival is lessened. If they move into the pressure, the bite may not be as damaging, and the horse may be able to knock off the predator on a tree.
The handler continues to push the horse.
The mare then moves in to the pressure by jumping on the handler (natural instinct).
Then the human yells at the horse.
Mare: “Holy cow, this must be an emergency, we must run quickly, the human is highly excited and I can’t be near this. I must run for my life!”
So the scenario escalates every time the handler/human repeats it.
What to do?
Horses must accept the human as a leader and have confidence that this leader is taking them somewhere safe. It’s not as much a matter of her liking or not liking you as much as respect and obedience to the leader (you). While horses have levels of emotion, they are not always displayed the same way as humans.
The human must also realize that it is the human’s responsibility to work with the horse, not the horse’s responsibility to try and figure us out.
In a scenario where the horse has had training in groundwork and handling, and has a deep respect and confidence for the handler/human as a leader, the horse would have walked through this with no reaction. She may have looked, but she would have taken her cues from the handler.
I always suggest to handlers or riders, that if it doesn’t matter to you, it won’t likely matter to them.
You are only accelerating your mare’s spookiness with praise of her reactions. I suggest that you spend the time to learn groundwork, behavior and handling, as it is the foundation of all the other things you do with your horse. Remember, the horse you lead will be the horse you ride. In other words, if your horse is reactive and lacks confidence on the ground, she will be the same under saddle.
There are many useful articles in this blog that have groundwork exercises for this problem. Just type in ‘groundwork’ into the search box and start reading.
There are many valuable books, DVD’s and articles on Natural Horsemanship and behavior. My suggestion to you is to take a look at Adiva Murphy’s series. She has a really good DVD on leading and ground manners. Each DVD in her series are reasonably priced and full of great advice and training. Adiva covers extensive amounts of material and her DVD series is great value for the money. You may contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or go to her site: adivamurphy.com