We all know the feeling. You’re riding your horse in the arena, the outdoor ring, or on the trail when suddenly its ears prick up, it stops dead, or stops dead and backs up, or stops dead and leaps to the side, or stops dead and does a 180 and bolts, or… you get the drift.
Spooking can ruin a perfectly good ride, and there are “legitimate spooks,” a.k.a. actual scary stuff that justifies your horse’s adverse reaction. But then there are things like blowing tarps, a cow grazing in a pasture, or an object that your horse has passed countless times but was randomly moved even just a few feet and all hell breaks loose.
We are here to say it doesn’t have to be that way; there are trainers and training that can desensitize your horse to certain stimuli that can result in a less spooky ride.
Many a horse owner has turned to a cowboy for such training, so we decided to turn to a cowgirl for our training tips. Meet Sarah Hoffmann, a young horsewoman based in Jackson, Wyoming, who got her start in the Florida hunter/jumper circuit before hearing the call of the west and western riding. Hoffmann has explored the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem on pack animals, worked with gauchos in Patagonia, Paso Finos in Puerto Rico, Arabians and Boerperds in South Africa, and most recently starting youngsters in Argentina. She also spent a few seasons as assistant to her mentor, Wylene Wilson. During this time, the duo ran colt-starting bootcamps and horsemanship confidence clinics from Florida to California, and everywhere in between.
“There’s no such thing as a bomb-proof horse,” Hoffmann tells Horse-Canada. “Anyone that tells you their horse is bomb-proof is trying to make some money off of you, because horses are fight-or-flight animals.”
But don’t get discouraged! Hoffmann quickly adds that owners and riders can help build a horse’s confidence by desensitizing it to objects that might cause spooking, like a tarp or a flag flapping in the wind.
“I feel like a horse’s number one question when you introduce them to something new is, ‘is it going to hurt me?’” she explains. “Desensitizing introduces something new in a way that teaches the horse, ‘Oh, it’s not going to hurt me.’ So then when a flag does blow in the wind or a dog runs by, they might still look, but they’re not going to run.”
A horse that has had desensitization training might still be afraid and show fear, which is acceptable and perhaps expected, but the horse shouldn’t bolt or rear or otherwise have a massive and potentially dangerous reaction. “It’s okay to be scared. They can have opinions, but they’re not allowed to leave.”
So how do you as a rider start to work with your horse so it becomes a more predictable mount, one that you can safely trail ride, or has better focus in the showring? For starters you want to have your horse in a safe place, whether it’s a round pen or a fenced-in paddock. Hoffmann likes to begin desensitization work on the ground first, with a well-fitted halter and a cotton rope. She recommends skipping a lunge line because it can get cumbersome in your hand, and you want the better control that a shorter lead provides. “I don’t like to use a lead shank, but just a cotton rope. The less hardware between the horse’s face and my hand is best,” she explains. “I’ll even avoid a lead rope with a clip on it if I can, and just tie the rope straight to the halter. I want the horse to be able to move their feet but not run away.”
“Participate with other people that are pushing cows from one pasture to another and just let him follow those cows. It’s a low-pressure situation.”
Hoffmann starts the process with a flag as the first “object.” She will the flag put over the horse’s back like a saddle pad and then move it in a gentle and slow rhythm up and down the animal, rubbing the flag over its body and legs. “If they start moving their feet, that’s fine. You have to not be in a hurry, and you just keep that rhythm and as soon as they stop moving their feet, you take it away,” she explains. Rewarding calm behavior is the key. And it’s in contrast to dismounting a spooking horse or removing the object that is causing the unwanted behavior, instinctive human reactions that is only reinforcing that behavior.
Another tool in Hoffmann’s toolkit is called “tracking,” and it’s one of her favourites. Essentially, you allow your horse to follow the scary object, be it a giant ball you’re pushing forward, or another horse and rider dragging a log, or a bunch of empty milk jugs tied together, along the ground. “Tracking an object engages a horse’s natural curiosity,” she says. “Say for example, you want to start team sorting with your warmblood. First you’ve got to make sure he’s not scared of cows and the best thing you can do there is to participate with other people that are pushing cows from one pasture to another and just let him follow those cows. It’s a low-pressure situation.”
She adds that when a horse engages their natural curiosity, so they go from fight-or-flight to fight, flight, or investigate because they don’t feel the pressure. “Just let your horses follow and observe,” she says. “Horses are intelligent creatures and herd animals and if they watch other horses doing it, they’re like, ‘Oh, okay, it’s not that bad.’”
For this reason, tracking is her number one exercise “so it doesn’t feel like it’s being chased,” she says. “I’ve seen people try to chase a horse with the big ball or lock it in a stall with the ball, but then it’s just like this thing that’s there. And I think tracking is the best way to introduce anything spooky to a horse.”
Another tool Hoffmann uses is the “hustle” or getting the horse to move forward and work, then resting it beside the scary object. She uses the example of training a horse to side-pass to a gate and stand quietly while she unlatches it. “But if they’re feeling claustrophobic and they don’t want to be there and they keep trying to leave, I’m not going to sit there and fight with it,” she says. “Instead, I’ll work it probably a little harder than it wanted and do a forward trot, tight circles, and figure eights, really hustle, hustle, hustle, and then come back and try again. And that might take a few times, but in twenty minutes or so my horse is going to love standing at that gate, where it seems like a reward.”
How you ride to a scary object is also vital. Dressage riders hear a lot about “straightness” in their training, and the same goes for riding over trail obstacles or even a water. “It’s a lot about body control,” she explains. “But if your horse is going straight, it will go over whatever is in front of it. Now, it might not be exactly where you want it to be, or it might be a little quicker than you want it.”
She uses the example of crossing a creek, where on the first attempt your horse leaps across it. “You have to keep going back and forth and have the gumption to keep doing it and the horse is eventually going to get tired of leaping and realize it can just step across.”
Another tool in Hoffmann’s arsenal involves desensitizing horses to tarps. She ensures the size of the tarp is larger, say 6′ x 8′ to avoid it being an easy jump. She then starts by placing the tarp about four feet from the rail in a round pen or arena and lunges her horse around on a 12–15′ line (one instance where she does use a longer line). Initially the horse will hug the rail to avoid stepping on the tarp, and every few laps she stops and moves the tarp closer to the rail. Each time the horse passes it, dirt or sand sprays on top, making a distinct sound. “Even if they’re not touching the tarp, they’re going to hear that sound and realize they’re not being attacked, it’s not grabbing their leg, and you just keep closing that gap until their inside front is on it,” Hoffmann explains. “Eventually you put it all the way over and at that point they’re like, ‘Oh, this is old hat.’” She has also tied tarps to her water trough, which allows the horses to get used to the look, sound, and motion of it on their own time.
All this sounds doable if you own a Quarter Horse or draft cross, but what if you have a more naturally skittish type, like a Warmblood or Thoroughbred?
Hoffmann says that it’s never going to hurt a horse to expose it to new things and let them know they’re safe even when confronted with the dreaded flappy flag or tarp of death. However, it’s worth noting that warmbloods, or any horses that are bred for athletics, are naturally big movers, and a horse of that size will have a reaction that’s going to feel a lot different than a Shetland pony or Quarter Horse. “These horses are probably not going to be as unreactive as a draft cross,” Hoffmann admits, “but you can introduce them to things and let these horses know it’s safe. That’s going to make your trail ride or going to a horse shows so much better.”