A horse’s focus can shift in a heartbeat – transforming him from a willing, on-task partner to one who is concerned only with self-preservation. At times, his flight instinct can override his training. The moment your horse becomes scared or herd bound, for instance, you have probably noticed your ability to manage him becomes compromised.
When your horse is distracted or distressed, he may spook, jig or bolt. It is a horse’s natural instinct, as a prey animal, to move away from perceived threats. Keeping that in mind, it is helpful to simply allow your horse to move a little when he becomes scared. It often seems logical, by human standards, to stop and regroup. However, allowing your horse to move will allow him to investigate his options, expend nervous energy and refocus on his task. Many times, we overlook the value of allowing a horse to search and learn. Let’s talk about how you can redirect his nervous energy to help control his fear, and thus control his speed and direction.
Stop, Roll and Go
The Stop, Roll and Go exercise helps develop a horse’s confidence and focus in scary situations, and gives you a chance to work on manoeuvres such as loping, rollbacks (see Executing a Rollback on page 32) and stops. It is easy to execute, and you will find you have the opportunity to use it several times during a ride.
When you and your horse come across a scary object such as a banner in the arena, a rock on the trail, or a stray garbage can on the street, his attention will be focused in that direction. Your horse may be willing to approach the object, but you will find there is a point at which he will balk – a definite line he will not want to cross.
It is common for riders to dismount and lead the horse, or to stay in the saddle and try to slowly approach using some form of coercion such as repetitive kicking, in cases like this. These approaches make for a missed training opportunity, however.
Here are the basic steps to the Stop, Roll and Go exercise:
- Approach the scary object (in this example, a banner) and find your horse’s ‘do not cross line’. Take a mental note of the location.
- Move away from the scary object and put your horse on a circle at a walk or a trot, with one edge of the circle near the ‘do not cross line’.
- As you come around the circle, go just past the centre line of the scary object. As you approach, stop your horse and prepare for a rollback. Turn toward the scary object, using it to help execute the rollback. If you were to turn away from the object, you would normally only get a 90-degree turn and the weight would be pushed onto the front end of the horse. This would create a turn and run effect, rather than a rollback and depart manoeuvre.
- If your horse is truly concerned about the object, you will feel the moment he wants to spook. This is when you will ask him to execute a rollback and trot or canter off onto your circle, but in the opposite direction. You will find that your horse (who normally may find it difficult to execute a 180-degree rollback), is now more than willing to give it a try.
- Continue this pattern until you feel your horse is gaining confidence in the rollbacks and becoming less concerned about the scary object (which normally takes between two and 12 rollbacks with circles). At this point, you can approach the object and let your horse rest, hopefully just past the original ‘do not cross line’.
- Don’t try to get the horse all the way to the banner, rather allow him to practice this exercise for a while – getting a little closer each time.
- Allow your horse to stand next to the scary object and rest completely (at least 30 seconds). This “release” will help the horse figure out that going past scary things is a much easier option than spooking.
Take Away Lessons
At first, it may seem we have taught the horse to run from a scary object, but you will find this is not the case. Rather, in this exercise, you are a) agreeing that the scary object is something your horse should be aware of; b) allowing him to follow through with his thought to leave, but in a more creative way, using it as a teaching opportunity; and c) following through with this pattern until the horse makes a ‘change’ in his thought process and starts to become drawn to the object.
In the end, you get what you wanted – a horse that is confident being next to the (formerly) scary object, and you also practiced and gained other valuable tools such as:
- confidence in riding your horse to and from a scary object
- the ability to shape his mind to influence his feet
- a way to ‘free up’ the front feet, which are normally sticky in times of doubt
- the ability to ride through a scary situation that you planned for in advance, rather than waiting for the unexpected to happen when you aren’t prepared by avoiding a spook, which can become habitual
I hope this new exercise will help you continue in your journey, and to keep things fun and interesting for both you and your horse. In the next and final article in this series, we will be talking about some physical aspects of developing an all-around partnership with your horse. Until then, keep focussing on going with your horse, in order to have your horse go with you and finally, going together as a team.