Spook busting

By Jenny Richardson BHSAI, Equestrian Centre Business Manager at Ireland’s Castle Leslie Estate

Spooking can happen all too quickly – you’re out enjoying a gentle hack, taking in the scenery when something startles your horse and off he goes, while you hold on for dear life. Spooking is common and is a horse’s natural way of responding to something he perceives as scary or threatening.

Spooking - the horse's natural way of responding to threats.

Spooking – the horse’s natural way of responding to threats.

Many things can cause your horse to spook, from a piece of flapping rubbish or a rustling in the undergrowth to a clap of thunder, sudden lightning or an unusual loud noise. Depending on the cause and your horse’s resilience, some animals will just jump, while others may bolt, disregarding if you’ve fallen off or not. Although spooking is common, there are ways to help your horse ride past a scary foe or tackle a specific object that you know he is afraid of. Remember, it is all about developing mutual trust!

Top tips for successfully riding past spooky objects –

*Try not to tense up. It is easy to start becoming tense when you think your horse might spook, but try not to. A horse will sense your anxiety and think that his fear is justified. Speak out loud, to help you relax.

*By all means let your horse have a quick look at the object but then encourage him to move forward. Keep your reins short, hold them a little wider if you need to, sit up, and keep your legs on. The time to reward good behaviour is once the horse has walked on – or, if he was reversing backwards, it is when he has stopped going backwards, and has stood still. Be mindful of not rewarding the evading action.

*Redirect the horse’s attention as you approach the object. If you can re-focus your horse’s attention on something else, he may forget about the spooky object. Once you have spotted something that you think he may be frightened of, turn his head away from it; try riding a few steps of lateral work, bent away from the direction of the foe, and keep riding positively.

*It’s hard to do, but try not to pat and cosset your horse, and tell him he is a ‘good boy’ while he’s scared. You are effectively rewarding his spooky behaviour and will encourage him to react this way in the future. Simply speak calmly and positively. Once he’s walked on past the object you can reward him.

*Don’t punish your horse for spooking. He is already afraid, so punishing him will only add to his fear. It is easy for us to become startled and take out our fear on our horse, but staying calm and gently authoritative will instil trust.

Wear high visibility wear when hacking

Wear high visibility wear when hacking

*There’s a difference between a horse being slightly spooky and paralysed with fear. You will feel his breathing and heart rate change if he’s very alarmed. Don’t try to force your horse to pass a very frightening object if he’s terrified, as this could be dangerous – he won’t be in the right frame of mind to process your requests in any case, as the ‘flight’ mechanism will have set in. If he is incredibly scared of a particular thing, you will need to introduce it slowly over many weeks using desensitisation. For example, if he doesn’t like tractors, he will have to be introduced to them regularly and gradually. Work on introducing very scary items in the relative safety of an arena, with your instructor – or ask your instructor to come with you to an external venue.

*Ride safely – wear high visibility wear when hacking, use a rider safety aid or balance strap on the saddle, and always wear an up to standard helmet.

*Most importantly, try to remain confident and keep your own nerves in check. A great way to do this is singing! Ok, it might sound a little silly but it can work wonders! Remember also to breathe.

*If you have a genuine issue with your own confidence, consider performance coaching or book some intensive one-to-one training with an instructor to tackle the problem in  question. If your horse is quite spooky in general, then get someone to ride with you and help you to enforce the above techniques and help your horse gain in confidence. A spooky horse can be dangerous and not much fun.

If your horse is quite spooky, get someone to ride with you.

If your horse is quite spooky, get someone to ride with you.

Castle Leslie Estate offers luxurious equestrian riding holidays and training breaks, deep in the heart of Ireland. The team welcomes riders of all abilities and age groups and offers expert tuition, gentle hacks and exhilarating cross-country rides over an extensive cross country course.

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