Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spooking, Spinning, Flipping Out, But Not Off

I'm writing this based on the last post about spooking and such.

Candy Girl wrote about her solitary rides on her young horse. She has one tough spook-o-rama area to get through in order to reach the best trails.

Up until the last incident she has been able to urge him across the bridge with minimal fuss, but he is always worried about it.

I am always concerned when it comes to offering advice to a horse and rider I don't personally know,especially when there is a potential train wreck in the picture.

I have no visuals to guide me, so I can't suggest working the tar out of a horse until he crosses the bridge.This is a disciplinary action I would only use for a refusal, not on a horse who is terrified.

The first question I would want answered, did the colt have a valid point?

I've written about an above and beyond spook from Pete, a bay gelding I was training.This horse was known to spook when he was out by himself, but the day he really fell apart was a day we were being stalked by a mountain lion.I trusted his judgement and we made it home together and in one piece.

Was something terribly wrong that day and while the colt heard, smelled, saw, felt whatever it was, could Candygirl have missed it?

The next question I need an answer to is where is the rider the safest?

On the horse's back or on the ground?

If I am on a horse that will feel free to crawl up my back if I try to lead him I'm going to stay on board. I am pretty confidant in my seat and can often handle my problems from the saddle.

If I'm on a young horse that I have trained on the ground, then I have no issue with leading him if it will build confidence.I have found it takes a while for young horses to trust their rider's leadership, even if they are trusting on the ground. I mean, we're behind them on their back, pushing them forward. On the ground we're in front taking charge. I have always thought you need to build confidence twice, once on the ground and again from their back.

If I decided to stay on Candygirl's colt then I would ride him forward until he quit on his own. Then I would bump him forward steadily with both legs until I got a single step forward.

My reins would be loose except to keep him looking straight at the bridge, so he can go forward, but I'll get after him for trying to leave.

If he starts backing I'll keep my reins loose and kick pretty hard until he quits.If I think he might rear I'll work his haunches, kick him to the left, then the right, all the while making him look at the bridge.If he's throwing his head I'll do the same.

Eventually I'm going to get my step and then we'll sit and rest. He has to keep looking at the bridge and I'm not, I mean not, going to tell him he's good. Because he's not. I'm just going to let him breathe. Then we go again.

How much am I going to ask for? Depends on the day, how much time I have and the mindset of the horse. But we will come back to the same place over and over, day after day until he crosses the stinking bridge.

My primary goals are to keep him looking at the bridge.
Keep my reins loose but don't let him turn left or right.
Keep his haunches moving.
Rest after each forward try, but not before.

If this was a horse I was leading then I would give the horse plenty of slack in the rope or reins so he is actually following me not getting towed.If he locked up I would work his hindquarters and get him moving forward. I prefer not to have them go around me, because that can turn into quite the evasion too.

I'll send them right and left and only pause when we're all looking at the bridge.

One of the best things Candygirl can do is to simulate this situation at home. Get a large piece of plywood and get him to walk and stand on it.Drag out a tarp and get him walking on that.

I don't think work like this is desensitizing, because I'm not saying the horse needs to wear the tarp or eat off the board.When you work up a consistent set of cues and end up getting him to handle the plywood and tarp he'll know he's alright as long as he listens to you. This will go a long way toward keeping you both safe when you have to insist he listen in a scary situation on the trail.

Kate was talking about the purpose of free longing.I agree with her and don't do it. I will give a stalled horse turn out to run off some steam, but I don't participate. I undo their halter and walk away before they run. I don't think my horses should play when I'm in the arena and I don't want them to kick at me, so I don't chase them.

When my horses are young I either longe or round pen them before I ride. I quit as soon as I can.By paying close attention I can tell when they have their brain turned on and we go ahead with our workout. It never fails, eventually they will just look at me like, "Really? Do we need to do this stupid round pen stuff?"

I almost always agree and that's the end of it From then on I just saddle up and ride.

The joining up process is really magical. I love the feeling I get when a horse clicks with me and follows me around. But it's such a minor part of training I can't justify spending too much time with it.

There's a young woman at my barn who has a cute little paint. She spends half her life dinking with that mare in the round pen. The mare is so bored she goes through her drills with her nostrils wrinkled and her ears pinned.She is dull and plodding and extremely sullen.I've been watching this for a year. The horse was bright and engaged when they started but I think she's just about fried.

The horse still doesn't know here leads (neither does the owner) and moves at a slow dragging pace everywhere they go. The worse she gets the more this girl round pens her.

I want to ride, not teach my horse to walk at heel. The thing is, the manners, the bond, the excitement and sense of accomplishment from a thrilling ride, they come with time, patience and always looking ahead.

I do have a bright spot. I took the willful Madonna out on the trail. We had a lovely, no seriously, time. She only whinnied twice. No half passing, head shaking or major blow ups. I kept it short, she kept it together and we went back to the arena and worked until she was completely calm. So hang in there guys, miracles happen.


Kate said...

What you describe for balking is pretty close to what I do - sometimes it takes a number of sessions to get anywhere. Using other situations/objects to help the horse learn that it is safe with you also can really help. I also do something similar with trailer loading - keep the horse "addressing" the trailer and keep the feet moving, and reward small bits of progress.

Good leading skills can come in handy in many situations - I agree that the horse can gain confidence from following you and I do get off and lead where it'll help the horse's confidence.

I'm no longer "free lungeing" Drift (attempts to get his attention that didn't work well in our large arena and just got him revved up) - I'm doing some leading work with him before I ride but that's all and I expect that'll be dropped pretty soon. I see a lot of folks who do endless groundwork and seem to get stuck there because they either think they always have to do it or because they don't know what to do next (or are afraid to do the next thing). A lot of horses get pretty sour, as you point out.

Katharine Swan said...

Great post! I have a spooky young horse too, so I appreciated the part about working them past a scary part. What you said about building confidence twice validates something that I've noticed with Panama -- if we work on something from the ground first, he's much more willing to trust me from his back.

I commented on Kate's post about free lunging just this morning. I do stay in the middle of the arena when I turn him out, and will cluck or do play bows (like when you play with a dog) to encourage him to keep running, but he also seems to know not to come too close to me or kick out at me. I've noticed that my friend's horse has no such compunctions, so it must be something Panama has learned from how we play together. I don't chase or drive him if he doesn't want to run, though -- like Kate and Drift, I've found that forcing him to run revs him up instead of blowing off steam.

Val said...

The mountain lion story is pretty terrifying. I would not want to be stalked by one of those!

I agree that the horse begins to trust you and spooks much less if you can work through a perceived threat. It takes mountains of skill to meter when you apply and remove the pressure, but without this the horse may learn that there really is something to fear.

HorsesAndTurbos said...

Yeah! Blogger is back!

Before I lose my thoughts on do need to know your horse. If I did the lunging-during-panic with my mare, it would go *nowhere* except escalate her anxiety. I know from experience. She thinks she's running away, only in a circle.Being from a racing background doesn't help.

Also, if your horse suddenly changes (gets hotter/spookier) check their feed. I was trying to use up alfalfa cubes I had for a rescue, was giving a handful to all my horses to use them, up, and didn't put her sudden spookiness/hotness together until she had been on them for a week. Now that I stopped, she's been fine.


kel said...

We have talked about how our little cowhorse / cutters have a definitely different take on the world. My little mare isn't a fearful horse. She has a lot of spook to her, but after she does the jump in place thing, she will go at whatever it is that buggers her. Lately she has been "going at" things pretty agressively. Not out of control but she will stick her nose out and pen her ears. A guy was working in the arena were we were working cattle. He fires up a sawsall behind me without warning. After I peeled her off the rafters, and she could see him, she puts her nose out, pins her ears, and starts moving towards him. I had her on a pretty loose rein and she came right back to me but I think she was thinking she was going to kick his butt! I have experienced the same thing when I encounter deer or turkeys on the trail. I get the jump, then I get the "I am going to get you attitude". I am pretty sure when they run away, she is just delighted! I am kind of on the fence on how I feel about this behavior. I can't lie, it does tickle me sometimes that she has such a big attitude. But on the other hand, I don't want to create a monster either. As long as she is staying with me and doing as I ask, I plan to leave her to her little quirk. No praise but no negative discipline either. Right or Wrong?

mugwump said...

Kel - I would do exactly what you're doing. As long as they don't leave me I ignore them. Sonita was a snarling wretch, but she never followed through, at least while I was on her anyway....

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between fright of a singular object and general spookiness or balking.With the training that I do, I make the wrong decision the hard decision. For balking I would work the horse at the refusal point until I got forward progress and eventually past the obstacle, location, whatever. For spookiness I work with the horse to learn a "controlled" spook. I don't mind a horse that starts, a sidestep, a snort and wide-eyed goggle, etc but I have ridden many horses whose response to scary is to turn and bolt, or rear up, or tuck its tail and hop around. These problems can be fixed with work but a healthy dose of trust has to be worked in too. The horse must learn to trust it's rider to handle the situation. It can be difficult but with time and consistent riding it usually works out just fine.

Genuine fright is something, in my opinion, is altogether different and yet, is handled much in the same way. In the case of the bridge fright, I would probably ride to that point and ask him to stop before he stops on his own. We would work a little there until he was completely focused on me and then go forward a little more. Rinse and repeat. Any time that his attention went off of me and onto the scary bridge, I would ask him for some work, something to keep his mind on what I am asking instead of letting his imagination run away with him. I would set a goal for the day and once it was reached I would take him away from the bridge and, instead of going directly home, take him somewhere else to work for a bit. The next day I would do the same. Eventually, he's going to learn a few things. One, he is asked to work the minute his head goes up, his attention wavers from me, when he gets anxious.Two, That same bridge is going to be there every damned day. Same thing every day and each day will be a little less scary. Three, it will build trust between the horse and rider. If things are approached in a calm and consistent manner rather than a forced, hurried, "this has to get done today!" type of way, the horse learns to trust his riders judgement and handling. There are many people who don't have the patience to do things thoroughly and with minimum fuss, however, its the kind of people that do have those skills that turn out quiet, responsive, willing animals.

Just have to say I love this blog. It's difficult to find people with a good balance between hugging and loving a horse into good behavior and beating one into it.


mugwump said...

Thanks Liz- That's what we try to do around here, that's why everybody's input is so welcome.
I get every bit as much information from you guys as I throw out there.

Becky said...

"If he locked up I would work his hindquarters and get him moving forward. I prefer not to have them go around me, because that can turn into quite the evasion too."

When leading a horse, how do you work their hindquarters without having them go around you? I'm confused.

mugwump said...

Becky- I swing my rope at their butts, a few steps to the left,pull them to face me, a few to the right,face me again.
As a rule, when I'm leading a horse I don't let them pass my shoulder.So no circling.

joycemocha said...


My Mocha is doing much the same as your mare. Cowhorse-bred, you betcha. It's almost as if the thought process is "Scary! Wow! Can I get it? Can it be herded?"

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