October 2020

Balance, Connection & the Spooky Horse - Part one

What a strange year 2020 is turning out to be. With news of a foreign virus invading our shores at the start of the year, to lockdowns & toilet roll buying frenzies, combined with a beautifully fresh & sun drenched spring (at least in my part of the UK). The uncertainty to peoples health & livelihood & sanity continues.....

 

But what has this got to do with training horses....I hear you cry?

Well, nothing - but this year has given me time to reflect & finally put down on paper some thoughts & theories I have long held & have been developing, so here goes..... 

For many years (15 to be precise) I specialised in remedial/behavioural training, using methods I'd learnt & developed both as a student of Intelligent Horsemanship & through my own observation's.

One area I frequently received calls about was from horse owners with concerns about their horse's seeming irrational spooking at apparently familiar objects, often equipment stored around arenas - jumps etc. but also out hacking too.

 

Now the first area to investigate is that the horse has no physical issues that may be causing this behaviour, once this has either been ruled out or addressed only then can training can begin.

Next I would want to observe horse & rider to assess precisely what was happening to cause the spooking - was the horse genuinely afraid, was the behaviour consistent or had a pattern simply been allowed to develop?

 

Sometimes I would ride the horse myself in order to get a better insight into their behaviour, & one instance particularly sticks in my mind.

I had been asked to teach this particular combination, simply to improve their flatwork & general way of going. I noticed that  the horse spooked at the same point in the arena every time around (where show jumps were stacked outside), not always a big spook, sometimes just dropping an ear. When I remarked on this, the owner said 'he always does that', however he was not otherwise a spooky horse, his main discipline was showing but he took part in Riding Club dressage & show jumping too & never spooked at anything, so why this? He was accustomed to seeing these objects & had been given plenty of opportunities to 'have a good look' apparently without concern.

On about our second training session I asked the owner if I could have a sit on her horse. I'd already observed that the horse was lacking inside bend & the rider was struggling to achieve this. I found that the horse's falling in was quite habitual but he was not stiff or unwilling - just uneducated.

Quite quickly I found that I was able to get him on the correct bend & working nicely.

It was at this point that the spooking ceased, & his owner remarked on it. So we swapped over so she could get a feel, now that her horse's way of going had improved, he was OK for a couple of circuits but then reverted to spooking again - what was going on?

 

I then got back on (as the owner was feeling some frustration) & the next few minutes firmly cemented a theory I had long been developing in the back of my mind. I tried to mimic her riding & found the spooking continued, I then rode as I would ie. seeking balance, rhythm & softness. Instantly all spooking ceased & I found I was able to switch the spooking on & off depending on how I rode.

 

Unbalanced (even slightly) = Spooking

Balanced = No spooking

So to conclude - I firmly believe the unbalanced horse feels vulnerable, which if you think about it, seems obvious.

Horses are prey animals, they protect themselves by running away from predators or other perceived threats. A unbalanced horse may fall, a fallen horse becomes a predators next meal.

Having said all this, it does not follow that every unbalanced horse will spook, or that every time a horse spooks it's through lack of balance, however if your horse spooks at seemingly familiar things it is something to consider.

In part two I will explore connection.

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