Create Positive Behavioral Changes
-by Linda Parelli
This article was originally published in the May 2009 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.
If you were a prey animal and knew that other animals hunted you for food, wouldn’t you be alert to every little noise or unexpected movement in the bushes? Just try walking through the bad part of town and you’ll start to feel what the horse feels! Danger is lurking, and every hair on your body is standing on end in an effort to detect and react to that danger as quickly as possible. Your survival depends on it.
The intensity of a horse’s fear is such an easy thing to forget when he spooks – it scares us, it’s frustrating, seems unpredictable and can be very dangerous. The more unsafe the horse feels, the more he spooks, which means the safer he feels, the less he will spook. It is up to us to teach our horse to feel safe when in our presence no matter what else is going on. Gradually this will affect him in other parts of his life as he becomes a more confident, trusting and settled animal.
The horse is one of the best, most successful prey animals on the planet. He has survived millions of years of predation with his capacity to detect danger, his lightning-fast reflexes and his ability to outrun predators. Being spooky is critical to survival in the wild, but it is often the reason people lose confidence and sell their horses. Yet with a little savvy you can help that spooky horse be your perfect partner.
The Wrong Thing at the Right Time
How we react is going to either help the situation or make it progressively worse, because the horse is not only scared of the thing that’s spooking him; he’s also scared of the thing on his back.
Spooking is a reaction that scares us, too. We don’t want to fall off, so we grab on for dear life, quickly gripping with our legs and pulling back on the reins. In this moment, nothing could be worse for the horse, because it feels as if a lion has jumped on his back—the claws are in, he can’t run away, he’s being dragged to a stop, he’s totally trapped, and for sure his life is about to end.
There are two aspects to solving the problem of spooking. You need to know what to do and what not to do in the moment. But even more important is how to prepare your horse so he doesn’t feel the need to spook.
What NOT to Do
When a horse feels the need to flee, holding him back can cause total panic. Obviously you don’t want to be run off with, but there is something better to do.
When you growl at your horse or punish him, it makes him afraid of you and confirms that you are a predator.
If you were afraid of a snake and someone was pushing you toward it, would that help? No! Same with horses. But horses do not have the capacity to reason the way we do. They spot an unusual shape, and it means danger. They don’t realize it’s the same bucket that was there yesterday but now is tipped over. They just know that something in the environment changed, and this could mean danger. Horses are incredibly perceptive. As you help them to become braver you will not change their perceptiveness, but you will change the intensity of their reaction.
Success with a spooky horse starts with total understanding and freedom from judgment, because he needs our leadership and protection and to not feel additionally threatened by us. From there we can start to increase a horse’s confidence so he can act more like a trusting partner instead of a prey animal who is literally scared for his life.
What to Do When Your Horse Spooks
As with just about everything Parelli, watch what everyone does and do the opposite!
Do not push him toward it in any way. When facing the danger he cannot take off in blind panic. Even if he goes backward pretty quickly, it’s a lot slower than a gallop!
Remember that you are supposed to be a leader, and your horse has to be able to depend on you. If you get scared, it’s going to scare him threefold! Learning how to manage your own emotions is critical. First you have to not react, and then you have to do the right thing.
It helps to push on the base of your horse’s neck, which will anchor you and loosen your legs automatically.
This is an emergency one-rein stop. When you bring your horse’s head to your toe you can stop him more effectively and safely than if you pull back on two reins.
A scared horse is a dangerous horse. Get off quickly and then help your horse to calm down.
Act as if nothing happened rather than make a fuss and force him to go up to the scary thing.
Take the time and make the effort to teach your horse to become calmer and braver so he is more confident in himself, in you and in his environment.
Calmer, Smarter, Braver
Repetition, approach and retreat are the keys for desensitizing a horse and building his confidence, but the real secret is preparation. Confidence is about being prepared for the unthinkable. Every day that you play with your horse you need to be doing something in some way that improves his confidence.
Some horses are not very spooky at all (usually Left-Brain horses), but you still need to improve their confidence as insurance for the future.
Here are some ideas for developing your horse’s confidence:
Important: Learn when your horse is calm versus frozen in fear. Look for soft eyes, regular breathing, level head, no tension in flanks or neck, as opposed to staring eyes, irregular breathing, a high head or really low head, tense neck and flanks, which will tell you that he’s actually still worried.
Building a horse’s bravery takes time and repetition, and it is our responsibility to help our prey animal trust our decisions and adapt to the environment, not live in fear.
Work on your own emotional fitness and develop appropriate reactions:
We should always remember that the horse is a prey animal that will default to fear, and that we are a predator who defaults to fight. A technique we teach when a horse does the opposite of what you want is to say “How interesting!” It helps you to think before you act instead of reacting, and in this way you’re more likely to do the right thing for the horse in the moment. As you practice something as simple as this, you are practicing keeping your cool when a horse spooks.
How quickly can you reach down one rein, bend your horse and step off (without falling over!)? This needs to become second nature, so automatic that you can do it as a positive reaction in a negative situation—a situation in which you don’t have time to think.
Under stress you are likely to do what you have been programmed to do, so this little safety drill is a great program to install. Most people clamp onto a scared horse because their program says “Stay on no matter what!” That’s how you get hurt. Change your program and change your results.
How Will Things Change?
Some horses will completely stop their spooking, while others will just spook a lot less. For example, instead of jumping out of their skin and changing counties, they will flinch and cock one ear at the object and the other at you, as if to say, “Should we be worried?” And you’ll reply, “Nah, it’s just a stump,” and sail on by.
Visit Parelli Connect for more educational articles and videos designed to inspire, empower and educate horse owners of all levels.