Ok, so you want to introduce some new things to your horse. He’s pretty worried about new things or perhaps he has things that are just plain scary to him! A colt could be scared of the ropes, saddles etc. A seasoned horse may have trouble with the “scary” end of the arena. Maybe you have a spooky trail horse? Whatever the case, there is a way to guide your horse through these scary situations.
First of all, lets talk about how horse’s view new things. Horses are prey animals. They have 1,000s of years of “protect themselves” instinct built into them. They are not brave animals, in general. Their first reaction to something scary is to run off, buck, rear, kick, spin or even throw themselves down. What ever it is that they feel necessary to ESCAPE from can send them into a blind “save themselves” reaction. It can be as small as a leaf or as big as a tornado that sets them off. Depending on a horse’s innate characteristics, will help determine how explosive his reaction to scary things.
Horses have thresholds. There comes a point where they have a decision to make. When a scary thing presents itself, the horse needs to make a decision. Should he stay or should he go! You’ll recognize a threshold when your horse all the sudden gets tense, tight and bracey throughout his whole body. He puts the brakes on. His head is high, eyes hard and starring. He may snort, moving his head from side to side to view what it is that is alarming him.
Horses are also curious. But curiosity killed the cat, as they say. So that’s not necessarily the first thing the horse chooses when he gets worried about something. He is a prey animal after all. He will become curious once his fear is relieved. His curiosity will help him overcome his fear; as long as he’s not pushed over a threshold and MADE to accept something.
Horses need and want someone to be the leader in the herd. Depending on innate characteristics will depend who in the herd becomes leader. The leader keeps the others alive. He is the one who decides if the herd stays or goes in a scary situation. If the lead horse takes off…they all go!
WE need to be leader for our horses. We need to be the ones deciding if your herd of two is staying or going in a scary situation. (see the article on leadership)
Ok, now, back to the question of how do you go about it then. First thing you DON”T do is take the horse directly to the scary thing! You also wouldn’t take the scary thing directly to the horse! You try to always keep the horse facing the scary thing. Don’t let him turn tail. He could bolt off for sure. Keep him facing it. You can weave your way back and forth towards it. But don’t go directly to it. For most horses that can be to much pressure.
In a process of approach and retreat, paying attention to the thresholds of the horse you are dealing with, is how you would introduce your horse to new things. An example of this would be, you’re horse doesn’t want to go to the “scary end of the arena”. Ok, so following the suggestions above, you WOULDN’T make him go to the scary end directly. You’d approach and retreat until you made it to the end. You could ride him weaving your way back and forth in the arena doing rib bends. Feeling for his thresholds, when you feel him get tight, go to the safe side of his threshold just by a few feet, let him get soft and then cross the threshold just by a little bit. Over a few times, that original threshold will move closer and closer to the scary end of the arena. Before you know it, you’ll be using the whole arena. WHAT SCARY END? And you will have supported your horse mentally, emotionally and physically throughout this worried space. He will trust in you more as his leader because you took his emotions into consideration and helped him get through it without throwing him over his threshold edge, scaring him worse and making him worried about the decisions you made for him because you probably fought with him. Now he has to be worried about what worried him originally AND he has to feel worried about YOU too! He might have tried to run off, wouldn’t get soft because you were forcing him over his thresholds. If you try considering your horse’s emotions first, taking care of what he needs, you still accomplish your goal but you did it without a fight. You didn’t get bucked off. He didn’t have to get defensive and fight you through the process. It becomes a win/win for both. And you’ve just climbed the ladder to being a better leader in your horse’s eyes too!
If your horse is a spooky trail horse, you’ll need to make sure your leadership is in place in safe areas first! Before putting yourself out on a trail make sure you’re horse has gone through some scary simulations where he has to rely on you to help him stay safe. It won’t guarantee he won’t ever spook. Horses will always spook from time to time. Remember they are prey animals. However, we can help them look to us FIRST before just taking off to protect themselves when they get worried. You’ll need to prove this to your horse in a safe place first.
On the other side of this, and there is ALWAYS another side….Once your horse has accepted the scary thing, he’s become confident., he can then become dominant and all the sudden decide he’s not going over there. Then by all means,.you can put more pressure on him to do so. He might be challenging your leadership now. He’s calm and confident but just saying “no”. There will need to be a consequence for this. He still needs to stay between your reins and legs and go where you ask him to.
Every day could be different. Every situation can present different circumstances. But always try to offer the horse the best deal and the benefit of the doubt FIRST. After you’ve helped him with his worries, then you can be more persistent about getting what you want and still be fair to him.
There is a little saying that goes something like this: There is a wild horse within every domesticated horse. And there is a domesticated horse within every wild horse. Depending on a horse’s innate characteristic decides just how far beneath the skin the wild horse lives or the domesticated horse within the wild horse. Be aware of thresholds, use approach and retreat to help your horse become confident and curious towards what is worrying him. You’ll both be safer and happier!!