3 mistakes we make when there’s a scary corner

The other day someone came up to me and asked for advice about her horse spooking in one particular corner of the arena. It didn’t happen every day, but most of the times riding past the corner involved increased tension.

You can imagine that when you have this problem for a while, not only your horse, but you also start to feel more nervous and alert when riding in that particular corner.

That’s basically an automatic response in your body for survival. If your body isn’t in a state of alertness, you won’t be able to respond quickly when your horse spooks and you will be left behind in the sand. And of course, that’s not something we want to happen.

What we would like to happen instead, is that we don’t have to worry anymore about that scary corner. That we can just walk past the corner with a loose rein and be totally relaxed. That we can focus on actually training our horse instead of just getting past all the scary things and trying to reduce the stress level and the tension in our horse’s body.

The good news is that this is possible for every horse. In all the years of training horses, I’ve never encountered a horse that didn’t learn to get relaxed and feel more confident. However, some horses do need more training and will need more reinforcement of their new improved behavior than other horses.


“In all the years of training horses, I’ve never encountered a horse that didn’t learn to get relaxed and feel more confident.”


Even though you need to apply an extensive training program to really solve a problem like this, I can explain my approach and give three quick tips on what you want to prevent from doing when there’s a scary corner.

scary-corner

Scary corner becomes the nicest place to be
First of all, I don’t perceive my horse as being stubborn or unwilling when he doesn’t want to go past a certain area or object. For your horse, that scary corner can be life-threatening and we shouldn’t punish him for relying on his natural instinct for survival.

What I try to accomplish is that the scary corner becomes the nicest place to be and actually becomes the place where your horse gets the rest. So when you’re training your horse, away from the scary corner becomes the place where your horse has to work and once you approach the scary corner, you release the pressure and give him the reward. Once past the scary corner, you increase the level of training again.

Very quickly, your horse will understand that being in the scary corner isn’t that bad anymore. It’s the place where he will feel most comfortable. When you’re very consistent in this approach, you’ll soon notice a change in your horse’s behavior. You may even notice that your horse wants to stay in the scary corner as opposed to running away from it.

The mistakes we make
When you take this approach, you will realize that we often do exactly the opposite. We often increase the level of training in that specific area to distract our horse and force our horse to go into the corner. I do have to admit that this can work for some horses. Some horses need just a little bit of encouragement and they will be fine once they have gone past it a few times.

However, this approach often doesn’t work with more sensitive horses. So, if a problem with a certain scary corner or object keeps coming back, you know that forcing your horse will not help and perhaps make it even worse.

You’re basically adding pressure to a situation where he already feels a lot of pressure. Your horse’s association with the corner becomes only worse, because not only is it life-threatening, as a rider you also add pressure with your leg and perhaps also with the rein.

Secondly, we can also give our horse the wrong signal when we badly time our aids. Imagine that you walk up to the scary corner, or something else that your horse is afraid of, and you feel that your horse gets more uncomfortable and tense. He starts to slow down and hesitates to go forward. Just as he wants to take a small step forward, you give the leg aid to convince your horse a bit more. To give him that extra push to go forward.

Big mistake! You just ‘punished’ your horse for giving the right response. He stepped forward and you gave pressure, while you should have released pressure and not do anything at all.

A third approach we often take, is not letting our horse see the scary corner by bending his neck to one side or taking your horse shoulder-in. In my opinion, this is just a temporary fix and doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Often, the next time your horse sees the corner again, he will spook again.


“Understand that some things in our human environment can seem life-threatening to our horse.”


It’s of importance that we teach our horse how to deal with the pressures he will encounter. Understand that some things in our human environment can seem life-threatening to our horse. Try to change your horse’s behavior in a positive way and don’t punish him for relying on his natural instinct of flight. If we haven’t taught our horse there’s another, better way to respond, we don’t leave him with any other choice than to rely on his natural instinct.

 

The biggest myth about preparing your horse for competitions uncovered

Imagine that your horse gives you an amazing feeling in the training. You feel him rising underneath you and it feels like your horse can read your mind by responding to the smallest aids. Wow!

After practicing the dressage test at home and being convinced that you would for sure get a standing ovation from the judge, you decide to sign up for a show.

So there you are at the show, all excited to get started and show off your hard work at home. But as soon as you get your ‘Valegro’ off the trailer, you see that his posture and behavior has changed. His head is up, looking around and impatiently going back and forth while calling for his friends. All of a sudden it becomes a struggle to saddle up your horse, not to mention getting on.

Then the next challenge arises. While riding your horse in the warm-up arena, it feels like you have a completely different horse and you can’t seem to get that same feeling like you had at home. It’s like your aids aren’t getting through like it normally would and that your horse is in his own bubble.

You can probably imagine that the dressage test doesn’t go as well as planned and you definitely don’t get that standing ovation from the judge. Sure, the scores weren’t that awful, but still, it feels like a complete disaster, because you know the potential of your horse.


“Horses have changed and the competition environment has changed”


Sounds familiar? Well, I think we’ve all been there. It’s a common problem that happens to a lot of dressage riders. As a matter of fact, with the modern sport horse it seems to be happening a lot more often than it used to do in the past. Can you even imagine how on earth you were able to do all the things with your horse years ago without ending up in the hospital? But horses have changed and the competition environment has changed.

The bad advice you get
No matter who you speak to, the most commonly heard advice that so many dressage riders fall victim to, is the ‘just go to more shows’-advice. Just go more often and your horse will get used to the environment. You just have to get in the ‘competition rhythm.’ Well, that’s a myth and I will explain why.

The single one most important thing for a horse is survival. Through survival they are always looking for a position of comfort. When they are put in an environment or situation that reflects danger, the horse reacts from instinct with a certain flight or fight behavior.

As soon as the horse then feels any slight increase in comfort or when the pressure decreases, a horse will then associate that behavior to that situation and a new pattern of behavior is formed.

For example, your horse gets tense at the show and becomes really tight in his body, bracing himself in a state of heightened readiness to flee if necessary. Once you leave the ring, put him back in the trailer or once he gets home to his own stable, the horse will feel a release of pressure and gets comfortable. At that moment, the physical action the horse took to go into the tension state in the ring is then rewarded.

The horse goes into a situation or environment he had no knowledge of, he reacted with a level of flight instinct to protect himself and it worked. He survived! The association behavioral pattern for the shows to survive is formed and next time he will be ready!

You can imagine that when this behavior after a first experience is being repeated, the behavior gets reinforced. The problem is that this will become the associated behavior tot survive at the shows.

Of course, a pattern like this is easily formed on a highly sensitive horse with a high natural level of flight instinct. Horses that have a generally quiet disposition and that are a bit nervous at their first show, this is normal. After a few shows they will probably get used to it and find a level of comfort to be able to do the job. But even then, when you have an incident at the show that causes the horse to lose confidence, this can be a pattern set for long term recurring problems.

A show is like an exam
So what should we do instead? We have to think of every new situating or a situation you want to change as being an exam. To do good in an exam you need to have all the information you need to be able to answer all the questions that will be thrown at you.


“Don’t leave your horse with only the knowledge to survive”


Don’t send your horse into the exam with no knowledge about the things he will experience and no knowledge about what he should do or how he should answer questions that are asked of him, like what to do when you hear a loud applause? Don’t leave him with only the knowledge to survive.

Focusing on the technical skills is an aspect that often gets all of the attention. Preparing your horse for a show means for most riders making sure he knows all of the exercises that are being asked in the test. But that’s only half of the exam!

Most of the things in our human environment when put into a horse’s natural environment would seem life threatening. It’s something the herd should be suspicious of until it’s being investigated. The applause, the plants around the arena, the judge’s box. All those things can be a threat and can trigger the horse’s flight instinct for survival.

Therefore, we shouldn’t forget to mentally prepare a horse for a competition. Your horse will be faced with a lot of things he’s not familiar with and it’s our job to prepare him for that. When you don’t do that and you only focus on the technical aspect, you have 50% covered and you can only hope that the other 50% will turn out right.

The four main things a horse has to know how to respond to are the general pressures of 1. movement, 2. touch, 3. sound and 4. approach (objects approaching the horse and the horse being able to approach strange objects).

Unfortunately, just going to a show over and over will not teach your horse how to respond to these pressures. In the worst case scenario, it only leads to a reinforced pattern of bad behavior, especially when you have a sensitive horse with a natural high level of flight instinct. It’s our responsibility and obligation that we teach our horse the right answers and prepare him for a show. Don’t go to an exam if you’re not prepared.

Click here to learn more about the online program TRT method which teaches you how to prepare your horse for competitions.