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 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.