Building A Partnership With Your Horse


lynn palmSince we’ve recently covered how to handle a potential spook from the ground, let’s consider ways to handle the same situation while mounted.

Stop before getting to the potentially spooky object and allow the horse his head so he can see it with both eyes. Once he seems to accept it, take a few steps towards it, stop, and let him look again. If he does not stop but starts “dancing” around, reposition him on the exact point where you asked him stop. Instead of using the “move away from me” command, use your seat, leg, and hand aids to put him back in position.

First, quickly turn him with the inside rein, and just as quickly loosen the outside rein. Keep him turning in as tight a circle as possible until you get control. Be very careful not to keep a tight outside rein. The horse may react to this by rearing. Do not pull on both reins either. The horse will only “run” through the reins. Do not look down at whatever the horse is reacting to, but instead look up and away from it. Hold onto the saddle horn with the same hand that is holding the outside rein.

For example, if the horse spooks and moves to the left, quickly shorten the inside left rein to turn him tightly to the left while loosening the outside right rein held in the right hand. Look over your left shoulder as you turn him to the left. Grasp the saddle horn with the right hand. Keep the horse in as tight a circle or turn as possible until he submits to you and control is regained. Then, go back and address the obstacle again.

If the frightening object is a moving thing, such as a dog, a child, or a bike, let the moving object approach you. Keep your horse facing it at all times. Do not let him turn and bolt. If it feels like this is what he wants to do, dismount. If you are nervous yourself about the object, your horse immediately will sense this. So, if you feel more confident on the ground, by all means dismount. Hold onto the lead rope or longe line that is attached to the halter worn over the bridle (as described in the last article), not the reins, with both hands, and be prepared to check him if he tries to bolt.

If you have a horse that tends to be spooky, go trail riding with a rider with a gentle, “laid back” horse that can give your horse confidence. Another possibility is to teach your horse how to pony on a longe line next to a calm horse.

The next time you plan to go out on the trail with a spooky horse, longe him longer than you did in the past before getting on him for your ride. The goal should be not to get him tired out, but just to make him more humble to accept his new surroundings while on the trail. If possible make arrangements to go out on the trail with another rider mounted on a quiet horse or try ponying your horse with a calm partner.

Another good idea is to hike a trail before taking your horse out on it. Analyze spots where you may need to stop to allow him time to accept questionable objects. By doing this, you will be prepared to help your horse accept spooky obstacles while staying in control of the situation.

Riders must understand that when a horse is taken into a new environment, his level of sensitivity and tendency to overreact will increase. He is being placed in a new situation or being asked to do something he has never done before. Often riders who are surprised at their horse’s spooky reaction will say to me, “my horse has never done this before.” Chances are that is exactly what is causing the spooky behavior. Because the horse has no experience with the situation, he becomes overly sensitive and reactive. It is the rider’s responsibility to anticipate that these situations may happen and be prepared to handle them effectively.

Tips for Dealing with a Spooky Horse

l. Do not look down at the spooky areas. Always look over and beyond obstacles that could have the potential to spook your horse. Why? Because when you look down and have negative thought about the obstacle, the horse picks up these negative feelings. He knows what you are thinking. Give him positive thoughts instead. Say to yourself: “I am going over to the other side of this water crossing.” “I am going to keep my horse responding to my aids and commands.” Be confident and build your horse’s sense of security.

2. If you are hesitant about dealing with issues of spooking, or if you are inexperienced, trail ride in a western saddle.
3. When riding away from the barn or trailer, make sure you and your horse are well exercised and warmed up. Practice “forward” work when you are going away from the barn or trailer. Forward work includes walk to trot, trot to lengthening trot, trot to canter, and yielding at the trot both to the left and right. The more often you change gaits, and speed with gaits (transitions), the more it will improve the horse’s concentration on you rather than him being worried about his surroundings.

4. When coming back to the barn or trailer, or when turning around on the trail to return “home,” do “slow down” work to keep his focus on you rather than mindlessly rushing back and possibly discovering something to spook at. Slow down work includes slow trot to walk, walk to stop, yielding at the walk both right and left, stopping, turn on the haunches and forehand, mounting and dismounting.

5. Do not get frustrated if a horse continues to spook over an object or situation. Some horses simply take longer to get over these issues than others. The longer it takes and the more patient you are, the more you are building a foundation for advancing his training outdoors.

The key to solving the issue of spooking is not allowing the horse to take charge of its rider. If it does, the horse is being allowed to go out on the trail prematurely. Both horse and rider need to go back to work in a big field or arena until they gain more confidence and skill together. If spookiness is becoming a safety issue or a constant frustration, then you need to be realistic and consider choosing a different horse, at least for trail riding.

My E-Book, Training Outside the Box, is available online at along with other valuable training product. You also may contact us at 800-503-2824.