Sunday, July 31, 2011


Indigo is a pretty brave horse. Shes never said to me "I WON'T". She might hesitate for a moment or give a few spooks. She trusts me and knows where her own feet are and finds her way through anything I have pointed her at with a little encouragement.

Last night I seen her old owner and we had a chat about this spotted pill. Her husband used to ride Indigo. He just wanted to, as she described it "John Wayne", get on the horse and toddle down the trail. Indigo is perfect in an arena or any controlled environment. She most certainly is not a dude ranch trail horse and likely will never be. The only problem is Indigo has an addiction on the trails. Indigo is a spookaholic.

Every person walking in the distance, every bird in a bush, every manhole, asphalt spot on the road or kid on a swing is a potential horse eating monster.
She does the classic dive to the side or the rocket ahead when a bird comes darting out of the bushes. The thing is with Indigo this horse never misses a beat; she sees EVERYTHING.

If you notice every picture I have taken off her back her ears are forward.

When shes in the barn she might fall asleep for a minute only to pirk up suddenly and stare with great interest out the door. She hears every sound, every cat fight and every bird (more on birds later), and probably every mouse. I often startle her when I just walk around the barn and the wind is blowing in the right direction she didn't hear me holler for her before appearing. She jumps, whips her head up, flares her nostrils and bugs her eyes at me, then stares, alternating her ears between whats going on around her and me. After a nicker and studying me for a few seconds she comes over. None of the other horses jump. They look and then continue eating.

Her biggest fear is birds. I don't mean she sees one flying in the air and goes postal. She hates when they flap in bushes. She especially hates when they fly out in any general direction. Don't even get her started on ducks in ditches. They quite possibly might be the end of the world. When all this erupts she just wants to get the hell out of Dodge.

I remember letting a friend ride her a few years ago. This friend has a good seat but not a lot of horsemanship knowledge. Fast forward a mile down the lane and bushes appear. Indigo spooks, my friend reprimands her. Indigo spooks, my friend reprimands her. Lather, rinse, repeat. I mean lather. By the end of that ride Indigo was spooking at things she normally wouldn't give a second glance to. We switched horses.
So I thought about my friends approach as well as many other riders who I have ridden with that had the same reaction to a horse spooking: punishment. Now I know some riders will disagree and say sometimes horses spook to get out of doing work. I do not necessarily agree with that because when you stop work and focus on reprimanding the horse spooking your giving the horse what it want's; an escape from work.

I often talk about how much people teach me about horses. I don't mean sitting there watching someone working with a horse, I mean watching people interact. Maverick and I were at this amusement park called worlds of fun. We just got on this ride called boomerang and a man and his young daughter got in the cart behind us. The young girl was totally terrified. Instead of the dad going "it's going to be ok, it's just a ride" he was bullying her "I don't know what your so scared of, quit crying, STOP IT, ENOUGH, YOUR JUST FINE" telling the girl how she felt when obviously she was scared. About this time the girl was bawling her eyes out and the ride attendants were telling the man she cannot ride because obviously she was that upset. They got the girl off the ride and she went down the off ramp and the father rode the ride alone. We sat there shaking our heads. After we got off the dad caught up with his daughter who's eyes were now dry. He continued to shatter her confidence and respect in him by telling her he couldn't believe she didn't ride and it wasn't even the scariest ride there and she couldn't expect to ride other rides if she couldn't go on that one. Parenting at it's finest.

So backtrack to riders punishing their horses for spooking. Put yourself in the role of that parent and your horse in the role of that girl. By the sounds of the conversation that girl had been on rollercosters before. Maybe your horse has been on trails. Obviously something about that rollercoaster scared the girl. Maybe something about the trail your horse has been on is scary today. Are you going to be the parent who bullies and scares his kids or the rider who pats their horse and tells them it's going to be all right?

So putting this into perspective what do you think will give a kid/horse more respect and confidence in you? Grabbing at the reins and getting upset, making the kid go on the rollercoaster or praise and encouragement?

It takes a long time to make a confirmed spookaholic come clean but it's possible.


Dom said...

Rayzer has the same issue with birds. It kind of annoys me. The only bird Ozzy was ever afraid of was a great blue heron, and that's only because we slid down a bank and nearly landed on it so it came up from under him, great wings a flappin'.

Anonymous said...

I think punishing a horse for spooking just confirms for the horse that they were right to be worried and on edge, and it destroys trust. I just try (more successfully some times than others) to stay calm and keep actively riding.

That said, I think some horses are so reactive - although we can help them become less reactive - my Dawn comes to mind - that they really aren't safe to ride on the trail unless you've got the fabled glue-on seat, which I don't.

Sydney said...

Oh dear! Herons make the most awful squawking noise! I'll never forget the time I rode Indigo to the lake and there was one screeching at the creek. She just about lost her marbles over the noise.

Jeni said...

I agree with everything you say - parenting and getting a worried horse through the tough moments.

My question is - what makes a horse spookier than the other? Breed, training, or something else?

Obviously Arabians, TB's are by nature much more reactive to things. Your Indigo and my arab I had as a teenager are perfect examples of that. Wind blowing a different direction which turned that blade of grass a different way than yesterday can easily upset them. Why? In these two examples it's not lack of training.

Between my two mares - Bonnie is a QH/Paint type. She has always been reactive - often over reactive - to things on the trail. Some days less then others but never a "relaxing" ride for the rider. Rosie - Percheron/Belgian -- Her only thing is shaded ditches and it's not a spook - its a refusal. Not sure why but working on a theory that involves vision. Beyond that she's NEVER spooked on the trail, in the arena, anywhere.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

I think some horses just never get past being spookaholics. It takes a special rider to understand how to deal with that kind of horse for sure. And it sounds like you're that kind of rider for Indigo.

Apache rarely spooks anywhere, and when she does it's a spook in place, or she take a few steps and then wants to check out what spooked her. She's a mart cookie for sure.
In my history with her while dealing with spooky stuff out on the trails, it just takes me telling her, "Oh, it's just another rider up there", or "It's just an ATV revving up behind us", or it's just a squirrel over there" and she instantly relaxes and moves on. She doesn't waste her energy on spooking all the time.

I'm grateful for her because my previous horse always spooked and took off and asked questions later. Nothing I could say to her or do could help her find her senses, use the thinking side of her brain and calm down.
I often felt like I was riding a ticking time bomb, which makes for a pins-on-needles kind of ride.


Mary said...

Like Jeni said, there may be a vision or other sensory issue too. Either more accute or not enough. who knows. At least you can give her the confidence needed to move on and not have your own shattered. That's really good.

Breathe said...

I have ridden spook prone horses and now a young horse who is insecure at times. The only thing I have found to help is what you do after. I don't correct, I encourage curiosity. Once I had my pintabian touching things with his nose for a cookie , he nearly stopped spooking. But punishment didn't work, just gave me an illusion of control.

Caitlin said...

Rose, my arabian mare, used to be a spooky when I first got her. Lost my seat more times that I care to admit to her sudden spin or sideways bolt. Many, many hours of desensitization training and slowly introducing all sorts of new stimuli we're now at the point that she'll usually only dance in place a little or stop dead. Most of the time if something is "snort and blow" worthy in her book I encourage her to either walk up to it and sniff it or at least make an honest attempt to get to it. If its something sudden like a bird or deer I start talking to her or singing... she calms down pretty fast and anyone within earshot can be amused by my dialog. It works for us.

banagade said...

I have an abused mare that I've been working with for almost two years now. I can't get a snaffle bit in her mouth because big name trainer went and tore her mouth to shreds. When she spooked at something and knocked BNT off... BNT beat her in the face almost causing her to lose an eye.

Result? I have a mare that's scared of everything.

In the past two years we've learned to tolerate her own flatulence (yeah there's really no "fix" to that one but ride it out as she lets it rip, bolts then spins around to snort at it.) birds, grass, sticks, wind, rabbits...

We can trail ride without full out spook sessions and I actually was able to take her to a clinic earlier this year ... something I never thought I'd be able to do because she was terrified of everything.

You're right. Nothing but praise and encouragement could be given to a horse this spooky. Had I just torn into her like her previous trainer, I'd have destroyed her mind completely. Ol' Weeper still has a way to go... and I think she'll forever be a one person horse (unless you can tolerate her random jumpyness, sit her whirlarounds, and be prepared for a sudden halt, leap, and twist in the air)

Two years and we're still working on it but I'm glad I was persistant and patient. I never thought she'd get this far... who knows with the same sort of positive reinforcement how far she'll continue to go?

Good luck.

Dreaming said...

Nice comparison - spooking and parenting tactics!

Sometimes I think smarter horses spook. They see things and read something into what they see, or they can compare that situation to something they remember previously.

Carol N' Griffin said...

Excellent post!

I have met only a few folks that have reprimanded their horses for spooking....and I can't say I ever quite understood that frame of mind...but...well -- to each his own, I guess.

My boy can be a spookaholic as well (especially in strange places). He has come a long way from the horse that spooked at strange looking rocks and squirrels in trees when I first got him.(I suspect during his racing career, he spent very little time away from the city).

If I had reprimanded Griffin for everything he was afraid of when I got him, it would only have made things worse. I probably would have never been able to ride him had I done that.

When spooks happen, I just them happen. I don't usually make any issue of it unless Grif is really REALLY scared of something to the point where he is having trouble getting it out of his mind (which does happen occasionally). In such cases, I just backtrack to a point where he is comfortable and we work on some exercises he knows well to get his focus on something else. Once he is calm, we gradually work back towards the scary object. I don't see it as getting out of work -- just re-directing the work :)

achieve1dream said...

That is a really fantastic comparison! I wish I knew how to use analogies to explain myself better. :)

Jen said...

I had the same thought Kate did; that punishment merely results in reinforcing the thought that there was something to be afraid of in the first place.

For the most part (almost always) ours tend to look at me first to see if it is "time to panic". Thus far, the answer has always been No. Usually it's a sudden noise or movement that startles me too; so we all/both jump, I laugh and then we have a little scratch or a couple of pats and go on about our business.

Merri said...

lordy, that could almost be our horse Mac! he used to not be spooky - now he is. it's maddening. when he follows, he's fine. when you ask him to lead, he gets balky then completely changes into another horse when he's in front. walks like a stiff-legged cat ready to jump, and he jumps from EVERYTHING. but he's not afraid of things. part of it is attitude, and i think part of it is because he just followed/s horses for so long. i just don't know how to get him over this and i have to admit it IRRITATES me. he is different when a much heavier guy is on his back. he's a little spooky but much more forward. is it because I weight as much as a mosquito??? is it because I'm a terrible rider??? he used to not be like this. he is not spooky or balky if he's out walking by himself with no rider. he makes me mad so I tend to act more like the bad father. but he used to not be like this! argh!
- The Equestrian Vagabond

Grey Horse Matters said...

Indigo sounds exactly like my horse Erik used to be. He spooked at everything so I rarely took him out on trails because he was mindless when he spooked and there was no reasoning with him. I don't believe in punishing a horse for spooking, he's scared and punishing him isn't going to help the situation any. Once they calm down I basically try to show them that there was nothing to worry about, even getting off and hand walking past things for a sniff or a look-see.

Of course, he probably never trusted me after an entire flock of quail flew up in his face just as he jumped a jump in the hunter ring. Believe it or not he got first that day even with the spook because the judge said it was something that could actually happen in the field.

As for 'parent of the year' somebody should find something he's afraid of and belittle him and badger him into doing it and let him see how it feels. Jackass.

Kate said...

Hey, just stopping by to say thank you for the comment on my entry about saddle pads, and answer your question about the FB account. I posted them on my personal FB account but I plan on starting an Etsy store in the near future if business really picks up, and I will post all of the new designs on my blog. Thanks again! Your horse is lovely!

Amish Stories said...

Greetings folks from the Amish community of Lebanon county. Richard from Amish Stories.

allhorsestuff said...

Well, that is a good comparison. The different personalities of the horse comes into play, as well as its rider, I think. Meaning ...there is the horse.and its personality then there is the rider. Each one lends or retards...and both may grow a little but basically, I think a horse is who he is and same for the rider.

My mare has taught me so much about spooksand spooky times. She has never lied to me about something spookworthy. The bear was there the cougar had been around...the storm was coming.
She's TB and she thinks hard....but rarely makes things up. I'm blessed with her, she is pretty honest.
So is Indigo...honestly sensitive to all of het surrounds!

Kristen Eleni Shellenbarger said...

In the wild, our spookaholics would live a long life. :) I agree, silly to punish. I try to not over react (body, gripping) and just laugh it off, not always easy. I think the spook in place, are FAB and the spook dart/dash/side jumps suck. ;)
Also, I used to ride an Arab mare when I led trail rides for a summer and I swear, when she was bored, she would spook to give herself something to do and to look pretty.

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