How I mostly de-spooked my horse!
Comet, the red headed devil that adorns many of this website’s articles, is a giant hot headed maniac. Well, at least he used to be. Spinning, bolting, and generally freaking out at scary things was his go-to reaction for life. And by scary things I mean all things real and all things imaginary. Loose in a paddock, being led, under saddle. As a young horse, I thought it was a phase, he would get older and wiser! As a slightly older horse, this was certainly the case, but the perfect storm of circumstances entered our lives and we both snapped. After being an outside horse for his entire life, I brought him to a barn for partial stall living. He developed some hock issues that certainly made him uncomfortable, and a slew of other factors pushed us both over the edge. I no longer knew how to handle him, his outbursts were dangerous and escalating, and despite the best medical care I was unable to help his mental state. His spooky younger years were replaced with sheer panic and a terrifying disregard for my safety and his own safety. Many BNT’s suggest I ride harder, make him do things, make him to “get over himself”, ride him away from the scary stuff, don’t let him see stuff, don’t let him turn away. I found it cruel to even think about trying these tactics as I could feel his heart thumping in a panic through my tack.
I’m a person who likes a plan, so I made one. I aggressively addressed his hock issues, I found him a big giant pasture at a retirement farm, I set out to see what I could do about the mentally unglued stuff.
I found a book, You Can Train Your Horse To Do Anything, by Shawna and Vinton Karrash. It’s easy to call this book “clicker training”, but it’s anything but - it’s a different way to communicate with your horse, based on reward reinforcement. And I thought it was bunk. But, by the end of the first chapter I was starting to see a dim light at the end of the tunnel.
I also like step by step instructions, so I would read a chapter a few times, then go to the barn and try it out. Luckily Comet, despite his mental state, was still whip smart and very food motivated. The first thing I taught him was “look away”. It took me about five minutes total over two days. We learned other “tricks”. He could touch the target wherever it was, he could back up, he could walk *mostly* calmly next to me and stay there. He could lift legs that I pointed at, he could touch the bucket or ball or trough.
After months of this inconsistent work, as he was far away in a retirement pasture, I started to ride him for about 20 minutes once a week. I brought the clicker with me, and if he did any good thing, he would get a click.
This is Comet and I swimming last summer, years ago the mere thought of stepping in water would send him into a panic.
It was inevitable that one day he would freak out when I was walking him or taking him for a trail ride. And he did. And then I realized I may be able to modify his reactions using the clicker. I literally re-wired his brain. Over time, he learned that when something scary appeared, he would get rewarded if he just stood still. Then he would get a click if he took a breath. And then a click for taking one step towards it. And then a click for taking two or more steps towards it. Over months, he went from spinning and bolting to fearlessly walking up to objects or new things and putting his nose directly on them.
This weird pole with flappy orange strings was no match for the targeting horse!
Think your horse would go up to the garbage truck and put his nose on it? Comet has. With the help of some very nice workers who agreed to leave the truck running but not moving as we investigated.
Somewhere along the way I stopped using the clicker, but you should see his face if I find it at the bottom of my grooming bin and give it a click. I learned a lot from this experiment, namely that “clicker training” is not really about teaching your horse tricks, it’s about this new way of communicating with your horse. He and I were able to replace the fear, panic, and racing heart beat with curiosity and a desire to make good decisions and get rewards. He occasionally gets caught off guard and will start to spook, and the mere utterance of the word “target” puts him at ease, as he knows he is safe.
The once terrifying, horse eating cats of the world are now something that Comet can "target".
His new way of thinking and trusting in me and himself carries over into every aspect of his life. Riding is delightful, we are working bitless, he can do many things bridleless also. He actually seeks out things to put his nose on, this is great fun as we explore new barns, shows, and trails.
This experience, over many years, has made it crystal clear that many of our riding and handling issues exist because we don’t want to spend the time finding a way to communicate with our horses. Flip what you may think is right on it’s head, read the book, and see what amazing things you can do with your horse.