I had an interesting chat with a friend the other day who was expressing a little frustration about her horse getting spooky again.
After some discussion, she realized that she had become a little direct line again with dressage and was not helping her horse’s confidence by respecting thresholds and doing enough on the ground with longer lines. In fact as we talked about it, she kept saying “yep, I did that, I did that…”, all the right things, but then we came to something she should not have done – she would walk the horse up to the one part of the arena that was spooky and get him see that there was nothing there.
It is so easy to think that horses will respond to logic, but they don’t! In fact, they do much better if you ignore what they are spooking about, focus on an exercise or task, don’t cross thresholds and use the principle of retreat. For example, say you are riding in the arena and you can feel your horse worrying as you approach that spooky end. Instead of pressing them forwards and over the rapidly mounting thresholds, turn away. Go across the arena to the other side, or do a 180 turn and go back the other way. Do it as soon as you feel the threshold or even better do it before the threshold… which is easy if you have already experienced where that is!
This is how retreat and reapproach works. You just keep avoiding/retreating from that spot until suddenly your horse doesn’t have an issue any more and soon you’ll be able to go a few feet further before turning off. Then one day, your horse will actually want to take you over there. It’s amazing how that works! Of course you can do the same on the ground, do it on long lines – preferably a 22 or even a 45 line. That way they are further away from you which helps grow their self confidence… and most importantly, don’t just send them there. Play long distance Squeeze Games and changes of direction on the circle, a lot like you would do if riding.
Here’s why it works: your horse’s fear will subside instead of escalate, and he will start to have more confidence in you! I think of thresholds being like the edge of a cliff. The closer you get, the more the fear escalates and if you push them over the threshold it’s like pushing them over the cliff. Sometimes the horse’s fear reaction is terribly violent and horses and humans can get hurt in the process, so it’s just not worth it. And it does not make horses better to push them over thresholds, it gets worse. Sometimes you don’t even notice it until all of sudden, “for no reason at all” your horse blows up.
It’s not about the spooky spot, it’s about your relationship and your leadership. When your horse knows he can trust you, he will stop being afraid… but it is your job as leader to look out for him all the time, only then will he start trusting you and not worry about things like he used to.
Some of the biggest thresholds I’ve had to get Remmer over in years gone by have been to do with being in foreign environments, such as going on trail rides… even on or around our property! But when I started to really respect them, he changed and kept building confidence and more trust in me. It’s wonderful how I can take him anywhere in the country now and he doesn’t turn a hair… but if he does, I do the right thing, right away. If I don’t he can be pretty explosive, and that’s not fun to ride but worse still, it’s awful for him emotionally speaking. And… I totally get that it is my job to take care of him or why should he continue to trust me as his leader?
In the end, I told my friend that she can’t just be a rider… she has to be a ‘trainer’ too. That means that when your horse has trouble you need to forget trying to work on the things you think are important and work on the things your horse thinks are important. When your horse is calm and confident you can do a lot of things, but when he’s not you can’t… so fix it or you’re in danger. What does Pat say? “Take the time it takes so it takes less time”. Otherwise you find yourself dealing with the same thing over and over and over again.
What have been some thresholds you helped your horse overcome?