De-spooking Your Horse
I have a 4 year old Belgian that I ride. He is pretty solid, but as a young horse he does spook occasionally. I have been trying you method of leading him up to a scary object a step at a time and it works very well (especially with the horse eating manure spreader!). My question is, if he spooks and wheels out away from me do I just continue on with what I'm doing as if nothing happened or should I stop and try to calm him down and back him up to a safe spot? He has some space issues which we are working on and he has come along way, so at least if he gets scared he moves his back end away from me instead of into me. We just started him under saddle last year, so we both have a lot of work to do.
I think it is really important, whether dealing with a spooking horse or any horse that you learn to control the horse's nose. The horse should be keeping his nose in front of his chest when you are working with him. Whether on the ground or in the saddle, the horse should keep his nose in front of his chest, unless you ask it to move elsewhere.
Twenty-three hours a day he can do whatever he wants with his nose, but when I am around, it must stay in front of his chest. In order to be in total control of the horse, you must control all of his body: his nose, his feet, his shoulder and his hip. Nose control is a very fundamental part of groundwork and riding work. My horses learn in very short order that when I am around or I am riding, his nose must stay in place. They learn then because I give a gentle but persistent correction with the lead rope or one rein every time the nose moves from center.
Once you gain nose control over the horse on the ground and riding, then when he spooks, you should make him face what he is afraid of. Never let him turn away because if he does, his flight response is likely kick in and he may bolt. To de-spook a horse, I use a multi-faceted approach, first, he must face his fear; secondly, I will stop him before he stops himself so that I maintain control over the horse's actions and I give him a moment to settle, relax and take a deep breath. Third, I will ask him to approach the scary object, taking only one step before I ask him to stop again for the same reasons as above. The worst thing you can do is force a horse up to a scary object too soon and overwhelm the horse so that he starts taking actions on his own and you lose control.
In very short order, this routine becomes a game to the horse. Because every time he takes a step toward what he is afraid of, he gets a big rub on the neck and a big fuss made over him. Gradually he gains courage and his ultimate reward comes when he actually reaches out and touches whatever he is afraid of; then he can depart.
Keep up the good work!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host