Lions, Tigers and Bears in the Woods

There’s someone on the Chronicle of the Horse Forum with the signature line: My horse is only afraid of two things: 1) things that move and 2) things that don’t move. I had a day like that recently.

Lions, Tigers and Bears - oh my!
Lions, Tigers and Bears - oh my!

It was very windy today with the gusts blowing leaves everywhere. Freedom has only just gone back into work, having had about a week off after hurting himself in the mud. So today he was looking at everything, giving snorts of fake fear and even spooking at the odd scary rock. He’s a pretty brave horse usually, so some of his antics were just high spirits, but there are other horses that just seem to be in a constant state of high alert.

I always joked that my mare, Dezzi, would have survived a long time in the wild. She could spot a horse eating squirrel a quarter of a mile down a trail. Take her out into the open and she constantly scanned the horizon for danger. When she spotted something strange, she would freeze, then turn and try to bolt.

Over time, she improved. She was never a horse that I felt was completely comfortable on the trail, but repeated exposure desensitized her so that she spooked less and became immobile less frequently.

So, what makes a horse brave? To a certain extent it’s their inherent personality. Some horses are just more curious than scared. I think their fear reaction under saddle also depends on how much they trust their rider. Over time, your horse learns to do what you ask and is confident that you won’t put it in danger.

One of my favorite Kroni stories is about a time I got lost while riding in Vermont. I had gone out for a short hack one evening, thinking that I had planned a loop on the dirt roads near our rental house. Ninety minutes later, I realized that we were not headed home. Rather, we were on a dirt road surrounded by fields. Dusk was falling quickly and I was looking for a house so that I could call my husband.

A herd of cattle ran across their field to investigate, stopped only by a strand of barbed wire.
A herd of cattle ran across their field to investigate, stopped only by a strand of barbed wire.

As we were ambling down this road, a herd of heifers saw us from across the field. Curious, they ran straight toward us to investigate. Kroni wasn’t particularly used to cattle, and being charged was not an every day experience. However, he stood his ground even though he was shaking like a leaf. When he finally figured out that they were going to stay on the other side of the strand of barbed wire, he walked off with dignity.

So, how can you teach your horse to be brave? You can help a horse learn to control his anxiety by taking several steps:

  • Work with your horse on the ground first to create a relationship of confidence. Your horse should trust you to only ask him to do things that are safe.
  • Gradually increase the “risks” you want your horse to take. Always praise your horse for his efforts, even if they are only incremental steps.
  • Start introducing “scary” objects to your horse on the ground before approaching it under saddle.
  • When your horse gets scared, stay calm. You want your horse to start looking to you for his safety and you need to give him confidence. Talk soothingly to him and stroke his neck to help him stay calm.
  • Don’t get angry at your horse if he spooks. Losing your temper only makes a horse more excited.
  • If you know your horse is likely to be scared by something (such as crossing a stream), try going with a more experienced horse and let your horse follow him back and forth a few times.
  • If your horse doesn’t want to approach something, distract him by asking him to leg yield, circle or back up. If your horse starts to focus on you, he may forget what’s scaring him.
  • If your horse is a spook and bolt type, learn how to do a one rein stop. Once you know that you can control your horse if he does run, you will have more confidence riding out.
  • Most of all, be patient. It takes time for a horse to give up centuries of instinctual response and become a true partner.

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