I never try and stop my horses from spooking, and I certainly never punish them for it; by moving their feet, yanking the lead, backing them up, etc. A spook is a reflex that the horse has little control over, it's a fear reaction, and correcting your horse for being afraid won't stop your horse from experiencing fear. It will only tell the horse that they need to suppress their fear response because you're bigger and scarier.
They may stop displaying obvious behavioral signs when scared, but they will still be experiencing fear. it'll just be suppressed until one day they can't handle it anymore. Before long you may find yourself in the shoes of many equestrians, saying things like....
"My horse just blew up out of no where! I don't know what happened! We were going along fine and then he just went crazy! He's dangerous and unpredictable!"
Punishing horses for communicating how they feel about a scary situation is like a parent punishing their child for being scared of monsters in their closet. Fear is a VERY real emotional state for both humans and horses that can't be overcome through force. Punishment may temporarily make the child stop whimpering and waking you up in the middle of the night, but that child is still terrified in their bed... hearing and seeing all kinds of monsters coming to eat them in the dark. Punishment did NOT make the child suddenly feel better or get over their fear, it just make the child stop vocalizing their fear. The fear is still there. And actually, it may increase their fear. Fear of the monsters, fear of the dark, and now fear of the parent.
It's no different with horses. If you've punished your horse for being scared, they may stop bolting or rearing, for now, but they are still scared, and likely now scared of you.
It seems common for people to also think that a scared horse is a horse that lacks respect. Respect is defined by the dictionary as "a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements." or "due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others." To begin with, respect shouldn't even belong in the vocabulary of equestrians in regards to horses and their behavior, because this is a human word with human meaning and human abilities. BUT, whether or not you agree... hopefully you agree that you can respect a certain person, such as a parent or teacher, and still feel fear. As a child my fear of the dark wasn't because I didn't respect my parents. I respected my parents more than anyone else, but I still had fears. Respecting them didn't help my fears."Respect" and "feeling safe" have very little to do with each other. Trust on the other hand..... does help. Trust is defined by the dictionary as "believe in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of." or "have faith or confidence". I knew if my parents told me it was safe it probably was, and so I was much more likely to feel at ease with them around then without them, because historically my parents had proven to me that they could keep me safe. I felt safe with them. There was a long history of positive outcomes when my parents told me everything was okay, that I didn't need to worry.
This trust was earned though. Not by them demanding I just get over my fears, making me run laps, or spanking me for being afraid. It was earned by them listening to me, understanding me, helping me learn to cope with fears, and encouraging bravery. Gradually, as I developed confidence through experience and exposure and self soothing techniques, my ability to cope with fears increased and I no longer felt afraid of things that scared me as a child. And all of this was achieved with loving support and guidance by the people that proved to me they could be trusted.... and then, as a byproduct, my respect.
With horses within the herd, it's very much like the child to parent relationship. Horses trust other's of the herd because they keep one another safe just by the instinctive need for protection in numbers. They also guide each other to water, warn one another of predators or potential dangers, lead each other past scary objects, and so on. I've even seen mares protect other mares from new horses introduced into the herd because they perceive this new horse as a threat.
Foals trust their dams not only because they are their mother's, but because their dam teaches them about life. They show the foals who's friend and who's foe, where to eat, where to sleep, what's dangerous, and what's not. They daily build that trustworthy relationship with their offspring.
It's the same for the horse/human relationship. You can't overcome spookiness and fears in horses by "telling" them to get over it. You can't MAKE them stop feeling the way they do about any given situation. You can however be the person that earns your horse's trust and "respect" by preparing your horse to cope with fear, encouraging self soothing techniques, building confidence, rewarding curiosity, and by showing them you are trustworthy through a long history of positive outcomes. Which is exactly what I'm doing in this video.
When he spooks I wait quietly and confidently, in a non reactive way, and then when I feel he's prepared to refocus I offer him a very simple behavior to practice, rewarding that heavily. Then... We just stand there for a minute. I wait for some self soothing behaviors, or behaviors that show me he's returning to a "rest and restore" state. Like a big sigh, lowering his head, licking and chewing, and I reward that! We repeat a few times and then move on to practicing a very simple and relaxing behavior like target following. And that was it! No more spooking. What's great about this is that this horse is a very reactive guy. It's REALLY hard for him to focus after getting worked up, to calm back down. He's even been known to run into people, rear, and kick out when frightened. But the longer we've been working together on the less reactive he's become and the quicker he is to recover.
From being very anxious and sound reactive, to hardly ever spooking and recovering VERY quickly; I'm SO happy with him. He also used to hold on to the nervous stress for a long time, which would often result in him biting at people near by or being WAY too close for safe handling. No more! He's come such a long way, and is a MUCH more confident guy now.
You might ask if this has been a long term change, or what about when he's on lead and not "at liberty"? Yes to both! Yes, this change has been long term. It has been nearly a year since this video and he's even more confident today. He's since gone back to his owner and has been able to build this same kind of trust in her as with me. It's all the same on lead too, while I like to work with more reactive horses at liberty to begin with, once they are more confident and have the necessary coping skills in place, it can all be transferred to situations that involve leads and riders etc.
The moral of the story? If you want a "trustworthy" horse, a horse that is not reactive and unpredictable, you must first be the one that is trustworthy. You can not punish fear and gain trust. Trust is earned, trust is fostered and cultivated, trust is not demanded, trust is built by a history of positive outcomes.
Photo by Danielle Vargo Photography
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