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Rider Fear

Letter to Jessica

From: Ellen
Subject: spooking, rider fear, and horse learning

Dear Jessica,

I have been searching through the horse sense archives, but I can't find an answer to my question. Now I am not sure how to ask this so it's a bit difficult to search for an answer ;-) You seem to have a great understanding of horse (and human!) psychology, so I really hope you can help me!

My question is 'in short': how fast does a horse learn 'bad habits'?

I guess I will give a little background info first. I am no hero when it comes to riding (understatement!). And yet I love it...Three years ago we (my boyfriend and I) bought a 25-year old horse (the barn where we were getting our riding lessons closed and she was kind of a
'left-over'). She is a wonderful, healthy and well-behaved horse and she taught me very much about horses and riding these past three years. But I am still sometimes really scared, although I know there is no good reason for it (but that is something I know when I am on the ground nót when I am in the saddle).

When I do not feel secure before I start riding, I don't ride. I just groom, walk, lunge or play with her in the paddock. (I am never afraid when I'm on the ground (not even if she is a little too exited).) That's not the problem. But sometimes I feel 'good', saddle up and start riding and then 'the trouble starts'. My horse is a very forward going horse and is rather sensitive. When something 'strange' happens (sudden noise, a horse leaves the barn, etc.) she spooks and gets very tense. The next five minutes everything else that happens (even things that normally don't bother her at all) is a good reason for spooking and/of running away. And that is when I get scared!!!

Now my question: when this happens I want to get off my horse a.s.a.p. But I always stay on and keep trying until she is (a little) relaxed again. That something takes quite some time, because I'm scared and she feels that and gets scared because I'm scared, etc., etc. But I don't want to stop because I am worried that she might 'learn to think': "when I am running and spooking, my rider gets off and I can go back to my stable." So when I quit today, I am afraid that tomorrow she will just put her head up and start running because she knows I quit again, etc.

Do you think that will happen? When does a horse 'connect' running and spooking with a rider getting scared and stopping? Will she learn to be annoying just to avoid having to work???

Now my horse is usually very willing to work (she really likes to do dressage!), is always happy to see me and doesn't mind being saddled and riding at all. So maybe I worry to much, but still I do...

What is your advice: keep at it (although I'm scared to death) or simply stop and try again tomorrow???

I hope you can help!


Hi Ellen! I changed your subject line, because horses learn in the same way whether we choose to label what they learn as "good" or "bad". It's easy to create a habit in a horse - whether we like the habit or not is another matter.

Trust yourself. When you're scared, there's a reason for it, and there's no point in telling yourself NOT to be afraid when you're sitting on a spooking horse. It's perfectly sensible of you to be scared when you're on top of 1,000 pounds of horse that is bouncing and fussing and taking no
notice of you. You like your horse very much, that's obvious, so I expect that what frightens you is partly the possibility of getting hurt (always a very sensible concern around horses), and mostly the reality of being high in the air and NOT in control, and of wondering how and when you will get back in control.

Since your mare comes back to herself and listens to you again when you get past those initial five minutes of silliness (which, if you time it, may prove to be more like ONE minute - it just seems longer when you hold your breath), and since during those five minutes she doesn't actually rear,
buck, or attempt to scrape you off on the wall, I would say that you're participating in a classic feedback loop! Your mare startles at a sudden noise or motion, YOU startle because SHE is startled, SHE becomes more anxious, YOU become more anxious, and then you suddenly say to yourself "Oh, no, I must make myself calm and stay on this horse, I can't get off, as that will teach her that becoming anxious and dancing around is a profitable behaviour". Alternatively, YOU may start the whole process by noticing that another horse is leaving the barn, or by hearing a noise that you think will cause your mare to spook - this makes YOU become tense and apprehensive, so YOU hold your breath and become rigid, at which point your mare, rather cooperatively, spooks, and the two of you proceed as above.

Your mare may or may not be in the habit of spooking with you - either way, you will need to take a slightly different approach to the problem. It's probably better not to think in terms of getting rid of a habit, because you never DO get ride a habit in the sense of erasing all previous
behaviours and erasing the memory of the habit. Instead, think in terms of establishing a new, stronger habit - by teaching the horse a different behaviour and repeating the lesson until the new behaviour becomes a habit. The success you will have in retraining any horse depends largely on how well you understand this.

Example: A young racehorse at the race track learns, from repeated experience, that on race days, it will be saddled and mounted whilst it is moving - NOT a bad habit, just a habit, and one that is perfectly acceptable, in fact absolutely NORMAL, from the trainer's and jockey's point of view. When the horse's racing career is over, it begins a new life with a rider who wants to do, say, dressage or eventing. The new rider, perfectly understandably, wants the horse to stand still for saddling and mounting. At this point, if the horse moves off whilst the rider is trying to mount, the rider can choose to PUNISH the horse for "being bad", which the horse will understand only as a sudden personal attack from the rider, or the rider can choose to begin TEACHING the horse the desired behaviour, by asking the horse to stand, rewarding each still moment, and asking the
horse to stand again when the horse starts to move off.

From the horse's point of view, neither moving off nor standing still is "better" in the sense of being "more moral" or "more ethical" or "superior" - the horse doesn't understand that. The horse DOES understand consequences, though, and when it learns that a particular behaviour - in
this case, standing still when asked - has pleasant consequences, that's a behaviour that the horse will learn to repeat. The rider who understands this will have little difficulty retraining the horse.

It's important for you to understand WHY horses do the things they do. A horse that learns that the rider will get off whenever the horse bucks, or rears, or stands still and refuses to move, is usually a horse that did those things for another reason (usually fear, confusion, or a combination
of the two), and then learned that these were behaviours that humans WANT. That's an important distinction - it's not a matter of a horse thinking "I'll be very bad and the human will get mad and go away", it's a matter of a horse remembering "The last time I did this, I got something very nice
for doing it!"

Getting off and taking off the tack is actually a very useful training tool, and it's brilliant as a reinforcer if your horse has just that second done something that you really wanted it to do, or shown that it's getting the idea of doing something that you really wanted it to do. On the other
hand, getting off and removing the tack is not a convenient way to reinforce a behaviour if you happen to be a few miles from home, or even if you're AT home but just beginning your ride. ;-)

I don't think that your mare is in any danger of learning to spook to get out of work, for two reasons: First, you aren't dismounting and putting her away when she spooks, you are dealing with her in the best possible way, by trying to calm her, and by staying on board until she is calm again. Second, she enjoys her work and has no reason to want to avoid it. All of this speaks very well for your horsemanship, by the way!

So, why will she spook? She will spook if she is not paying proper attention to you, and thus is easily distracted. She will spook if there is some benefit to her - even if you can't quite figure out what that benefit might be. She will spook if she thinks you WANT her to spook - if she is
rewarded for spooking. And she will spook if YOU spook first, even if you are just spooking because you think that SHE is going to spook. ;-)

One at a time, then.

If your mare is paying attention to you, REALLY paying attention to you, she won't have much left for anything else. If she is totally focused on you, she won't spook - she may look at something, or flick an ear at something, but she won't spook. If she is almost totally focused on you, and if she is in the HABIT of keeping her focus on you, she may spook briefly at a sudden movement or sound, but it will be just for a heartbeat, and then her focus will be on you again. There's a trick to this, though - her focus will be on you to the same degree that your focus is on her. If you are thinking about every movement of yours and hers, every breath, every footfall, and maintaining a constant, close dialogue with her, any spook is likely to be, at most, a mild 'ACK!' that may not even cause her to take a single fast step. If you are daydreaming, not paying close
attention to your riding or to your horse, or are thinking about other things and perhaps looking around for things that might possibly cause your horse to spook, then.... she'll spook, because your mind isn't on her, and hers isn't going to be on you. So practice keeping your attention on her, and asking for her attention in return. You'll find that it's much easier to hold her attention when your own attention is on her IN THE MOMENT - because that is where she is.

Sometimes, when a horse is bored or becoming uncomfortable, a spook provides all sorts of lovely entertainment. It gets back the rider's attention, and it affords the horse a chance to change direction or pace or speed or frame. If a horse routinely spooks after ten minutes at a trot, for instance, and always takes the reins away from the rider when it spooks, it's almost invariably because the horse has given up on more subtle (and unsuccessful) ways to tell the rider about its discomfort, and has found that the only way to get enough rein to accomplish a badly-needed
neck stretch is to bounce suddenly and then lean against the bit. The solution here is to listen to the horse in the first place, notice when it is beginning to become uncomfortable and offer it a change of pace or speed or frame, or a chance to stretch, so that it will never need to DEMAND one by taking the rein away from you.

If you have, in the past, rewarded a spook by dropping the reins and patting or caressing the horse, or by dropping the reins and stopping the horse, or by doing anything else comforting that the horse may, quite reasonably, have construed as a reward, you may have inadvertently TAUGHT the horse that this is a behaviour you appreciate and enjoy. If you teach your mare that spooking means "time out, relax, I'll pat your neck and talk softly to you", then why on earth WOULDN'T she spook?

If you are always aware that your horse MIGHT spook, and you are afraid of what will happen if she DOES spook, then you are likely to be constantly looking out for anything that might cause your mare to spook, and if you have even a nanosecond of worry or anxiety or fear when you find something like that, YOUR spook is probably preceding hers. She's a herd animal, and when you're riding her, you're all the herd she has - if you spook, she will spook. It takes a very mature, secure animal to carry a spooking rider and act out the horse equivalent of "There, there, you're fine, nothing's wrong." Most horses don't do this. The ones who DO are usually in great demand as school horses, worth their weight in gold, and generally priced accordingly. ;-)

In any case, there are ways around all of these causes, but it does help to figure out which one (or ones) may be causing the spooking in your case. When you've figured that out, you'll be better able to eliminate it. In the meantime, I'll give you a wonderful exercise that can be tweaked and used for a huge number of purposes - in this case, it's a grand anti-spooking exercise. But before I describe it, I'm going to give you homework to do OFF the horse and then ON the horse as well. BREATHE. The lovely thing about deep breathing is that as long as you are doing it, you CANNOT become tense. Practice when you're off the horse. Learn the basic technique from a
video if you need to - it wouldn't hurt to start making regular use of a yoga or Tai Chi video in any case, since the breathing and slow, coordinated, gentle movement is precisely what riders need. But above all, practice the breathing. Do breathing exercises off your horse, at the table, at your desk, in your car, when you watch televsion - ALL the time. Practice breathing deeply and slowly whenever you are upset or angry or startled. Make it your HABIT to react to surprises with deep breathing. It's good for you anyway, and the benefits to your riding will be truly

When you're ON the horse, practice the same exercises, and notice how the breathing that makes YOU calm and steady will invariably make your horse calm and steady as well. Do it at a standstill, at a walk, at a trot, at a canter - find a rhythm that corresponds to your horse's stride, and breathe deeply and slowly at all three gaits.

Here's your specific exercise, so that you will have a plan and know precisely what you are going to do as soon as your mare becomes tense and nervous. Whatever you do should (a) keep her busy, (b) allow you to sit up straight and breathe deeply, and (c) NOT be either a reward or a
punishment. You're not going to praise or condemn her tension and nervousness, you're not even going to let on (to yourself or to your horse) that you even NOTICE her tension and nervousness, you're simply going to ask her to show you something else instead.

What can you do? First, I'm sure that you can sense the moment BEFORE your mare becomes tense and bouncy. Let's assume that you are riding around the arena, tracking left, when this hpapens. All is well - then someone takes another horse out of the barn, and you feel your mare become tense. When this happens, instead of YOU becoming tense and holding your breath, which is what you are currently doing, I'd like you to sit tall, take a very deep breath, and let it out VERY SLOWLY. Then take another, and another. At the same time, whilst you are sitting up and breathing, ask your mare to bend smoothly to the left for a few steps, as though you were intending to ask her to circle left, then straighten her and ride her absolutely straight for one step, then ask her to bend smoothly to the right for a few steps, then straighten again, bend left, straighten, bend right, etc., etc.

Pay attention to your breathing (remember the breathing?) and to your horse. If she bends nicely - if she's listening to you - tell her "Good girl", and immediately ask her to straighten and then to pick up the next bend. Praise her and lengthen the reins a little when she tries; if she doesn't listen, lengthen your reins a little and ask again. If your reins keep getting longer, GOOD - if you're doing this correctly, she will follow the bit, looking for that comforting contact, and you will feel her neck becoming longer and longer.

This is a very good exercise for both of you, together and separately. It will help you improve the coordination of your aids (and their subtlety) and your breathing. It will help her stretch and loosen her neck and back, gently, it will help her relax emotionally, and it will help her mentally by reminding her to pay constant attention to you. It will also, and not in the least coincidentally, make you pay attention to HER - not to what you think she may be thinking, or to what you fear she may begin to do, but to what she is doing RIGHT NOW, which will either be bending or straightening. ;-) You'll be giving her constant input about what you want her to do, and constant feedback about what she is doing, and because you will ALSO be sitting up and breathing (remember the breathing?), you won't be telling her "RUN! RUN! TIGERS ARE CHASING US!" which is what your body tells her when you hold your breath and become tense.

And when you DO become tense... If you get to the point where you're really scared to death and can't possibly sit up straight or control your breathing, GET OFF, because you won't be able to accomplish anything useful. But don't put your horse away - as soon as your feet hit the ground, begin IMMEDIATELY to do work in hand, asking for steps sideways, steps back, turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches... anything and everything you can think of to do. Make it clear that whether you're in the saddle or out of the saddle, a spook doesn't mean "stop working", and a
spook followed by a dismount doesn't mean "stop working", either.

Here are three more things you may want to keep in mind.

The last lesson of the day matters most. Always end on a good note, always end when something is going well, and if you want your mare to pay MAXIMUM attention to any one lesson, make it the last thing you do before you dismount and remove the tack. Whatever happens then is going to have the most significant impact of all, so take advantage of that fact, and make it count. Whatever is most difficult for you and your horse - a Square halt? Backing? Turn on the forehand? Turn on the haunches? Standing quietly on a loose rein? - is what you should do just before you dismount.

Clicker training may help. If you want to try incorporating a bit of clicker training into your work, there's nothing quite like it for keeping humans focused on their horses. ;-) You can become more observant and perfect your timing on the ground, then carry both qualities over to your ridden work, then phase out the clicker and phase in a verbal signal or a pat, and you'll be - well, at that point, actually, you'll be doing very old-fashioned dressage, in the classical style, which involves total awareness of the horse and its actions and reactions. Clicker training is just one of the many roads by which you can approach clear communication with your horse. If you're interested in clicker training, you'll find some previous discussions in the archives.

Keep your mare's age in mind - not because she's too old to learn new habits, because she is nothing of the kind, but because she IS 28 years old, and age does make a difference to physical comfort. I have a mare of that age at home, and I can assure you that at 28, your mare is bound to be a little more more stiff and uncomfortable than she was even three years ago, and needs a longer warmup. Some older horses appear to be more nervous and excitable than they were when they were younger, and it's not really a matter of excitement at all - just discomfort. In her younger days, I'm sure your mare could toss her head up and bounce once or twice without feeling twinges of pain in her legs and back - now that she's approaching 30, she is bound to have some arthritic changes in various places, and the natural "spook" reaction of "head-up, back tight, BOUNCE" is likely to cause her some pain, which is likely to make her react with annoyance and
yet another bounce.

Warm her up in a half-seat, and after you've walked - always after a long walk-warmup - let her decide whether to trot or canter. Older horses sometimes can't stretch their backs and hips and stifles effectively (and
thus can't do any useful work at trot) until they've had a chance to canter. If your mare is one of them, it may help her both physically and mentally if you follow up your walking by allowing her to canter a few times around the school (on a long or even a loose rein, with you in a half-seat) before you ask for any real work at trot.

I suppose the short answer to your question - now that I've given you a lot of long answers - is that horses can learn habits very fast, but that from the horse's point of view there's no "good" or "bad" to any of them, they are all just behaviours, that - depending on how YOU react to them - prove to be either profitable or not profitable to the horse. You'll find that your training and/or retraining always proceeds better if you think in terms of encouraging the behaviours you want. Keep your training positive - and keep breathing!


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