Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spooking Lessons

Thanks to for the photo!

When I told my husband the other day that we had done "spooking lessons" at the stable the other day, he quipped "So did Starbuck teach the class?".  And of course, when it comes to finding excuses to spook and discovering new and fascinating movements in an attempt to unseat me, there's no one more qualified.  But in fact the lesson was focused on ways to confront spooks and techniques for getting and keeping our horses' focus on us instead of on the legions of monsters lurking behind every fencepost.  For some time now even some of the veteran lesson horses at the stable have been giving little spooks every now and there are several new youngsters at the stable to liven things up - enough so that Starbuck is now mostly considered "a normal horse" instead of the barn rebel.  So Marina decided enough was enough and decided to spend an entire class working on how to deal with spooks.

Marina's technique:

  1. If you feel a spook coming on, relax your seat but close your fingers on the reins.  Marina's a big proponent of opening your knees more than the classical equitation stance, but the fact of doing so automatically causes your weight to sink into your heels, giving you a better balance than otherwise.  So if you see a spook coming on, the idea is to relax your seat so much that your knees "flap" like butterflies with the motion of the horse.  And closing your fingers on the reins (note - not pulling back) tells your horse that you mean business.
  2. Don't stop and face the scary object unless you're planning to go over it.  Try not to even acknowledge it.  Walk by it purposefully as if it weren't there.
  3. Focus on where you want to go and direct your horse's feet there.  Choose a realistic path (if your horse is deathly afraid of the new jump standard, plan to pass by it within 5 feet rather than 5 inches the first time) and stick to it with military discipline.  Focus on the feet rather than the head and don't let your horse swing his hindquarters away from the scary thing.
  4. Slow down if you need to.  It's better to slow to a walk or even a stop in order to go exactly where you want to, than trot or canter on a path chosen by the horse.
  5. If your horse spooks anyway, don't just circle back to the spook spot again and again.  Attempt to keep your horse facing in the direction you want to go and get back on the path (and to the gait) you had originally chosen as quickly as possible.  Marina's theory is that if the horse gets to circle away from the spooky thing he thinks he's won the battle, even if he has to go back again.

To "encourage" some spooks out of the older horses, Marina spread some old saddlepads on the ground and draped some others over cones and jump standards where they flapped merrily in the breeze.  And the folks in the bar collaborated by doing things like moving their chairs and tables around and spraying down the pig pen with the hose.  And we started working all over the arena but spending most of our time near the bar and the tractor, first at a walk and then in trot and canter.  The result?  I won't try to deny that there were a couple of spooks, but the fact was that we ended up going where we wanted to go at the speed I wanted to go at nearly 100% of the class, which is way more than I can normally say.  She was much more focused on me than she usually is and the ears were swinging forward - backwards instead of forward - sideways.  And her transitions were really on target - no hauling on the reins all the way across the arena to get from a canter to a trot.

But the true moment of glory came later, when it was our turn to try to walk over the saddlepad spread on the ground which all the other horses had either dodged or jumped.  She stopped, lowered her head, snuffled at it for a few seconds, snorted, snuffled at it some more and then walked over as if it weren't even there.  Been there, done that ;-)

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