The Scare Factor
by Staci Layne Wilson
When dealing with a spooky horse, one that shies - or even bolts - at the slightest provocation, one must always bear in mind how the horse sees and hears.
Due to his monocular vision, the scope of a horse's vision includes some sharp images, some blurry areas, and two small blind spots, which normally lie directly ahead and directly behind him. A horse may turn his head and something that was obscured from his view due to the blind spot, even if it is just a large rock, will suddenly seem to 'leap' into view often causing a start or a spook. So even if you didn't see anything move, your horse did.
Also remember that the horse, being a prey animal, relies a great deal on his sense of sound. If the wind is blowing a great deal, horses often become spooky and unpleasant to ride because the ability to hear accurately is impaired. Some sounds are masked, and others seem to come from indeterminate sources when the winds buffet them about.
In the wild spooky horses are smart horses, because they flee from danger and stay alive. It may be small consolation to you, but your little scaredy-cat may just be the Einstein of the horse world!
But what can you do? Your horse's spooks and sideways leaps could send him over the edges of mountain trails or into the path of speeding automobiles.
If you are out riding and your horse is afraid to approach a certain 'bogeyman' - let's say a mailbox. First you will feel your horse tense up and a hesitation in his step. His ears and eyes will focus on the mailbox. Squeeze gently with your legs and say "Walk" or click with your tongue. Since horses are not known for their prowess in chewing gum and walking at the same time, this distraction often works.
If, however, the horse's fear is stronger than his desire to obey your command he'll probably just stop. He might even snort and paw the ground if he is very upset. That's OK. Don't force him to approach the object. That is very, very stressful to the horse. Remember, a horse's fondest desire above all is to be comfortable. That includes mental comfort. So ride the horse a few feet away from the object, then stop him and pet his neck or speak softly. Once you feel him start to relax or grow bored, ask him to move on a few feet in the direction of the object. Try not to act tense or hesitant yourself - instead, be firm and keep your heels on him. If he shies again, or if he doesn't seem to calming down, ride in circles or figure-eights. Get him moving and not thinking about that scary mailbox. Once you get him by the object, don't be surprised if he spooks again on the way back: the horse's left and right brains do not communicate. It will be as though he never saw that mailbox in his life!
If the object is a moving one, such as a bird that suddenly flies up from the tall grass, there is not a lot you can do. The horse's perception to possible danger and his reflex reaction to that is much quicker than yours will ever be. Simply firm up your reins to prevent a bolt, then do a stirrup kiss (see the book, The Horse's Choice, for more about this). This should help to calm the horse and remind him that he should have checked with you, the herd leader, first before taking it upon himself to flee.
For some exceptionally spooky horses, like my Sunamii, you might try riding with a blind bridle (blinders on a headstall used for driving) or a shadow roll (super-fluffy noseband cover, usually used on racehorses to keep them from jumping shadows). But remember, this is only a temporary fix to keep yourself from being hurt until you are able to solve the problem. Most spooky horses just need mileage - lots of riding experience over time. With experience comes familiarity, and hence, less fear.
Excerpted from "The Horse's Choice" book by Staci Layne Wilson (sold out, no longer available)
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