conscious horsemanship

Beyond The Spook – Returning to Calmness & Courage (updated Nov 2015)

Previously,  I discussed a variety of techniques to prevent anxiety and spooks in horses (and their riders).

This post covers what to do during and after a spook. My inspiration for this article was a recent twilight ride on my normally brave and calm gelding Poco. Headed down the road, we were suddenly confronted by a loose steer from a neighbors farm. The steer stared us down, then actually ran into the road. After I got us both safely home, I sat down to mull over the incident, what I could have done differently or better, and how to help him deal with future steer encounters. As I worked through the situation, I realized there are a set of principles that I have developed over the years that guide my reactions in spook situations.

Acknowledge the reaction: Generally speaking, when it comes to scary objects and spooks, I prefer to acknowledge my horse’s reaction. I too will stare in the direction he is staring and take some deep breaths to smell the wind. Horses have much keener senses than we do. If my horse indicates something is wrong up ahead, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt about what he senses/sees. If my job is to be the leader and to inspire his confidence in me, he has to trust me to recognize potential danger. Ignoring a situation he considers dangerous tells him I am unaware of my surroundings and thus not keeping either of us safe. Leaders are aware of their surroundings. I looked until I spotted the steer.

Breathe: You can often calm a horse by breathing with him. First I take several shallow rapid breaths to smell the air, just like my horse is doing. Then I take a deep long breath in and give a big sigh. This is what horses do when they assess and then dismiss danger. Often I find my horse will breathe with me, and sigh after I do. Whether or not my horse responds to breathing helps me decide my next move. Poco continued to snort and breathe shallow.

Look: Centered Riding talks about hard eyes and soft eyes. Hard eyes are focused tightly on a specific object, and you have limited peripheral vision. Soft eyes are taking in everything around you. I use hard eyes to identify the danger my horse is focused on, then soften my eyes to cue that I have dismissed the danger. Poco had hard eyes, and when I switched to soft eyes he did not mimic me.

Dismount: If I have any doubts about my ability to handle the situation while riding, I dismount. If my horse goes into a blind panic, I have a better chance of getting out of his way from the ground rather than dealing with a runaway horse or being thrown. I have many more options to work with my horse from the ground.

Ground Exercises: I can do Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).  This post goes into much greater depth about using EFT.  I can breathe with him.   I can lower his head (I teach all my horses to lower their heads on cue).   I can give him something to eat to get him breathing and chewing (I always carry treats when out on a ride).   I can distract him with an obstacle, such as stepping him over a log or sticks.  Ideally this should be an obstacle he has to look at and be careful of his hoof placement.   I can do EFT on myself to deal with my own emotions about the situation. I can do TTouches. I can also choose whether to lead from in front or behind or beside. Generally speaking, I lead from in front when approaching a scary situation and lead from the side staying between my horse and the danger when leaving a scary situation. I stay out of my horse’s potential flight path, so I am always aware of the most likely flight path. When Poco failed to calm from the head lowering cue, breathing and soft eyes, I dismounted. I stayed at his head, between him and steer.

Be a leader: I make the decision to move forward, go around the risk, stay put or leave. If I can clearly see the risk, and I can identify there is no danger, I will ask him to go forward. If going forward is too threatening for my horse, I will attempt to go around. If my horse is close to going into flight or fight mode, I’ll stay put or leave. With Poco and the steer, I made the choice to stay put. Turning Poco away from the danger, putting his hindquarters to the steer, caused him to go into mindless panic threatening to flee. Pushing him forward or around started him into fight mode. Staying put and lowering his head, allowing him to eat grass to keep him breathing and chewing, kept him under control and both of us safe until the steer went home.

Know your horse: Each horse has a different threshold for moving between thinking, flight or fight. Know your horse. A horse in fight or flight mode is not thinking and learning. The goal is to keep your horse thinking, responding, breathing, chewing. You may have to switch strategies quickly to dance between thinking, fight or flight. Bottom line: If a 1000+ pound creature is truly determined to flee or fight, there is little you can do to stop him. Better to prevent the confrontation and preserve the relationship, even if that means retreating to approach the situation another day, better prepared. In Poco’s case, we danced between staying, going around, and leaving. We danced between head lowering and eating grass. This all happened in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. When he starting to go into fight or flight, I’d back away from what I was doing and switch to a different tactic. I had to be nimble mentally and physically to negotiate the situation, calming him while allowing his feelings.

Know your abilities: Leave your pride at home. If you feel fearful yourself, or unable to cope, accept your feelings and turn back. This keeps you and the horse safe, and later allows you to do EFT to clear your emotions.

Review What Happened & Make A Plan: After the spook, when we are both safely home, I do some EFT on myself and my horse. I choose positive phrases, such as I am courageous when faced with new situations, I trust (insert name) to keep me safe, I love and accept myself, etc.
If possible, I figure out some TTEAM obstacles or excercises that mimic the situation so my horse can learn courage in a safe environment at home.
In Poco’s case, besides doing EFT, I will likely ask my neighbor if I can do TTEAM work in the pasture next to the steer pasture. I will only approach as far as he is comfortable, then using TTouches, a bodywrap, and my other tools, I will gradually move him closer. Perhaps I will ask to borrow a calf to live with the horses. Additionally, I admitted to myself that my gut instinct before leaving that night was to stay home, as his vision is not as good at twilight. I will choose times to ride that allow for his best vision. Finally, to put it in perspective, I thanked him for listening to me. I was bareback and he was wearing only a rope halter. He could easily have thrown me or bolted for home before I dismounted. He listened enough to keep us both safe, and I give him credit for that.

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