"I really need help," the young woman said to the trainer. "You see my horse spooks at everything. I cannot ride him across the pasture without his looking at every fallen branch and jumping out of his skin at every rabbit. Can you help me?"
"Well I dont know," replied the old man. "Do you keep your horse in a stall all day and then go ride him outside?"
"Oh no, sir, he lives in the pasture but he just spooks at everything."
"I see," said the old trainer, "and is it worse when you take him off to a show or somewhere strange?"
"Oh yes, how did you know? I cant even show him because he just spooks at everything."
"Well then," said the trainer, "lets just have a little test. I assume that this spooky horse runs himself raggedy out in the pasture when you turn him out?"
"Oh no, sir, he lives out in the pasture but I cant ride him out there because he is afraid of everything."
"Okay, but he doesnt live in my pasture so lets turn him out here as see if he is afraid of everything."
With that they took the horse and turned him out alone in a tree-studded pasture. The horse investigated his surroundings and then put his head down and began grazing totally unconcerned with his environment.
"Well," said the old trainer, "he dont look too concerned with the world to me."
"Oh, but you dont understand, its when I get on him that he just gets freaky."
"I understand that Miss," the old man replied gently, "but you may have to consider the possibility that this ole pony aint one bit afraid of the world he lives in but he aint too fond of what happens when people get on him. With all respect, Miss, I dont think it is the horse that is spooking but his rider.
Paul Travis has done many things with horses, not the least of which is to train many champion and world champion barrel horses. He is most recently known for his team penning horses in the south eastern United States. He has many years experience in training police horses and in using that training for other things. He is also a member of the AAHS Board of Directors.
I asked Paul if we could use the theory of police training to help people better understand what is happening when their show horses spook? "Not a problem," he replied. Then he suggested he show me rather than tell me. Little did I know what was coming.
Paul arrived at Golondrina Stables with a bag full of strange things. He carried a deflated 7 foot plastic football player, a bull whip, several dozen Styrofoam balls, a large automatic umbrella, and a plastic beach ball. We supplied a broom, a helper, lots of patience and some balloons.
Paul explained that we did not want to think of this as desensitizing the horse because we still wanted him sensitive. We were going to make him more confident. He would have more confidence in himself and in his rider. He would get to the point that if the rider said do this or that he would believe that it was all right. "Of course the problem," Paul said, "with the police horses is that the first time they get hit with a brick, they know you lied."
The chosen horse was an 8 year old Arabian gelding with minimal experience off the farm. He had been to five shows and will be at Nationals in October in Albuquerque. His history was filled with a lack of confidence around anything vehicular. Since the judge at a dressage show often sits in the back of a two-horse trailer, that situation had proven to be a disaster. When he would go near it he would shorten his neck and be stiff through his back, inappropriate for this discipline.
Paul began slowly rubbing the bull whip over the horses back and then flicking its tail up, over and around until the horse would tolerate the feel and the movement. He flicked it all over the ground in front of and under the horse but, never so as to scare him, never beyond his tolerance. "The trick," Paul said, "is to get all this done without ever scaring the horse. The horse should think it is a game."
By the end of the first session the horse would tolerate the movement of the whip, the movement of the beach ball, the inflated 7 foot plastic football player, and the beach ball. All that was done in hand. The last thing that was done was the handler held the horse and Paul cracked the whip but the horse paid no attention. That came as no surprise as the arena is beside a major highway and across the road from a skydiving school, so noises bother us more than they do the horses.
The next day it was time for riding. Paul started by showing things to the horse at a distance. He would throw the Styrofoam balls close to the horse and had he reacted strongly Paul would have backed off but the previous days preparation was sufficient and, although the horse was skeptical, he tolerated the work. Soon Paul could throw the weightless balls against the horse and then we could play catch from both sides.
We did the same with the beach ball. Now we can play ball with the beach ball and a whip.
Next came some crowd control maneuvers which at the time I did not understand. Paul asked me to approach him and keep walking. If he stopped, I was to stop. If he walked toward us, I was to walk toward him. Then I was to push him, not physically, but to pursue him until he left the arena. If he were to turn and stop, I had to stop, but if he came toward me, I could move toward him.
Soon the horse learned the game! He learned that it is his arena. He is not the one who has to yield, everybody else does. NOTE: This exercise was never performed in an aggressive fashion as with police horses, but only to the extent that the horse learned that he need not feel the need to yield to approaching persons, unless asked.
Up to this point I had always ridden this horse rather carefully since he had been so discomforted. It was possible to relax on him but not until one had thoroughly investigated the situation, or so I thought. What I discovered later is that I no longer was "on my toes" all the time and as a result he is turning into a quiet trail horse as well. We are not at the point where it would be easy to take him for granted and have one of those freak accidents. Relaxing means just that and not more. It doesnt mean taking chances or doing stupid things.
The horse also learned that many unexpected things could happen but that they were all harmless and the best part is that the plain old show ring is pretty tame compared to what he has seen and done. I just hope the judge doesnt step out of the trailer because he may not be able to resist putting her back in!
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