My spooky horse won’t pay attention to me and freezes!

Adiva Murphy enjoying a ride on Morgan mare

Adiva Murphy enjoying a ride on Morgan mare

Question: I have a 6 year old Morgan gelding that I got last January. I ride him English and I jump him.
Ok, so here’s the problem. Every time I go out to ride him, he always has his ears and eyes on EVERYTHING around him. He rarely pays any attention to me. He practically jumps out of his skin if he sees a tree, a piece of trash, a leaf, or something that he didn’t see the day before. If I take him somewhere new, he gets soooo pushy and freezes up. I just don’t know what to do! I’ve tried taking him up to whatever it is that he seems to be afraid of. I’ve tried just riding on past it like it wasn’t there. I’ve tried turning him in tight circles, backing him, side passing, figure eights, etc to keep his mind on me instead of everything else. How do I make him relax? The only way I can get him to put his ears on me is by yanking on his mouth really hard. And then I end up losing me temper and smacking him. I feel soo bad. I feel like he doesn’t like me anymore. How can I earn his trust back? I know I’m not supposed to yank on his mouth but he makes me so mad sometimes I wanna cry!

Please help me.

Answer from April Reeves: Morgans are one of my favorite breeds, and the first one I ever owned when I was little. They can do everything. Even things you don’t want them to do. It looks as though this is where you are right now.

First thing: never ride with your emotions. Riding and training take a great deal of patience and acceptance of the situation. This situation is very clear to me; the horse is taking his cues to react and feel fearful from you. It’s probably the hardest thing we humans have to eventually come to terms with, if we want our horses to accept us. When I was little, I was very temperamental. I too use to yank on my Morgan mare’s mouth and smack her around and cry. Then I was lucky enough to get a really great instructor, Jennifer Maynard, and I turned it around. I have never looked back, and with all honesty, there are still times when I just have to get off and walk around for a minute. We are all human.

We are going to start with some very basic exercises. You seem to know how to do one-rein stops (where the horse does not seem to understand the stop cue, so you turn their heads to the side (gently but firmly) and sit quietly and stay there, hand held firm, until they stop. If your gelding walks off again, do the same but change sides each time to prevent him from getting a sore neck on one side.

I also would like you to use a snaffle bit or French link snaffle (has 2 links in it, and the middle looks like a small dog bone). No curbs, no chin straps, no shanks.

Find a very flat, nice area to ride, preferably an arena if you have one, or an area in a pasture. We are going to do an exercise that will set up your horse to take responsibility for his gaits, engage his thinking brain and find rhythm and cadence. Begin with a trot. Stay in a fairly large circle, about 70 feet wide. Start by going to the left, and keep a loose rein. Just guide the horse around. Do not attempt to slow the trot. Let him trot fast if he wants to. Your only job is to keep him at the trot. If he slows down and wants to walk, ask him to keep moving forward. If he goes into the canter, take his head around (gentle but firm) and the instant he resumes trotting, let him go and keep the trot in the big circle. Change direction every 5 times around, but do not stop trotting. At first your horse may speed up, slow down, likely spook where ever he can. Ride through it as if it doesn’t matter. Keep your legs off the horse and no direct contact with his mouth, just enough rein so that you will be safe should he do something really stupid. If he spooks but keeps trotting, just sit it out and keep going. If he breaks into a canter, one-rein stop him until he goes back to a trot, release him and carry on. You may have to do a great deal of one-rein stops, but that is normal at first. Do all of this with no emotion (maybe happiness?) but no anger or angry responses. Continue to trot until he begins to tire out, and begins to stop reacting and start keeping cadence on his own (this can take up to 10 minutes). Once he has done that, quietly ask for a walk and on a loose rein let him catch his breath. Walk around for about 5 minutes until he is cool and not breathing hard, then pick up the trot again and do it all over. Remember, your only job is to keep him in the trot. No walking. No cantering. Change rein frequently.

The single lesson here is to maintain gait, in this case the trot. Nothing else. It is not about the quality of the trot. You will refine that later. This exercise teaches the horse to take responsibility to stay in rhythm on his own, and to keep the gait until the rider asks otherwise. When training horses, remember what the lesson is. Keep it simple. Often the smallest of lessons gain the biggest advantages.

There is the possibility that you may have to do this lesson day after day for some time, depending on how deep the spooking is. Do not give up. Keep after this – you will gain much from this lesson, not just by having a better horse at the end, but you too will grow and discover how to accomplish great things when you are focused, patient and confident.

This lesson will give you side benefits, one of which is that you will have ridden him through the spooky parts quietly and without reaction from you. He will also figure out that he may have to trot for some time, and that is uncomfortable for him, so he will choose comfort, which will be to moderate his trot so that he will have the energy to complete the task. This is where the rhythm is created.

And the best part is that you obtained this without pulling, smacking, yelling or any anger. He will begin to trust you and slowly gain confidence in you.

Do this one day, and when he has calmed down, cool him out and put him away. The next day do it again, same exercise. If he calms down sooner, cool him out and put him away. Again, you may have to do this for many days.

Do not be so concerned about his ear placement. These things come with time, once a relationship between the two of you is established with confidence. It is important to remember that you must always allow your horse to look. What you are going to set up, is that he can look, but he cannot react. In order for him to feel comfortable about not reacting, you must present a calm and confident approach yourself. You must be a leader – his leader. Horses are amazing at asking us for honesty. Horses who are behaving badly are simply asking us to be open and ‘real’.

Now for part 2 – this is where you two go out and test your results.

If there are areas where he is particularly spooky, take him there, and before he gets to react, begin to trot him around. He will act up, but remember to just keep the trot, one-rein stop if he breaks or canters, and keep him going with a soft rein. If he spooks but keeps trotting, do not react, just ride through. Keep it up until he stops reacting. Eventually he will realize that spooking isn’t painful and you do not react either. What is painful is all the trotting he has to do when he does react. He will choose to not react. What he will likely do though, for the rest of his life, is look. If that is where you both end up, this is a good ending. I love horses that have some personality to them, and that are connected to me at a level of confidence and trust that I am leading them somewhere safe.

Another test you can do is lead the horse around after the trot exercise. See what his reactions are to areas he may have been avoiding. If he reacts, just keep circling and walking until he gets tired of this. The horse you are leading will be the horse you will ride, so teach him ground manners as well.

There is another method called ‘Approach and Retreat’, and I mention this in a post on this blog under the heading “Horse gets spooky during trail rides. How can I fix this?” It’s under ‘General Riding Answers’. There is some very good information there also that you can benefit from.

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