Don't let 'the spooks' ruin your test!!
We've all been there... you've learnt your test, you've been up since 3am to plait. You've been over and over in your head how to set your horse up for each movement. Your warm up is good, you ride into the arena and your horse spots the sabre tooth butterfly in the hedge at K and your heart sinks....
We all want our horses not to spook and there’s loads of things you can do beforehand to prepare but horses will be horses so what do you do when you’re found in that situation? …
Riding a spooky horse in the arena…
A horses’ primary method of survival is to run, so when he gets scared he gets himself ready to run. This means his body will become tense and straight (ready to go!!) his head will get higher so he can see further away. So one of the best ways to get a spooking horse to relax is to get him to bend with your leg and rein much like a leg yield, this has the added benefit of helping him lower his head and getting you back on the bit quicker!
Bend towards or away?…
Human nature often makes us want to stop our horse looking at the scary thing, here it’s important to remember that from your horses point of view he may need to look at the ‘danger’ in case it comes at him.
If your horse is looking at the danger and growing to 21hh then I would bend him away and get him thinking about something else. If your horse is looking but just that then I usually bend towards it so that they can see what's happening and realise it's OK.
Bend them away from or around the danger using rein and leg to get suppleness, relaxation and contact back as quickly as possible.
Practise, Practise, Practise
As I mentioned earlier there's loads of things we can do to prepare so it's less likely our horse will spook. Let's be honest though most of us would much rather spend our time perfecting that half pass BUT... the perfect half pass at home is of little use at the competition if your horse is busy spotting Pokemons (are they still a thing?!) in every corner!
As well as practising your test, it’s also well worth preparing for the unexpected. One way to get started is by putting something unexpected in the middle of the arena, like a flower pot or even a chair (make sure its something sturdy enough that it won't blow away and 'chase' your horse around the arena!) Put the object close to the middle of the arena but offset from the centre line and practise riding around it. At first don't get too close, ride down the opposite quarter line and as soon as your horse starts to get tense leg yield away from the 'thing', your horse will gain confidence by the fact that you're taking him away from it and not making him go up to it. Repeat getting a little closer each time until you can ride close to the 'thing' down the centre line and only need to flex your horse a little towards the object.
Get this good on one rein first before changing reins. Expect that your horse might decide it's a completely different flower pot when it's on the other rein, try not to get frustrated! Just calmly go through the same process until your horse relaxes. A good sign is that your horse blows out through his nose.
Remember this is just one of many ways to deal with this sort of situation and there are lots of things that can be practised at home to help a spooky horse be more confident or a stubborn horse more willing, and the better they are at home, the quicker they will work when you’re out and about.
If you have questions or need idea's to help with a specific problem feel free to get in touch with me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Lyla has been helping riders and their horses in the UK, USA and Europe for over 15 years. She has prepared horses for crowds of over 6,000 people with no calmers or ear plugs for venues including Birmingham NEC, Aintree, Bury Farm EC and Hartpury.
Lyla specialises in horse psychology and behaviour problems with a specific interest in dressage and has worked with horses from grass roots to Grand Prix across the UK and Europe including international competitors and Olympians from Spain, the US, Canada and the UK.
Lyla has regular teaching days in Gloucs, Wilts, Worcs, Oxon, Herts and South Wales.