Overcoming fear


In today‘s post (this is a long one) I will share with you a pretty personal story. As a general thing, I am a rather careful person and when it comes to interacting with horses I take it slow. You won‘t find me galopping bareback, racing with another horse in the woods - I would like to but it scares the heck out of me. If I dare something I am usually pretty well prepared. I think because of that I‘ve managed to avoid accidents so far. But I am sure I‘ve also missed a lot of fun.
Well, I rode this huge frisian (who is a very gentled natured horse) in the arena. He had been lame for a while, it was the first time riding him for me afterwards, it was cold outside (which often seems to dial horses up) and usually I rather work with him on the ground. 
I wasn‘t aware of his thresholds in the arena, meaning there are some dark corners that spook him. I was neither aware of the tension in him (well, maybe I was but I ignored it because I wanted to get the riding going.) Well, guess what: He bolted in the corner, turned around and ran to the gate. He bucked once and I flew right over his head (the buck was ridiculous, and I took of. Now you know why I am careful :)). Neither of us was hurt, but I learned a big lesson: Put your horse‘s needs first and be aware of his thresholds. 

Figure it out from the ground

You can probably guess that afterwards I wasn‘t too keen on riding him. 
So I started to figure the problem out from the ground. First of all: Did I influence him in the corner, was it my fault? It turned out no. When I turned him loose in the arena, he would avoid the corner. He would walk there half way, than he froze and stared. Not even his alpha horse from the herd would he follow in there. When I worked him on a rope in a circle near the gate, he would relax at the gate-side of the arena. He would hesitantely approach the  corner-side, then accelarate and relax at the gate-side again.
So the issue was not about me, it was actually about the corner. I could lead him in - but he was tense, on the break of running of and most importantly: When I ride him there will be nobody to lead him in. So he needs to be able to go in the corner on his own will and with no one guiding him. 
So I decided to work with approach and retreat and a long rope. I started at the far away end of the arena (at the gate), sent him in the direction of the corner and just let him explore (by send I mean I tell him to go and then I let him alone and just follow him when he moves. I don‘t lead, I try to get as far back as possible). At the beginning he would stop after a few steps, freeze and stare in the corner. Well, I asked him to turn, get back to the gate and start again. 
I know there are trainers that tell you to do the opposite: stress him out at the gate and make the corner a sweet spot. Maybe that would have worked too. But I decided that I wanted him to know that he could get away if he needed as long as he tried to reapproach again. And yes, I did send him at the gate with quite some energy and yes, I let him alone as long as he was walking and exploring.

A lot of work

Ok. We worked on this sending to the corner game a lot. He slowly managed to approach the corner, get there half way. But other times he fell back in his old pattern and froze after a few steps. It literally took ages but I stuck to it. We finally got to a place where he could go in the corner and sniff the sand, just hang out there a bit. Trotting there was still a long way to go. 
And getting him there was not the only issue. He also had the tendency to turn and run back as under the rider (therefore the long rope so I could run with him without loosing the contact). But as long as I didn‘t press him over a threshold, over a limit, he had no need to run. 

His behaviour improved when he was on his own too. I turned him loose and ever so often he would walk straight in the spooky corner. His circles on the rope became better too and he managed to keep the speed. Today, he follows me (no strings attached) in the corner without hesitation - and if he is not sure I can give him the confidence to try.

Riding is different

Riding is a different thing though: I got on another time and he stalled half way to the corner. I turned him and walked him back. There is no point in fighting over self-confidence. Either he has it or he doesn‘t. He didn‘t at that point with me mounted. So I just kept working with him from the ground. 

Yesterday I finally got on again. Beforehand I had led him around the arena and he managed to relax, blowing out even close to the corner (that was the sign I waited for to get on). Riding, we paired up with a young mare who is fine in the corner and whe walked along with her on the inside (with the mare as a shield). The frisian was still nervous, looking at the corner. But he walked without me telling him to. I did the main part of the riding close to the gate but ventured to the corner every once in a while. He wasn‘t ready to stand in it yet, but he could approach and leave it with relaxation, even trot there (I didn‘t allow him to trot away from it, but he neither asked for it).

Long story short: It is worthwhile to wait for the horse until he is fine. It might take ages but you will experience a new level of trust of your horse, more willingness, more relaxation.

It took us over a year (I work with him only once a week) and there will be setbacks. But we are getting there. The slow approach helped him and me too. Together with him I gained the confidence that we could not only survive the corner but be relaxed all the way there and back.

Please tell me if you've encountered similar situations and how you managed to handle them.

2 comments:

  1. Hey, yeah. I worked with an Arabian who was scared of getting in trailers a few years ago. She was spooky on one side, and didn't know ground work. We were picking her up to take her to our place. She was the kind of horse that had thresholds on everything that confines at the time. I had her step toward going into the trailer, then when she stopped I would have her back up. I would reward her for good progress by letting her relax beside the trailer. Once she was getting her head halfway in the door we were running out of light. My helpers took two ropes and attached them to the sides of the trailer and started to make the area where she was(on the ramp) a confining area. I asked her to step back one more time, and she was like "no, please!", so I just invited her into the trailer and she went in thankfully. She went in like she was relieved to get to. She had been rearing when given the same suggestion before.

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  2. Wow. I think it's hard to work with horses who don't have a groundwork foundation and as a first task get them into a trailer :) respect!

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