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Spooky Horse

How to Handle a Horse When it Spooks

Panel Experts: Jim Wofford and Olivia Loiacono

Submitted by member: Katherine

I need advice on how to ride my horse past something in the ring/road/trail that he finds scary. I struggle between trying to ignore it (hoping my horse will too) and playing it low key or getting after him for spooking, which I worry might make it “a big deal” and make him even more spooky because he is afraid and he thinks he’ll get into trouble. I think the same goes for riding a spooky jump for the first time. The overriding question, I guess, is how to make a horse more confident.


Answer by Jim Wofford

If you punish your horse for spooking, you will confirm in his mind that every time he sees the object, he will get punished. Before you deal with his spooking, you must teach him leg-yielding. Once he responds well to your leg-yielding aids at both the walk and the trot, and equally well in both directions, you will have the tools to make him less spooky. (Notice I didn’t say we would cure his spookiness. Mother Nature ate the non-spooky ones a long time ago.)

Walk past the spooky object far enough away that your horse does not respond to the object. Walk on twenty yards or so, turn back past the object, move a foot or so closer, and before he notices the object ask for leg-yielding, with his body bent away from the object. Don’t try to come too close to it; keep his attention on your leg, not the object. Emphasize the consistency of your hand opposite your active leg. The inside leg to outside rein connection is the answer to most of our riding problems.  Continue past the object about the same distance as before, then turn back and walk past the object again, a little closer this time, with your horse again in leg-yielding, bent away from the object. Your horse will be a little more responsive to one of your leg aids than the other. This is natural, and it will take a great deal of lateral work, with the emphasis on his weak side, to make your horse ambidextrous. In the meantime, continue your work back and forth, moving a little closer to the object each time. Make sure to stop training him while he is still responding to your leg. You should not expect to solve his problem all in one session. Do this exercise at the walk first. Later on, as you become more confident about your aids, you should trot back and forth in leg-yielding. Eventually, you should be able to canter on each lead past the object. However, you will have to learn shoulder-in before you attempt this, as we only ask leg-yielding in walk and trot; your horse would interfere if we asked leg-yielding at the canter.

Two important points: 1) we can ask shoulder-in at all three paces, but the mechanics of your horse’s paces require us to ask for leg-yielding in walk and trot only; 2) end your training session while you are still successful.

Answer by Olivia Loiacono

Training horses is as much an art as it is a science, especially when it comes to dealing with their fight/flight response! Many horses spook because they are actually fearful, however, some clever kids use it as an excuse to get out of work. It is our job as their trainer and partner to use the information we have to decide where their response is coming from. I’ll analyze their age, experience level, and general demeanor to make this decision. If I feel the horse is actually afraid, then the goal is for them to touch what they are afraid of. If you have to get off and touch it first then so be it. Once this is taken care of then I would circle around, and then finally past it. I do the same for a spooky jump. IF the horse is a grown up and a bit of a prankster, then I just stay on, calm, and ask them to hold their line next to/over/past the scary thing. The most important thing here is that you focus on direction over speed. If you just focus on GOING past the “thing” the horse will likely run sideways or run around the jump. Go slower, and maintain your line of direction. If you always react with unemotional tact then you will eventually train the horse to respond in the same way. Good luck!

Video Recommendation:

training your horse to jump a liverpool or water jump

Introducing the Green Horse & Training the Spooky Horse to the Liverpool
Bernie Traurig
This member requested video features a horse that is afraid of liverpools, affecting his show performance whenever this obstacle presents itself. Bernie tackles this issue using the same techniques he uses when introducing green horses to liverpools for the first time. His tried and true methodical approach leads to success.Running Time:  15 minutes and 44 seconds

View Video

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Jim Wofford

James C. (Jim) Wofford, 71, was born and raised on a horse farm in Milford, Kansas. He is a graduate of Culver Military Academy, and the School of Business at the University of Colorado (B.S. Bus. Admin. ’69). Wofford, a 3-time Olympian, has spent his life with horses, and is one of the best-known Eventing trainers in the world today. In 2000, Wofford was listed by the Chronicle of the Horse as one of the “50 Most Influential Horseman” of the 20th century, and in January of 2012, he was awarded the Jimmy A. Williams Trophy for Lifetime Achievement, horse sports’ highest honor. A Hall of Fame member of both the United States Eventing Association and Culver Military Academy, Wofford trains at his farm in Upperville, Va., and travels extensively, teaching and giving clinics.

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