Barbara asks: I have a mustang/Morgan who is sweet, kind and respectful but a little fearful of things like smoking burn piles, moving noisy electric gates with plywood figures on them. He refuses to go past them unless lead. The real issue is my friend says I should wear spurs and force him to go on. The smoke had him trembling. She says I’m letting him call the shots. I’m 63 I don’t need to get dumped. Should I force him when I know he’s scared? He minds me pretty well and will even leave my mare while she is screaming for him and goes down the road alone with me. Thank you.
Rick's response: Barbara, you have good instincts. You are observant and thoughtful. You are trying to come up with the best deal for both your horse and yourself. Most important, you are not allowing someone else to pressure you into doing what you feel is wrong.
Now, let’s get to work. First, your friend's analysis is partially correct. Your horse is not completely confident in your leadership or ability to keep him safe. However, spurring an already frightened horse is liable to escalate the fear. I don’t think that’s the right approach for you. Instead, give your horse a job to do to take his mind off what scares him. This requires that you be an active rider, not a passenger. This will change how your horse sees you and how he sees the scary object.
Let’s say the scary thing is the burn pile. First, expect your horse to walk right past it with no problem. Visualize your horse doing that and carry yourself as if that is happening. Often horses live into our expectations of them. If your horse still spooks, stay calm and direct him away from the scary thing. Be careful here because he might want to pick up speed. Put him in a tight circle and disengage his hind quarters repeatedly if he does. Once he is calm, trot around where he feels safe. I don't mean a dainty little Western jog. Get him really moving and using his air! When he gets a bit winded, let him walk toward the scary object. Even let him stop and rest there. Repeat as needed until he is calm near the thing that scared him.
You see, horses are naturally worried about things that are not familiar to them. But they are also worried about using up their energy and air. At some point, the latter concern becomes greater than the former. What used to be scary is now a place of rest and comfort, a place to replenish his stores of energy and air. Incidentally, this is a good underlying strategy for getting a horse to load in a trailer. Make the inside of the trailer the easy place to be and the outside of the trailer the difficult place. Final thought: You are your horse's ultimate protector. Never abdicate that responsibility to someone else.
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