Growing up around Arabian horses, I always got a chuckle when I listened to other people talk about the breed. Far too often, words like “flighty,” “skittish,” or “unpredictable” crept into the conversation, and it seemed the general consensus (amongst non-Arab breeders) that the Arabian horse was known for being a bit of a handful. While I’d known my share of flighty horses, not all of them had been Arabians. In fact, out of all the horses that passed through our barns throughout the years, there’s only one Arabian mare that I ever considered to be flighty, and she had been traumatized prior to ever coming to our farm.
Needless to say, with so many Arabian horses earning a reputation for being “spooky” and unpredictable, it was a bit of a surprise that I was showing an Arabian that excelled in Trail classes and people often got a laugh when they would see us at a rainy horse show, my gelding’s ears propping up the towel that we’d draped over his head. “He hates getting water in his ears,” my mother would say, feeling the need to explain his goofy appearance. In case you haven’t gathered, this wasn’t the skittish Arabian horse that everyone was talking about.
But was Datona an exception to the rule? Did we simply stumble upon a docile Arabian horse one day? Did someone perform a lobotomy? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, no. By following just a few simple steps, you can train nearly any horse to be calm and more cooperative.
In order to teach our horse what we expect from him, we must first learn to understand how he communicates and what he’s trying to tell us. Don’t worry – we’re not going to go all Horse Whisperer on you here. It’s just important that you realize a few simple things about horses:
Horses are prey animals. This means that, in the wild, members of the equine family are used to being hunted down and eaten. Because of this, it’s natural instinct for the horse to run away when he’s frightened. Part of the reasoning behind a horse “spooking,” or jumping at something unfamiliar or unexpected, is the simple fight or flight response that is common in all prey animals. If they did not react in such a fashion, they would never have managed to survive and would be extinct today.
Horses are intelligent animals. I always cringe when I hear someone refer to any creature as a “dumb animal,” particularly horses. Horses are highly intelligent creatures, capable of learning and even problem solving. Because of this, however, horses can also grow bored when faced with the same surroundings or daily routine. This can often lead to troublesome behaviors and bad habits.
Horses don’t always realize they’re as big as they are. They are dependant upon us for food, shelter and, quite often, for companionship. Because of this, they don’t always see the “big horse, little person” ratio. When a horse reacts, he usually does so without thinking that his human could be injured by his reaction. Remember, horses “scratch” one another’s itches by biting and they often rear and kick in play. Once you’re accepted as a part of your horse’s herd, he sees you as a horse and often fails to realize he has several hundred pounds on you.
Keeping these things in mind are an essential part of horse training. You will understand this better as we continue, moving on to discuss the bond between horse and man.
Earning Trust Early
The bond between man and horse has existed for thousands of years. One of the strongest examples of this bond was that of the Bedouin tribes and their Arabian horses. In fact, there are several legends about the loyalty of the Arabian horse breed and the Bedouin’s great respect for this majestic animal. The Bedouin people and the Arabian horse relied upon one another for their very existence – that bond of trust was an essential thing in their lives.
Trust is something that’s earned long before you ever put a foot in a stirrup and swing your leg over your horse’s back. Just as you trust him to safely take you from point A to point B, he trusts you to keep him safe as well. The more trust that a horse has in you, the more confident they are, knowing that you will help to look out for and protect them. You may or may not realize this, but our horses commonly rely upon unspoken signals that we given them, even when we don’t realize that we’re communicating. While horses do nicker, whinny and snort, they also rely strongly upon non-verbal communication, such as body language, in order to convey information amongst one another. This is why, when you’re nervous about riding a horse or become afraid that a horse might spook and throw you, the horse will often become more anxious and skittish.
For this reason, one of the most important steps in training a skittish horse is establishing trust with them… and then remembering that you have it. Your horse is looking to you for signals of whether or not he should be afraid of something or if he should ignore it. By maintaining control of our own emotions and establishing that bond of trust with our horses, we can then help to calm their fears and help them to realize there is nothing to be afraid of.
It Doesn’t Help to Get Angry
I once knew a horse that would get frightened and shy violently to the side, whenever she was ridden by a particular area on a neighborhood trail. Frustrated, her owner would yell all the more and force her back over to the spot, time and time again. The next time they went past the same spot and, guess what? Yep. The mare shied to the side and the cycle repeated itself.
“She knows there’s nothing there,” the girl exclaimed and grew all the more angry as each moment passed. “We ride by here, every day, and every day she jumps and spooks at absolutely nothing!”
It’s a common occurrence, believe it or not. In order to understand this, we must first look at the non-verbal messages that the girl was sending to her horse. Every time they rode past this one particular area, the horse shied and nearly unseated her rider. Why would this be happening?
If you said that the girl was anticipating the horse jumping to the side, you would be absolutely right. As they approached the particular place, she would tighten her grip on the reins, grab the saddle horn and tighten her legs in against the mare’s sides – preparing, so that she wouldn’t get unseated and thrown from her horse. Meanwhile, her horse felt the tighter hold on her head and the shift of legs against her sides, suggesting that she would soon be asked to move forward. Her rider’s body stiffened in response, conveying the fear and that nervousness transferring from rider to horse. Instead of holding on, the girl was telling her horse, “Something is going to happen. Be ready!”
When the mare reacted to the non-verbal cues that her rider gave her, the event was further solidified as a negative experience when she was suddenly punished. Place yourself in the horse’s shoes for a moment and imagine how confusing it would be, to have someone tell you that something scary was about to happen… and then punishing you for being afraid.
Now imagine it happening, every single day, at the very same place. Before long, you might dread going by that area, becoming nervous and antsy when asked to proceed. Why would you want to go past that area, knowing something bad will happen and that your rider will suddenly become angry with you?
No matter how frustrated you may become, dealing with a skittish or excited horse, it never pays to be angry. Instead, try one of these helpful tips for dealing with spooked horses:
Pause for a time out. If your horse is continually shying from an area or object, don’t get angry. Take a couple of minutes to step away if possible or simply move to an area where you can take a deep breath, count to ten and let some of that frustration slip away. Always face your obstacles with a clear head.
Dismount and walk a bit. Don’t bother with getting off your horse at the spot where he normally spooks. Instead, dismount before that place even comes into view and simply walk past it, as if there’s nothing even remotely there. If your horse spooks and shies, don’t make a fuss – just keep walking. Let them come to realize that nothing exciting is going to happen, that you’re not going to get upset, and they will come to their own conclusion that it’s really not worth the energy to get worked up about. This may take time to accomplish, but it’s certainly worth it.
Stop and take a look. If your horse still exhibits fear when passing a certain area or object, don’t be afraid to let them take a good look. Horses are naturally curious animals and will eventually want to investigate something that disturbs them. By approaching the spot and basically ignoring your horse, turning your back to them, you will begin to raise their curiosity and make them want to know what it is that you’re doing. In time, your horse will gradually approach, slowly learning there is nothing to be afraid of there. You can further turn this into a positive event by giving your horse a piece of carrot when he approaches or pausing near the frightening area to enjoy a good curry comb session or some much-appreciated face rubbing. Make reaching that place a positive thing and your horse will look forward to going there, forgetting all about being afraid.
Desensitizing the Sensitive Horse
Looking back, I believe that a lot of what Datona and I accomplished, we did simply because no one ever bothered to tell us that we couldn’t do it; other people might have talked about skittish horses, but it didn’t apply to us. If my tack was getting wet, I threw a tarp over my horse. If I was on my horse and the mailman came, it was a hassle to get off, just to open that squeaky mailbox. You simply rode on up and got the mail.
Half of desensitizing a sensitive or skittish horse is simply desensitizing yourself. While you should never be reckless and abandon all caution, the more you make something out to be a big deal, the more your horse will react. The more trust you establish with your horse and the more obstacles you overcome together, the more you will come to rely upon one another and work as a team. Training a skittish horse can be as simple as that, believe it or not. Happy trails and pony tails!
Personal experience working as a horse trainer, as well as breeding and exhibiting Arabian show horses.