I love taking the young horses around our farm. Whatever their age or discipline, I think it is important for every horse to be able to hack out, as it varies their work and putting in the miles makes for a good horse. Hacking should be a pleasure, but for many riders it can be an ordeal with horses that either spook or nap.
For me, there is a big difference between spooking and napping, but the missing training ingredient is the same! In this blog I shall be explaining this little mystery, whilst giving you some tips that you can use to try and overcome these common problems.
Spooking – Spooking is when your horse is scared by something: a noise, an object or a sudden movement. They may react by jumping, refusing to go forward, planting their feet, spinning round or running. It is a very natural reaction, and an instinct that has been formed in order to keep them one step ahead of their predators.
Napping – This is when your horse refuses, or is reluctant, to move forward in the direction that you want to go. The first sign of napping is that you will have to keep nudging your horse in order to maintain forward momentum. They may also start to look at things more often, sometimes planting their feet, running backwards or turning away. Napping can lead to severe behaviours such as rearing and spinning.
So is your horse spooking or napping? Look at their ears and you will know!
You can generally tell the difference between a genuine spook and evasive napping by their ears; if they are spooking, their ears will be pointing forwards at the scary object and you need to be sympathetic with them. Conversely, a napping horse will generally have their ears pointing backwards, and you may need to be more assertive in your riding.
So what is the missing ingredient in spooky and nappy horses?
In one word; forward! Spooky and nappy horses tend to be backward thinking, with the forward cue less well established.
Spooking – how can we help them overcome their fears?
Spooky horses are generally sensitive and can lack trust in you and their environment. They also tend not to be ‘forward thinking’, so that if they come across something they are unsure of, their first instinct is for flight, rather than to listen to your aids to move forwards.
If you find yourself in this situation, you need to do as little as possible, but enough to stop him from spinning or running. Your first reaction should be to focus on where you want to go and guide your horse forward, letting him “ballon” round the object if necessary. However, if he does go to spin or run away, you can use a direct rein to stop him but when he is facing the object, leave him alone. It must be his decision to stop moving around and face the object, not because you are holding them there. If you tense up and grab hold of the reins or start kicking him in the ribs, you will only add to his highly adrenalized state and make him more panicked.
Once your horse has settled a little and is facing the object, only then can you ask for a step forward. This may make him nervous, but it is important that once you have asked for forward momentum make sure you get it, otherwise your horse will learn to ignore your leg and will plant or spin whenever he gets worried or unsure. Remember, baby steps in the right direction are progress, so be patient and reward each step…it will take as long as it takes at this stage, so forget that you were going to do a certain route or that you need to be back in 10 minutes!
When you are facing the object and asking for the forward step, you need to do as little as possible or as much as necessary to achieve the desired result. I find that using rapid tapping with my leg to be the most effective after the initial squeeze with my leg, as opposed to a thumping kick. Once he does step forward, stop asking immediately, so that he understands that he has done the right thing and reward him with a stroke and reassurance.
Horses need time to reflect on what just happened, and the rest after each step gives them this time. When he does go past the object, he may rush past. If this happens, don’t grab hold of both reins. He has done what you have asked by passing the object, so go with him. Sit deep in the “Oh my Gosh” seat and wait for him to come back to walk. If you feel you need to control him further, you can go back to your trusty one-rein stop. If the situation allows, you can repeat the exercise several times until your horse is walking calmly past the object. Again remember that if this is all you do today you have done a good job!
Sometimes, your horse may try to put his head down and investigate the object by sniffing, pawing and biting at it. It is important to allow him to do this as curiosity is a step to overcoming fear. Inch the reins out and straighten your arms to give him his head, whilst sitting deep in the “oh my gosh” position.
Successfully getting your horse past one spooking object doesn’t mean that he will walk sensibly past everything, but it will help him to learn that he needs to trust you and be willing to negotiate things that you ask him too.
For spooking horses in your ridden work, it is important to work on the aids to go forward. In an enclosed area you can follow the same procedure as outlined above and introduce different objects. Stay calm, consistent and decisive (CCD) and your horse will put more and more trust in you because he has learnt to overcome his fears through listening to your aids, and in time you should be able to enjoy your hacks again.
And don’t forget, there are many examples of working through spooking issues within the Your Horsemanship program, so please check them out if you are a member.
So what if you have a horse that naps rather than spooks? Why do they do this and how can you prevent it? There are two circumstances under which a horse will nap; either he is worried about where he is going so he refuses to go forward, or he is thinking about wanting to go back to where he has come from. Both of these situations indicate a lack of trust and respect for the rider as the horse is not willing to take on new challenges or is seeking comfort by wanting to return to familiar surroundings and friends.
The best way to resolve napping is to recognise the signs and nip it in the bud before it becomes too ingrained! So, to increase the level of trust and respect between you and your horse, there are two main areas that you can work on; being able to move the hind quarters left and right and making sure that your cues for forward are clear AND that your horse responds immediately to them.
Control the Hindquarters:
The control of the hindquarters is necessary for you to be able to realign your horse, should he drop his shoulder and try to nap home. Disengaging his hind-end has the added benefit of taking away his power, as a horse that is crossing his hind legs and pivoting round his inside foreleg cannot spin or run away. Please see my videos on hind end control within the Your Horsemanship program.
By making sure that your horse responds immediately to your queue to move forwards, you are limiting the chance of you nagging your horse or letting him have time to think about napping. The key to this is to ask them to move forward with a gentle squeeze, give them a second or two to respond and if they don’t, reinforce your “ask” by tapping with a whip behind the girth. Be prepared to tap as softly as possible but as hard as necessary to get a response (I use a schooling whip). When your horse moves forwards, stop asking and give them some time to realise they have done the right thing.
Another good tip for getting your horse off your leg is to make sure that your horse goes up a gait whenever they are feeling behind the leg. This is best done in an environment you are both happy with. So, if you are walking and your walk slows down, use your leg in the way described above and make your horse trot on or even canter before coming back to a walk. There are two very important points for this to work: when you use your leg aid, your horse must push forward, not just amble on or ignore you. Only when your horse pushes forward can you be sure your horse is thinking forward, because they are required to try.
Secondly I will say again DON’T KEEP KICKING – when they think forwards, reward them by releasing your leg pressure. I meet so many riders who have horses that have simply switched off from being nagged too much! You need to address your timing if this is happening to you: when your horse responds, stop asking, otherwise there is no reward for your horse. With repetition, your horse will become more forward thinking, and hopefully napping will become a thing of the past. Be consistent and in time you will see results.