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. In this blog I shall be explaining the difference and the reasons why some horses feel the need to do either! I’ll also give you some tips that you can use to try and overcome these common problems.
Spooking – For me spooking is when your horse is genuinely 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.
Napping – This is when your horse refuses or is reluctant to move 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 spinning away.
So is your horse spooking or napping? Look at their ears and you will know!
You can 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.
Spooking – how can we help them overcome their fears.
Spooky horses are generally oversensitive 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. If he does go to turn, you can use a direct rein to stop him but when he is facing the object, leave him alone. At this point you just want him to face the object. 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! Act like you have all day and if all you do on this ride is address the spooking problem then you have done a good job and you will no doubt have a better hack out next time.
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 or a crop 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 stoke and reassurance. Allowing him to relax after each step forward, this will help him to put his trust in you and in time you will be able to get him to walk past the object.
Horses need time to reflect on what just happened and the rest after each step gives them this time. They learn more in this rest period than in the stepping forwards, so give them time. When he does get near the object and if he goes to rush past, don’t grab hold of both reins – he has done what you have asked and is passing the object, yes it’s a little scary as they surge past but try not to catch them in the month and go with them by sitting deep and plugging in. 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!
Alternatively, your horse may try to put his head down and sniff the object. It is important to allow him to do this as it shows that he is starting to become curious and wants to investigate where he is going. Again it can be a little scary to just drop your reins and let them have their head, so inch the reins out and sit deeply but be as relaxed as you can be. Sometimes by you simply giving a sigh can help to relax your horse and help him to breathe too.
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. See my videos on spooking.
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.
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. See my videos on hind end control.
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 crop). 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 dribble 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 owners who have horses that have simply switched off from being nagged too much… owners that revert to spurs and then the horse goes on to ignore them too. 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.