A spooky horse can be difficult to work with, especially when they find everything frightening. Behaviour consultant Abigail Allen shares how you can boost your horse’s confidence from the ground.

Heightened anxiety can often be the result of underlying pain or discomfort. Horses are extremely stoic by nature, as they don’t want to show that they are vulnerable to predators, so it can be difficult to tell when they are in pain. Before proceeding with training, I would recommend having your vet assess your horse first.

The presence of a calm companion in situations where your horse may be frightened has shown to reduce fear-related behaviours and decrease heart rate. When you’re bringing your horse in from the field, ask someone to bring in another horse with them who is more relaxed and able to offer reassurance. It’s all about setting up your horse for success in their environment, so you have a good foundation to then begin training to help them.

Confidence boosters

To increase your horse’s confidence, you can desensitise them to strange looking objects, such as umbrellas and prams. Try introducing these in an arena or in the field where there is space for them to approach the hazard in their own time. By allowing your horse to be in control of the distance between themselves and the object, and by rewarding increased proximity, you can greatly increase their confidence.

Over time you’ll find this also alters their response when they’re exposed to potentially scary things out on a hack. Conversely, however, if this training was to be carried out in a confined space, such as the stable, the horse’s ability to display their flight response and leave the situation that provokes anxiety is taken away. This is known as flooding and is a highly aversive method of training that should be avoided.

Grab your props

When choosing a scary object for this training, it can be presented in different forms. For example, if you choose to use an umbrella you will want to expose the horse to the least fear-provoking form of it first, so you would present it to them closed before moving on to opening it.

When your horse shows an interest in the object you can give them a food reward, such as chaff or a scratch on the withers, and repeat this as they increase their proximity and appear more relaxed.

To further reward proximity to use object, you could place buckets with treats nearby. Importantly, don’t place the bucket directly next to the object as you don’t want your horse to push themselves just to access food. I’d suggest placing one bucket two metres away and another one a metre away.

Finally, remember to remain safe and wear a hard hat whenever you’re working with your horse.

Meet the expert: Abigail Allen is a fully certified equine behaviour consultant and trainer at Mind in Motion Equestrian. She is based in Shropshire. See mindinmotionequestrian.co.uk

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