Episode 68: How to teach a horse to spook

How to teach your horse to spook, in three easy steps!

1) start with a horse with lack of experience or holes in the training
2) try not rock the boat…
3) when the horse has doubts, reduce the pressure or request

Thanks for humoring me there.
Sometimes when I’m thinking about a subject…I try to consider all angles and this time, I decide that telling this story backward would be interesting. I really do go through the steps of how to teach a horse to spook…but I then follow it up with how NOT to teach your horse to spook.
I hope you find this episode structure slightly entertaining, possibly revealing…and somewhat interesting!

[00:00:03] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill. This is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

[00:00:22] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy and successfully train your own horses. This is going to be a bit of a backwards episode.

[00:00:35] In this episode, I’m going to explain to you how you can teach your horse to spook, to keep it simple. I’ve made it into three simple steps. For best results, number one, start with a horse with a lack of experience or holes in the training. Number two, try not to rock the boat. And number three, when the horse has doubts. Make sure you reduce the pressure or request. Are you feeling a bit confused about where I’m going with this podcast? In this season of the podcast, I’ve committed to keeping you posted on what’s going on in my own barn with my horses. Willow, Gabbie and Presto. In last week’s podcast, I told you that it was my goal to stay on a plateau with my horses between now and an upcoming trip.

[00:01:31] And if you haven’t listened to that episode yet, it would be worth listening to it before you go on with this episode, because in that past episode I outlined my plan and right around the three minute mark I also explain that Presto was the horse with the most chance of breaking this plan. So I’m here to say that the plan did not work. And I hope that if you hear that professionals make plans and that those plans don’t always work, I hope that offers you some kind of hope.

[00:02:02] I’d like to go back and outline the earlier steps that I mentioned in how to teach a horse to spook. And I’ll add some more detail about how you can make them spook. And then I will close the episode with some different decisions that can be made in case you don’t want to teach your horse to spook.

[00:02:21] But if you want to teach a horse to spook, it is number one easiest to start with a horse that lacks experience or has holes in the training. These are often the horses that I call the ones that are in elementary school. And that is not age dependent. You can have a horse that doesn’t have a high level of training that might be, you know, mid-teens. And the reason this is true is because the horses have that lack of experience or holes in the training are more likely to ask some of the questions, which is what happened with Presto. Now, here’s a really interesting fact. And it is and it might surprise some of you. It’s only a little bit harder to teach a more experienced horse to spook. I think sometimes people think that really experienced horses won’t necessarily pick up on this as quickly. But when you look at number two and number three in this outline of how to teach the horses spook, number one, which is the level of training is actually, in my opinion, the least important.

[00:03:27] And I could even make a case if I wanted to. That sometimes when horses learn how to learn, which I’ve discussed in other podcasts, what that means is that they get really good at seeing human patterns, which you could argue that when the horses get good at seeing human patterns, that they’ll pick up on patterns even quicker, which is why sometimes you’ll see a really seasoned horse or experienced horse that will spook with one rider, but then we’ll be completely fine with another. Have you ever seen that? So maybe you’ve got a horse that spooks and then the trainer gets on and the horse doesn’t spook at all. And then the the less experienced rider gets on and the horse spooks again. I’ve seen it and it’s a great example of what I call grandmoms rules in action. You can go back to episode two of this podcast to hear more about that. But again, it’s like this.

[00:04:16] This the training level does play a part in it because in general, you’re going to hear some more about it as we go on. But those inexperienced horses or horses with holes are the most likely.

[00:04:27] And part of this, I actually think goes to the idea of the riders mind a little bit, because I know even personally like when Presto spooked and I had to make a decision right there. There is a little bit more of a question that I can feel in my body, even with all of the experience I have, because I don’t know how he’s going to handle my response to the spook.

[00:04:50] So I think sometimes we’re a little bit more confident on a horse with more experience. And then that confidence is actually part of what helps us stay out of trouble, where with the less experienced horse or the horse that you perceive us as being greener or less well-trained or having holes, it can actually cause a wobble in your own belief system, which then can help make this problem even worse. So can you hear how both of those just because the horses greener can almost make you wonder a little bit more so like when Presto spooked, which I’ll go into detail a little bit later about when that happened, I could feel my reservation about, for example, his ability to stay on his own two feet.

[00:05:34] So if the horse spooks and you’re thinking this horse could fall down, it makes you want to back off. And so this could then be a great addition to the list of how to train a horse to spook. Now let’s move on to tip number two. If you’re trying to teach a horse to spook, a great way to increase your odds is try not to rock the boat. And I said in the last podcast that I was trying to stay on a plateau. And I actually mentioned that with Presto I was going to make that mean like medium work because he was the one that was a little more like he might ask me a question that I might have to answer. But in making this backward list, it’s really interesting if you try for a very long time to try not to rock the boat. So don’t try to advance the steering. Try to keep things just the way they are. And if you really want a horse to pick up on this. A young horse works really well because if you’re looking to teach a horse to spook and you really try to just not rock the boat, don’t try to advance the training. Young horses have a tendency to kind of break out of this system even faster because young horses tend to have more spare energy. Kind of like kids. So even if you know a horse over a long period of time, like let’s say you have the pleasure of knowing a horse from the time that it’s born until the time that it’s like 15 or 16 years old, you typically will see a horse that will have a different level of energy as they reach that more middle age.

[00:07:08] And it reminds me a lot of people and some of it’s just energy level and some of it’s also like maybe conservation of energy and awareness. But one thing that you definitely see is young horses will have more of like spare energy. They’re willing to blow off on things. And so in this list of teaching a horse to spook young horses was a lot of spare energy are definitely ones you want to put your money on. So if you want to teach a horse to spook your best candidate, it’s going to be a high energy horse with less training. And if you want to make your odds even higher, you can ride inconsistently or you can also factor in the weather. So pick a nice cold day or a really windy day. Don’t pick a hot day. Hot days. Make them tend to be less playful. You know, they’re not nearly as ready to spook if it’s 90 plus degrees out. But you pick a nice, cold, windy day or, you know, maybe you could get cold, windy and snow chunks falling off the roof.

[00:08:08] Your odds are gonna get really high with your high energy, less trained horse. But remember, the number two rule here is that when you’re trying to teach your horse to spook, try not to change anything.

[00:08:22] Try to hit a plateau-like I described in the last podcast. But don’t just go for a two-week plateau. Try to extend that in a month, like two months, six months, or if you really want to increase your odds, go for years. So sometimes I’ll call this flat line because I’ll say like instead of you taking control and like riding the horse harder sometimes and then less hard sometimes, just try to picture a heartbeat monitor that has ups and downs. Don’t do that at all. If you want to teach your horses, spook.

[00:08:50] Keep your training very flat and boring because the odds will go higher, especially with your high energy, less trained horse. OK. So Presto is an overachiever. Because we were only a few days into his plateau. So this advice can vary by horse. But one thing is clear. You stand the best chance of teaching spooking. If you pretend you don’t have a plan. You know, try. Basically this. Try not to be the leader. Try to make it really unclear who the leader is. That will make your odds much higher in this pursuit of trying to train your horse to spook. But still, even with those first two tips, you still really need this third one, because the third one is the clincher. We can go past the training level. We can go past the plateau. This is the key to teaching your horse to spook. You ready? When the horse has doubts… Make sure you reduce the pressure or the request. And this works, Excellent, ith horses of all ages, of all training. So for best results, when you’re trying to teach a horse to spook, as soon as a horse looks scared of something. Reduce all the pressure and bonus points if you start petting them or reassuring them. Just make sure that you release the pressure as soon as they are alarmed at the outside object.

[00:10:22] Because this will for sure help the horse understand that when he spooks you drop all your expectations and nothing will train your horse faster than if you show the horse that if he has a big reaction to something, you’ll drop all the pressure and then you’ll know he’s really getting good at this. When he spooks increasingly smaller things. So basically once mastered this horse who may have spooked over something that was bib and kind of surprising…when he catches on to the fact that you drop all the pressure. As soon as you start to really recognize that pattern, you’ll notice he’ll increase what he asks questions about. He’ll begin to look disturbed at really common things that he sees all the time. He’ll be like, I don’t know about that. And you got to make sure that if you want to teach him to spook, that you drop all the pressure and you make that the happy place, like you look disturbed. And I go. It’s OK. It’s OK because it’s OK. And calming down is much easier and more of a reward for the horse than the trot circles you were just doing. So if you want him to spook, you got to drop the trot circle and like reward the spooking. So but don’t worry, once mastered, he will essentially have you fully trained.

[00:11:43] The fastest way for you to teach a horse to spook is to let him know that he has the power over you to remove all the requests in one move. Basically, he just has to go in and you’ll drop everything you’re doing. And then when he’s got it really down, he’ll understand that he has full power over you just by going to. So how are you doing? So depending on now, there’s more detail if you really want to go into detail on how to make them spook. One of the other things to really consider is make sure that you release with really good timing on what you want to spook and the way you wanted to spook. So let me let me say this a little bit better. So, for example, if you want him to throw his shoulder in the spook, make sure that when he throws his shoulder, you release or if you want him to spook by running backward, make sure that you release when he’s running backward, or if you want him to rear and then release when he tosses his head, because eventually that head toss will go up and up and up and up. That’s your better odds. But if you’re totally not sure about which way you want to teach this horse to spook. Because remember, we’re still doing the three steps for teaching your horse to spook.

[00:13:01] If you’re not sure which way you want him to spook, the fastest way to make sure your releases are perfect and consistent is to pick what you most fear. Because you’ll be the most accurate at recognizing it and releasing on it. So, for example, if you really fear a horse rearing, it’ll be really easy for you to drop all the pressure from the horse when you feel that coming. But for some people, that might be like running backwards or for some people that might be the shoulder swinging. But whatever you fear, that will be the one that will be easier for you to pick as something to train for in this. How to train your horse to spook example because you’re your releases will be really accurate as you’re trying to teach this horse. So for a quick recap. For best results, when trying to teach your horse to spook number one best results, start with the horse with a lack of experience, holes in the training. Bonus points if its high energy. Number two, try not to rock the boat. Really, really try to look like you don’t have a plan. And number three, when the horse has doubts. Make sure you completely reduce the pressure or even praise the horse.

[00:14:16] OK, thank you for humoring me there.

[00:14:19] Sometimes when I’m thinking about a subject that I’ve thought about quite a bit and I honestly try to consider all the different angles. For whatever reason, it just would not let go of the idea in my mind, would not let go of the idea that telling the story backward would be really interesting. So I hope you found it somewhat helpful, although I’m aware that you may have found it slightly confusing. So I kept trying to repeat what I was trying to teach you there, because this was obviously kind of a tongue in cheek backward look at teaching a horse to spook. Now let’s go back and fill in the rest of the story for those of you who may not be interested in teaching or spook. First of all, you can listen to everything that I just said there and and honestly tease out the spots where you might accidentally do some of that. Because I’m going to do that for you now, too. But there is a lot actually hidden in there when you look at things backward like that. But let’s go back through and let’s put Presto in the hot seat here. So, number one, I said start with a horse with a lack of experience or holes in the training. And remember, I said this is the least important one. But it does play a role. So Presto is an elementary school. And so that’s the area where I’m training him to have a solid foundation. But he’s not out of elementary school yet. And I mentioned in the previous talking at the beginning that, you know, a horse can live in elementary school and they don’t. I mean, they can be 20 years old and still in elementary school because basically he’s not going to graduate until he can.

[00:15:50] Bend, spiral out, counter-bend and step around 180 degrees. Like that’s like a like a half a pivot. And when he’s really pretty consistent with his transitions of gait. So really nice. Walk to trot. trot to canter, canter, trot, trot to walk. Right now they’re not very pretty. They’re not collected. He kind of scrambling up and scrambling down. And so what’s interesting is that as you increase the horse’s level of education and training, you close up some of those possibilities for them to do some of the things like, for example, as they learn the proper response and the shape in their body, they’re less likely to toss their heads. So as they’re less likely to toss their heads, they’re less likely to begin to rear. And as you begin to teach more of the bending active inside Rein, or the spiral out active outside Rein,, as you start to teach more and more and the horse understands more, you start to kind of close the doors on them, throwing their shoulders around. And as you advance the training and they start to learn more about collection, collection is when they can kind of be a little bit compressed between the rider’s hands and legs. So they start to understand that they’re not necessarily supposed to evade the contact. And so all of those things actually those kind of shore up those holes and they advance the horse more in the training, which again, actually plays into number two, which the number two tip for teaching a horse’s spook was try not to rock the boat.

[00:17:24] So if you want to do the opposite of that, then you actually choose how to rock the boat. And so you go out there with a plan and with intention. And so even with that horse, with a lack of experience, you go there with a plan and you try to put it into action. Now, when this spook happened with Presto, I wasn’t being an inactive rider. I wasn’t just out there on a loose rein, going around and waiting for something to happen. I was riding the four leaf clover pattern at a trot and I had warmed him up, lunging him. But still, he is a more reactive horse. I’ve mentioned that. I’ve observed that in the pasture a lot of my observations about his tendencies and how strong those tendencies are. A lot of those have actually come from watching him interact with the other horses. They also have been added to by watching him interact with me. But I even though I had done everything, quote unquote, correct, it still was there. Now, I wasn’t pressing him, but really… I don’t think I’d even dropped my expectation maybe maybe 10 or 20 percent. I don’t think 20 percent, though, hadn’t dropped much. When I say I was on a plateau, I just wasn’t going to introduce anything new. And this will go as information to me now. It could have just been coming. It could have just been the day it was cold. But anyway, it I’ll just keep collecting the information.

[00:18:47] Now let’s go to number three. Number three, I told you earlier, was the most important key. So we can we can kind of say, yeah, Presto is a younger horse. He is an elementary school. So his odds are a little bit higher there. And I was trying to not rock the boat. So I was kind of playing into that medium level. I wasn’t really super easy on him. It hadn’t been a long time. And. But if you really wanted to teach a horse to spook. You need to all of things working and then when the horse has a doubt, you have to reduce the pressure. So I had number one and number two going for me. I have a less experienced horse and I was on I was attempting a plateau. But I hadn’t even declared in last week’s podcast that while I say I’m attempting a plateau, I’m also really realistic that that might not happen, which is why I said that last week. But this is the key when the horse has doubts, reduce the pressure or the request. So when I went to record this episode, I went back and I counted and Presto now has around 75 rides and the majority of them have been in the last few months. And although I started getting, you know, doing a little bit in the summer, the majority have been in the last few months and they’ve been somewhat consistent. But. Oh, yeah, one more thing. He’s only been ridden in my indoor arena. All of those rides have all been in my indoor arena.

[00:20:11] And that matters for what’s about to come. Now, I’ve also observed that he’s not one of my quicker learning students. So I’ve got some that are really quick, but some learn medium and some learn slow. And he’s learned he’s leaning towards the slower side, which is totally fine. Sometimes those horses come out the most solid. They take a lot of time, but because they take a lot of time, they get really solid. They get really solid. And then you almost can’t undo it because they take as much time or more to undo. So I doesn’t bother me at all that he’s not a fast learner because we actually can see the opposite. If you’ve got ones that are really, really quick, sometimes they feel like they untrain really, really quick. So medium to slow doesn’t bother me at all. But it’s true that he’s being a little bit slower and he’s an interesting combination because he does notice things more than other horses, like abnormally more than other horses. And he has a tendency to be reactive and he’s big and slow legged. So, you know, this causes some reservations in me that we can talk about, but I know all of this like in factored in. So let me just give you one more example of like he notices things more than others. So he’s having a lot of trouble understanding the mirror on the wall. The reflective image of horses on the wall is still bothering him after months. So you could argue, you know, does he have eyesight issues? But the way that I see all of it, I think it’s more of the way he’s processing things.

[00:21:45] But I wouldn’t be able to absolutely verify whether it was an eyesight thing. But if you guys haven’t seen Endo the Blind, you can do a lot with horses that have like issues like this. So I’m going to pretend it’s not the eyesight because it won’t really help me that much if I pretend it is, because then I’m going to be a little bit more likely to be like, well, maybe I’ll forgive this. But like the other day, I was on him and I was sitting there and he was looking at the mirror on the wall and other people were riding around and he caught a glimpse of a horse at a funny angle. Not horses like straight in front of it, but like when you’re at an angle and you can see something move at the other end. And he crouched down kind of like a cutting horse. Now he’s over sixteen hands. And if you guys haven’t seen a cutting horse crouch, go to YouTube, a cutting horse cutting right now, they’ll buckle all their legs. And it’s super cool and explosive. Move on those cutting horses. But on big Presto, it was not cool because it sent cold chills down my body when he buckled up with his legs because I was like, oh, no, where are we going? But he just stood up and didn’t do anything. But I know he has this tendency to be reactive.

[00:22:52] So what happened the other day that set this whole podcast off is that I went out to ride him and I thought this is just going to be kind of a regular day. Go out, warm him up, get on, trot the four-leaf clover powder a few times. Loped a few times. Be done. And I rode around one direction. So I’d done all my lunging, which was a fair amount. And then I got on him and I rode walk and trot. And I can’t remember if I canter that direction. I don’t think I did. I did walk and trot and then I decided to reverse and go the other direction. And in my arena, it’s all it’s it’s a wooden siding, doesn’t have metal siding. So there are some little cracks in the wood and stuff that will let little beams of light come in. And then we have an opening in the top of the peak that can let the air move through. And depending on the time of day, it’ll make this triangle spotlight that moves around. And we’ve got the, you know, side panels on the arena that let light in. So there are these odd spots of light that will show up and some of the horses react more to that than others. And Presto, has had this conversation with me over and over again because he’s had some reactions. Again, I’ve noticed that he notices things like on the ground. He notices some different things that not all horses do. And he has those little questions.

[00:24:18] And so I’ve seen this pattern and I’ve done my best to try not to react to his pattern or I’ve seen spot of light and I’ve taken him out and lunged him over those spots of light before I get on. And it’s interesting to think I’m going to present one more idea before I go on. It’s interesting to think that sometimes when these horses have these reactions. Sometimes they’re really genuine reactions and sometimes I wonder if it’s also like almost like a genuine your reaction that’s coming out of like an inability to shift gears. And this is actually where I think Presto was. And what I mean by that is like Presto comes out. I’m lunging him. I’d already lunging him over these spots on the ground. We’ve had discussions about the spots on the ground. Let me just pull a number out like maybe 10 or 12 different times at least. And so this isn’t our first rodeo. And so I think what happened this time was I’m trotting around on him and he was kind of actually really focused on me. But he said, think about it. He’s trotting around. He’s focused on me. And then he, for whatever reason, didn’t notice that spot. And it was moving because you white does that as the day shift. So it was moving. And then he sees the spot.

[00:25:31] Well, he sees the spot of light. And I’m asking him to go around the cloverleaf pattern. And he goes to kind of drop his shoulder in and kind of spook away. And I close the door and say, no, you don’t. Well, you could almost look at it. Like I said, this is the reason I think it was. What happened to him is because there’s almost like this. It’s like all of his focus is on me. And then he notices that light and all of his focus goes on the light. And that shifts the way his body is moving. And I say that’s not going to work for me. And I put his body back in and then he has to shift back to me. That’s a lot of mental shifts in a very quick succession. So I’m talking within like two steps. It’s like we’re trotting one, two, one, two. And, you know, one step is on me. The next step, he sees the light, the next step, his shoulders moving in. And I say, no, you’re not going to do that. And I think what triggered him was his attention switching. And he’s not a quick-minded horse. Think he has trouble processing. He’s been looking at his own reflection and reflections of other horses in this mirror now for months. And I still haven’t edited the video, but I have a video of the first day that he saw it because he was so dramatic about it the first day.

[00:26:47] And we read at this point lots and lots of other horses in and out of this barn. Nobody holds a candle to even like coming half as close to the reaction he had. And he’s still a little bit funny. I think he’s just processing slow, which also makes sense in this shifting gear thing. It’s almost like it scares him because he he’s he’s not processing quick enough. And now you got to think about this or one way I choose to think about it anyway is that it’s almost like when I’m riding him and this is this. Try to follow me here. It’s almost like when I’m riding him. It’s like when you’re teaching somebody to drive. So my three boys all learned how to drive and I put a fair number of hours into those the hours they have to log when they’re first driving. And it’s really kind of scary because they have this like ultra focus on how to hold the steering wheel and pressing the gas and pressing the brake. And there’s not a lot of fluidity and they’re not able. Those people learning to drive aren’t really able to switch gears all that quickly between the steering in the brake and the gas.

[00:27:53] And that’s why it’s such a jerky motion when they’re first learning. Well, this is a similar thing that I’m explaining is going on for Presto. But the interesting thing is when I was in the car and my children were driving, it does make you feel vulnerable when they’re, you know, insecure and you’re and you’re thinking, oh, goodness, if somebody pulls out, I’m not even sure if they’re going to like stomp on the right pedal or are they going to stomp on the brake or are they going to like panic and stomp on the gas like this, bless you if you’re teaching driver’s ed. And so when I’m riding on top of this horse, the interesting thing is this horse Presto that I’m riding on top of, it’s like he’s the driving student because he’s driving the bus. I just happen to be mounted up on the bus. And I need this student, this horse. I need him to be able to switch gears quickly enough that when I do take him on the trail rides later this summer, that he doesn’t accidentally get confused and we don’t shoot off over one of these ledges that’s out there. Because essentially when he’s spooked like that, it’s like he’s spooking. And even though he realistically was only cutting in, you know, when I’m turning that cloverleaf pattern, I’m maybe turning a circle that’s seven feet wide.

[00:29:07] And as he was turning, he probably tried diving in about three feet into that. And I pulled him back out. But the reason that I chose to draw a line in the sand is because I recognized that this horse needs to step up to the level of that. At least that 16-year-old driver that’s learning to drive the car, because essentially when I’m on his back, I’m trusting him with my life. This is not a good time to back off and and be worried about whether I’m going to offend him or not. And this is where you got to listen carefully, because some people would disagree. And some people would disagree with what I’m about to say. But I think the reason they would disagree. I think I actually agree with the reason that some people disagree. But I just view it slightly differently. Let’s see if you can follow all of us. So people that would disagree with me. I think most of them would be like, you shouldn’t always turn up the pressure. Like, if he’s scared and you turn up the pressure, you’re going to scare him more. But this is where it’s like, let’s imagine I’m driving down the road and ah, I’m in the passenger seat and one of my sons is driving down the road.

[00:30:20] And let’s say they lack experience. And I see a car that isn’t slowing down for this for this stoplight. And we have the green light and we should be all keep going. But my experience tells me this other car is not slowing down and they might run this light. I am going to raise my voice and try to stop my child from driving us straight in to this accident because I have more experience. Someone would. Stop. Stop the car. Now, I’m going to be somewhat assertive there because our lives depend on it. Now what Presto doesn’t understand because he is a horse and he’s young. He doesn’t understand that I can see something’s bigger than what he can see them. And while it might be OK to back off here, it’s not going to be OK to back off. If, for example, he’s spooking in front of a moving car or spooking off the edge of a ledge when I’m riding him, these are going to be problems, not just for me. They’re going to cause problems for him, too. So the reason I think people disagree with the idea of kind of being like, look and listen to me, horse is because the place I would disagree with that is if I wasn’t if I was introducing something brand new.

[00:31:32] So, for example, when I haul him somewhere later this year to like a horse show just to ride around, I’m going to go back and do my groundwork. I’m going to introduce him and let him smell and I’m going to lunge him and I’m going to do different things and he’s going to get a tour. But when I get on his back. I have to draw a line somewhere and I personally draw it to be like, look, buddy, I’m on your back. Our lives depend on the outcome of this. I don’t think of being extreme. We’ve heard of people dying riding horses. We’ve heard of horses dying in accidents. So I don’t think I’m being extreme, but some people might disagree with that. But my line is like, look, I’m willing to put in hours and hours and hours. We’ve got about seventy-five hours or more into educating you on this particular subject, in this arena, on the subject of lights, spots on the ground. I’m drawing the line here. And for me, because this isn’t new, I’m drawing the line here in this controlled environment. This is almost like holding kids accountable for their behavior at the dinner table at home, because you want to be able to take them into public to a restaurant. And if you wait until you’re in public in the restaurant to try to hold them accountable, you see, if it works for you, it didn’t work for me. I had to draw the lines at home before I was gonna expected to work out on the road. Well, I’m going to draw these lines here on his back before I draw the lines out there on the trail or when a car’s coming down the road.

[00:33:08] We’ve had this conversation before about the same thing in the same location. And I’ve handled it from the ground and his back before. And I’ve looked at his history and this is probably going to happen again. But what I know about this is that because I answered this question and I didn’t answer it with. It’s okay, buddy. Slow down. Take your time. I’m actually putting myself in the role of I have a plan. I am not being mean, but I am also holding you accountable. And it’s not our first time. And later on this year, I’m going to expect the stakes will be higher. And I need you to actually know I have a plan because he is a reactive horse and I’ve watched him in the past year. The horses he’s drawn to are those ones that are clear leaders. Gabby will kick him, but you also tell him where to go, when to stand, and when he’s scared, he goes to her. I want him to be like Stacy’s got a plan so that when something spooks him out on the trail, that instead of his natural reactions, which ought to matter, too, he tends to get tough and bully. This means like I think I’ve mentioned in other podcasts like when he’s out with some of my smaller horses, his greatest fighting strength is that when they kick him, he’s like, yeah, that doesn’t really do anything for me. I think I’m still coming. He doesn’t back off. He gets tough in the pasture with the other horses and he’s tough.

[00:34:30] And there are moments where I can feel that toughness push against me. And I’m not offended by it because he is asking questions in his natural language. When I look at some horses, some horses ask the questions really mild and those ones get answered really mild because they’re really respectful of these different like more mild answers like Willows like that. And Willow doesn’t have like she might have bigger reactions, but she stays sensitive to it. No, he has bigger reactions. And he runs through things like I’m talking like over the top of another horse, through things. That tells me something about his interpretation of pressure. The marks on his body, Willow, doesn’t come in covered with kick and bite marks because she’s getting the heck out of Dodge. She’s not shrill. She’s out of there before any impact can happen. He’s the kind of horse this like that wasn’t that bad. Let me see if I can push through you again. So the horses have to answer him very firm. So this is playing into it. And I’m willing to answer these questions because I know if I don’t, I’m going to teach him to spook. So even though when he throws that shoulder and I feel that shudder of, oh, I hope he doesn’t tangle his legs up, I still step onto the aids. I still ask him to bend. I still insist on respect for my inside and outside leg because I’ve built my foundation. And this is how I will make it solid. This is how it gets welded together. And I’ve done this for a number of years.

[00:36:03] I know he’s going to get better. He got better. We made actually major leaps in the next few days after that. And I don’t expect it’s over, though. Like, I totally expect he’s going to ask more of these questions again. And I know that this is a lot for some people to bite off. And this is also one of the reasons why when I talk about horses being in elementary school, I think a great way to look at it is it is the difference between like I get in a car and I drive a car. I can check the tire pressure, I can check the oil. I am not taking apart any part of the engine. If I’ve got brake trouble, I stop park it and I go find a mechanic. So if these questions and answers things get bigger than you. Don’t be afraid. Elementary school is the age when horses benefit from the equivalent of a mechanic that works on cars when they have problems versus the driver. So when you’ve got a horse in high school, a lot of times you can just be the driver like I’m just a driver in any of my vehicles. I mean, basically the light comes on. It says it needs something done. And I’m like, OK, let me find the mechanic. And for some people, if a horse is in elementary school, you might have to reach out and find the expert that is confident enough to ride that horse through that problem and answer that question, because, man, if you don’t, you’ll be on the fast track to teaching them to spook.

[00:37:24] I hope you found this episode structure slightly entertaining, possibly revealing and at least somewhat interesting. Thanks for joining me. And I’ll talk to you again next week.


Links mentioned in podcast:


  1. Gretchen Ruffin on March 13, 2020 at 1:48 pm

    Very interesting! I totally got where u were heading.
    I’m guilty of backing off when my mare gets too alert. I’m afraid I’ll cause a blow up.
    I really agree with your reasoning why that is not the way to handle it.
    I’ll remember next time.
    This has been a huge issue for me. I’ve listened and learned from all your podcasts but this will be the most valuable one for me.
    Thank u!

  2. Pam Upgren on March 5, 2020 at 9:45 pm

    I found this very interesting! I was just dealing with a spooking situation with my 12 year old gelding, whom I consider to be in elementary school yet. He is really spooking on lead line when other horses from adjacent pasture start galloping toward us. I couldn’t decide if the best way to handle this was to try and be very calm and keep him still and calm and reassure him or if I should be more assertive and really make him go to work and listen to me. He is in such an emotional or reactive state when they come running (tail straight in the air, blowing and snorting and prancing) that I was concerned that I would make him more emotional. But to me it sounds like you are saying you would rather make him pay attention to you through activity or work, than just give him a pass to be still and act out a behavior. How does this apply in light of your previous podcast when you were saying that if you thought a horses performance or his riding skills deteriorated by say 15%, you wouldn’t feel bad about getting off him. Wouldn’t that then still be the horse learning that if he spooks or his behavior starts to deteriorate in a way that you don’t want or isn’t safe, he will find a reward in you getting off. (I prefer to error on the side of caution myself!). Just some thoughts. I really appreciate listening to your podcasts, advice and point of view! Thanks for all you do!

  3. Karen Bockus on March 4, 2020 at 9:44 pm

    Stacy I think that is the best podcast you’ve ever done. I found myself having a big belly laugh ? at seeing myself….trainIng my horse to spook…love the tongue and cheek.
    Excellent analogy with your boys driving…really brings the point home with clarity.
    Identifying that not all horses are smart, or equal in their learning abilities and your explanation of such was a breath of fresh air. You touched on quite a number of different points, but the one that struck me the most was about a horse spooking off a cliff, or into traffic, and how very dangerous we can make our horses by training them to spook, with our behaviours.

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