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Learning to Love the Spook: 10 Tips for Making a Friendly Ghost Out of Your Haunted Arena

September 2017 by Associate Professor Kirrilly Thompson, PhD (Social Sciences), CQUni Appleton Institute, South Australia

So, you’ve put time aside to ride, made the effort to get to your horse and have your training session planned perfectly in your mind. The sun is shining, there is no wind, you and your horse feel great. That is, until the arena Spook shows up, threatening to turn all your great expectations into bad vibrations. Leaving the stables after a frustrating ride, you feel like you wasted your time, go-over what you could have done better or simply wonder how it could have gone so wrong so quickly. 

First things first, your horse is not spooking to annoy you – even though it might feel that way. Spooking is a self-protective behaviour in response to fear, so you’re better off reassuring your horse, rather than getting annoyed or angry. 

Spooking and shying could indicate a failure of your ‘go’ or ‘stop’ signals (depending on whether your horse reacts by stopping or running) but, chances are, even the most well trained horse will spook at some time or another.

Second, you really should thank your horse for being so vigilant. You might know the Spook is harmless, but one of the reasons why horses exist is because the species was too spooky to be wiped out by apex predators. Your own horse might even be sound today because she shied at the rabbit hole in her paddock yesterday, rather than tripping over it. 

Horses have evolved to notice things; features or changes in the environment that could signal potential danger, such as a predator who has taken cover in long grass. Today, the horse’s environment contains many, if not more, things to take notice of – a new pole on the arena, a green bin being moved, another horse in the distance who might already be responding to a threat. This latter point is important. Horses are social animals. 

They feel more confident and more secure in the company of other horses. When we ride on an arena, our horses are often alone. Without other horses for reassurance (or, on the other hand, in the presence of a tense or frightened horse), your horse may be already be under an amount of stress and susceptible to the Spook’s powers. So, what can you do? In this article, we consider some strategies for putting the Spook to work for you.

1. Lead your horse past the Spook

If you already know where the Spook lives, try leading your horse past as part of your warm-up. Put yourself or a helper between your horse and the Spook. Sometimes just having someone stand there whilst you are riding is enough to get you back on track. You could even position a relaxed horse close to the Spook instead.

2. Don’t feel guilty about avoiding the Spook

Don’t be tempted to see the Spook as something you have to face from the saddle to prove that you have more influence over your horse than anything external. Similarly, don’t be afraid to dismount to restore your horse’s confidence (so long as the dismount is voluntary). In fact, don’t feel guilty about avoiding the spook altogether, especially if you don’t have the right frame of mind or amount of time to deal with the Spook patiently. Dismounting or avoiding a situation doesn’t mean your horse has ‘won’. That kind of explanatory framework does not apply to the way horses think and it imbues them with a form of intentionality that research does not support. 

3. Let the Spook teach you patience

Standing still and allowing horses the time they need to assess the Spook is always a good option. Wait. Counting slowly to 10 might give your horse time to reassess the Spook as a non-threat. Take note of how long it takes for your horse to process the Spook and see if it changes over time, or is similar in other situations or in relation to other spooks. That way, instead of thinking “my horse always spooks”, you can start to think, “my horse is getting so much better at relaxing around the Spook”.

4. Reduce your horse’s tension (or ‘arousal’)

Scratching on the withers can mimic the effect of mutual grooming. Horses in one study showed more relaxation behaviours when scratched on the withers by their rider than when patted on the neck. Letting your horse graze can also be a helpful way to gauge when their attention on the Spook is waning or you can offer a handful of grass to encourage your horse to relax.

5. Create an alternative object of attention for your horse (and you) to focus on

This is more than a case of ‘ignore it and it will go away’, or making yourself scarier than the Spook - that can lead to overly aggressive riding, which just increases your horse’s arousal. Instead, you can introduce a diversion separate from the Spook or yourself. Arenas can be extremely boring landscapes. Think of the classic dressage arena and you really can’t blame horses for seeking something more interesting to attend to. 

A few items thrown randomly onto the arena can provide something else for you and your horse to focus on. They might be as familiar as a trotting pole, mounting block or a 44 gallon drum, or as foreign as a bucket, toy or your jacket. Whatever it is, swap riding past the Spook for riding around or through the items. Of course, just make sure they provoke curiosity and not fear, and do not pose a risk to any creature who may come into contact. 

This strategy can be a great way to teach your horse to reach into a long and low position, as you can establish a feel whilst they are looking at an object on the ground, then seek to maintain that posture. Incidentally, allowing your horse to lower her neck can give her an opportunity to check out the Spook by appraising it from a different visual angle. 

Moreover, a lowered neck position has been associated with relaxation, but remember it is possible to have too much of a good thing and forcing horses into ‘relaxed’ postures for excessive amounts of time could be stressful.

6. Try treat-based training

Treat-based training can be a great way to help horses see novel objects favourably and approach them with curiosity, rather than fear. Treats can be given from the ground or the saddle. It’s best to establish the basics of treat-based training separately, with an experienced clicker or positive reinforcement trainer. 

7. Reinforce your training with positive reinforcement and celebrate the little wins

Even if treat training isn’t your thing, you can still reinforce your horse. Look for small wins and make big rewards - with a break, a walk, a loose rein, a release of pressure, a kind word or a scratch on the wither. Make a big fuss and, chances are, you will relax too. It can also help to think beyond your current riding session - a small win and a fuss today (even if you think they didn’t do much to deserve it) could mean your horse is much less reactive the next time they see the Spook, whereas demanding a big win on one occasion could set you up for several more rides of the same.

8. Use the Spook to learn more about your horse

I have found some horses less fearful when the Spook is not in their field of vision. In these cases, the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ holds true and all you might need to do is turn your horse away from the Spook. These horses might relax entirely doing shoulder in or shoulder fore past the Spook. 

I have also ridden horses who are more fearful when they cannot see the Spook, trying to face the source of their anxiety or rushing blindly forwards when it is positioned behind them. These horses might be more relaxed when they are facing the Spook, in which case it might be helpful to ride counter shoulder in or counter shoulder fore past the Spook. Once you have worked out which strategy is more relaxing for your horse, you can use the Spook to help you improve your lateral work. 

Likewise, some horses are more confident when being ridden strongly forwards past the Spook, whilst others find this unsettling. You can use this knowledge to deal with other challenges outside the arena, such as during a competition or on the trail. 

9. Make the Spook work for you as your judge 

Think of all the things you have established with your horse - halt, trot, rein-back, rhythm, self-carriage, maintaining a line, etc. Can you achieve the same quality in a Spook-free zone as you can in the presence of the Spook? The answer will reveal much about your relationship with your horse and indicate where your weak spots are.

10. Speaking of zones, where is your horse’s Spook zone?

By riding where your horse is relaxed, pay close attention to where the Spook zone begins and where it ends - where your horse shows signs of fear, tension or arousal. Once you have mapped the spook zone, feel your way around its edges. It might be within the quarter and three quarter lines of the arena, or it could be a corner. 

How far can you go without increasing your horse’s arousal - or your own? Take note so you can map your progress over time (minutes, days, weeks or months). By returning to the safe zone, you can decrease arousal before deciding to approach or re-enter the Spook zone. 

You might be able to influence the shape and size of the safe/Spook zone by instigating minute and fleeting changes of direction - or intentions to change rein. If you have seen English celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell march a dog at the end of a leash in a completely different direction when it’s about to chase another dog (termed the ‘reverse direction’ technique), you will know exactly what I mean. 

Just prepare your horse for the turn (or change of longitudinal flexion), so they maintain their balance and self-confidence. Feeling your way around the edges of the Spook zone can make you much more sensitive to your horse’s mental state which, in turn, can make you a more proactive rider.

Hopefully these tips for working with the arena Spook or even incorporating the Spook into your training will help make your riding more strategic, your horse more confident and the arena a more enjoyable place for both of you.