With Halloween right around the corner, I thought it was fitting to talk about spooky things our horses think will get them and how to build their confidence. We have all had horses that spook at the "horse eating banner" in the arena or some other form of spooky objects to our horses. It is easy for a spook to turn into a wreck or bad habit when working or running barrels . I will cover how to help your horse have confidence in you as a rider and leader.
There are two reasons a horse will be spooky. One, the horse is young and inexperienced, and genuinely afraid of something. Two, the horse is older and experienced but has learned that spooking at things gets him a release from the work he is doing.
Start without any spooky things in the round pen, and work your horse in figure 8's and serpentines, focusing on softening his nose at each change of direction, and keeping his feet moving forward. I like to work these exercises at the trot if possible. The goal here is to get your horse's feet moving and his attention on you. Once you have this without distractions, have your friend come into the pen and start adding distractions. Your responsibility as a rider is to keep working with your horse on the same exercises as if nothing has changed. If you lose focus and start looking at the new, scary distractions, you can hardly blame your horse for doing the same! Have your helper start small, maybe by just jumping around a little and kicking some dirt. See how your horse handles this. If he spooks, have your friend just keep at it while you keep at your training exercises. If your horse does not spook when something new happens, pet him and let him know that was what you wanted. Keep adding more distractions and scarier things, and you can move out to the larger arena once you are feeling confident.
If at a barrel race and your riding around the arena and your spooks at a banner or object, do not drive him directly at it to smell or look at it. Don't make a big deal out of it. Instead you as the rider and leader, need to show him its not a big deal and it didn't bother you. Instead keep him moving forward at a walk or trot doing large circles 20 - 30 feet from it, then as he relaxes , without stopping, move your circles closer to the spooky object until he rides by it with no concern.
You will never be able to expose your horse to every possible scary situation and thing he might encounter in his lifetime. So instead of trying to train for every specific thing you might come across, instead you are teaching your horse to control his emotions and look to you for guidance in any situation. Remember, the important thing is not how your horse responds to the scary object. The important thing is how he responds to you and your cues in the situation. Don't get after your horse and start punishing him if he spooks, just keep working on your forward motion, changes of direction, and flexing. If you start punishing your horse every time he spooks, it just adds more anxiety to the situation as he anticipates the punishment, and that is not what you are after. However, don't let the spook be a release. If your horse spooks, drive him right back up to the speed he was moving forward before the spook, or even a little faster. If he learns that spooking is a way to get the chance to stop and rest, your problem will just get worse.