Compared to some horses, I’m very fortunate in the regard that my horse Caesar is not a particularly spooky horse. Especially inside of the arena, he really spooks – and when he does, they’re small, easy-to-sit spooks that really aren’t a big deal at all. However, he does have one lasting fear: coyotes/dogs.
When I first bought Caesar almost three years ago, one of the first things I noticed about him was that he had a serious fear of dogs. I quite enjoy trail riding, and in the first month I had him I was riding around a trail in an equestrian neighborhood when a barking dog that ran up to the fence spooked him so badly, he tried to bolt back to the barn. Over the years, I have tried to desensitize him a lot towards dogs, and he got to the point where he wasn’t scared of my trainers’ dogs trotting through the arena while I was taking a lesson. I know that he still has his fear though because if left alone with a dog without a rider on his back, he hates dogs so much that he will literally try to kill it.
Because January and February is coyotes’ mating season, coyotes here in Texas have been extremely active and put Caesar on edge. While trail riding around dusk (which I never do, this was a rare occasion), Caesar acted extremely out of the ordinary. I know my horse, and I know he wasn’t “being a brat”; something really freaked him out. Because it was dusk, it was windy (spreading the coyotes’ scent even more) and there are tons of coyotes over where I trail ride, I knew that that’s what he was afraid of. Since then, I’ve been working on overcoming his fears out on the trail, where he associates coyotes to be. Here are a few main things I did to try to get his confidence back:
1. Riding with a buddy
My best friend just moved her horse to a barn a short trail ride away from mine (we don’t have to cross any roads to meet each other, it’s all trails) and so I rode out with her a few times. The first time we rode together was also the first time I trail rode Caesar again after his incident at dusk, and he was notably way more on edge than usual. I have to admit it was discouraging, because my normally extremely relaxed, even close to “bombproof” horse was suddenly rigid and eyeballing everything as if it were going to eat him. Luckily, my friend’s horse did not think much of anything on the trail so I think it helped to instill confidence in Caesar.
2. Not punishing your horse, but encouraging them to be brave
This is something my same friend actually put into perspective to me. When your horse seems to spook at nothing, it can at times be frustrating because there doesn’t seem to be a logical reason they should have spooked. While I don’t agree with flat out punishing your horse when they spook because it will likely make them more upset, it is important to encourage your horse to be brave; when Caesar wanted to shy away from something I would pat him while squeezing with my legs to encourage him to go on. The second time I rode with my friend he did two pretty big spooks, but he actually listened to me when I tried to get him to calm down so I gave him pats and asked him to walk on. (By this I’m not saying you should praise your horse for spooking – I was praising him for redirecting his attention to me after the spook/praising him for going on when he didn’t want to.) Also, if you can tell your horse doesn’t want to go near something or is even actively turning away from it, it can be important to insist the horse go onward and then praise after the fact.
The last time I trail rode Caesar I was by myself, and on the way back I saw a dog in someone’s backyard my barn owner warned me acted aggressive towards horses. Though Caesar will ride past dogs if they’re not acting aggressive, I had no choice but to go past this dog so I got up and hand walked him by. As I suspected, the dog ran over barking and growling and Caesar at first tried to bolt with me holding the reins from the ground. After I patted him and talked to him and walked onwards, he was still tense but understood that the dog could not get him through the fence. Once we were past the dog, I praised Caesar a lot and he relaxed much more.
3. Providing a positive distraction for your horse
Horses often spook because they hear something scary – a dog barking, something rattling in the bushes, etc. I know that when Caesar is tense, me talking to him helps distract him from the “scariness” on the trail and focuses his attention more on me. Of course, periodically patting them as well and telling the horse they are good is another positive distraction. In addition to talking, I will play music out loud on my phone. (Note: Caesar is very used to the sound of music playing, but if your horse isn’t you will probably need to desensitize them to that first.) The music provides consistent background noise to help Caesar relax, and can even mask the mysterious noises in the bushes that he might have ordinarily grown concerned about. Another positive distraction that you could employ would be to ask your horse to focus on you and work out on the trail – instead of allowing them to walk along on a looseish rein, some horses actually do better when they’re working (for example, ask for a working trot with contact) because their attention is on you rather than their surrounding environment.
These are all things I have personally used to help Caesar start relaxing on the trail again, and after four or five trail rides he has gotten much more back to his usual self. Though these techniques were all used on the trail, they can certainly be applied inside an arena, too. I hope this helps someone, if you have any questions or ideas of your own on how to help your horse overcome his fears, I would love to hear them!
From our trail ride the other day