A new training horse came in this week, a very sweet young gelding. He is very good, until something is scary or more interesting than me, then he is not so good. I try not to “punish” horses when they are frightened, because it just seems to add to the anxiety and makes me the enemy, or someone to get away from. However when there is a training problem with a horse it tends to show up in different ways at different levels of energy. This horse who jumps on top of me when he hears a noise outside the arena also walks a bit too close when I am leading him. He doesn’t stop or back well, he crowds me and the gate when I am trying to lead him through it. These are all symptoms of him not understanding my personal space, and not being responsive enough when I ask him to back off. The more nervous he gets the more obvious the behavior is, eventually leading him to run over his owner when he is being asked to do something that is a bit scary. To fix the problem I will start at the basics. Stop when I say, back when I say, stay where I put you until I ask for something else. That is where I will fix the problem of him jumping on top of me. I will make it very clear to him that I expect him to move away from me quickly whenever I ask. This will eventually fix the nervous crowding problem without me ever having to try to work through a big blow up. I end up with a horse that is pleasant to stand next to. They enjoy attention, and usually meet me at the gate. They know I am a comfortable safe place to be, but at the same time they know that they do not want to push me or step on me or crowd me because there are consequences.
My mare Bella is an example of the effectiveness of this approach. The other day I was grooming her in her stall and a noise outside the barn spooked her. (She has a sensitive/anxious personality so her spooks can be big.) I felt her foot touch the top of my foot as she was coming my way, but before she applied enough pressure for me to feel discomfort she was back moving the opposite direction. The spook ended with her standing in exactly the same spot she started, and a little scuff of mud on the top of my boot from where her hoof had been. (And my heart pounding in my chest a little. She is not really a “look out for your rider” kind of horse, and not so long ago she would have gone right over top of me.)
I find that it works so much better to approach training problems this way. I break the problem behavior down to its simplest form. I then find the easiest ways I can come up with to work on it and I do those first, gradually increasing the difficulty as they improve. I set myself up for success that way, because the horse learns better when they are calm, and I don’t find myself in a physical battle with a frightened horse that I am bound to lose.