How I Focused My Look-y Horse To Get Good Work Instead of Spooks

It was one of *those* nights – early spring, nearing dusk, with a slightly gusty breeze… and of course, the indoor arena now had all the windows opened up after the long, cold winter. Alone in the ring, my normally quiet, sensible horse was on edge as he examined the new openings all around the ring, surprised each time he felt the wind blow INSIDE the arena, listening to previously muffled sounds that now added a constant murmur of background noise to our usually silent work space. Birds were chirping, cars were cruising passed on the road, and a train horn sounded in the distance. Really, it was noises we shouldn’t have paid any attention to, but tonight for whatever reason, each one came as a surprise. Then it happened. Outside the window a deer approached. I saw it and turned Remy away from the window, thinking I could gauge how he was going to react from the far side of the ring and then approach it if he seemed confident, rather than letting it startle him close up.  But before I could get him all set up for my perfect plan, he caught scent of it. He couldn’t see it, but he knew it was there. I could feel the tension in his body, and he started audibly puffing as he walked, ears swiveling trying to pick up any information he could about the monster he smelled.  He remained under control and listening to me, but he felt on edge, ready to react.

We crossed the ring, turned back around and *saw the deer*. He froze, and I could feel his heart pounding against my legs. I’m sure he was trying to figure out how we were INSIDE the arena, and yet there it was, just the other side of that big opening, as if we didn’t exist. It walked slowly, eyes darting back and forth, as if it could feel us watching it.  I caught myself wondering which of these big prey animals was going to bolt first.

Ok, this had to stop. What is wrong with me?! I let out a huge sigh, exhaling not just the breath I caught myself holding, but also the tension. I scratched Remy’s withers, and sighed again, and this time he did the same.  We needed to refocus. We are not afraid of deer! Either of us!!

The rational side of my brain started to take over, reminding me that if I let him look at everything nervously, eventually he would find a monster. And I knew that if I let him convince me that there would be a monster if we just looked hard enough, my body language would only confirm to him that I too was monster hunting tonight, even if the irrational part of my mind was trying to convince me that I was just trying to anticipate what might spook him in order to stay a step ahead of keep control. Nope, I was determined not to spend my ride time looking for things to spook at, and I couldn’t let him do that either.

I decided I needed a plan, something to get us focused.  We had warmed up and futzed around long enough, we needed to do some real work.  I pulled my phone out of my pocket and headed towards the end of the ring, where I could lean it against the wall and leave it recording. I would run through all my lateral work for the camera and see how it was looking, check my position, and see if I could do some share-worthy work. Life’s been getting in the way and we haven’t been riding as much recently so I haven’t been asking for a lot in my rides, so this would be a good chance to just push all the buttons and see where we are at with everything we used to be able to do. Hopefully the basic rides we’ve been doing lately have kept a base fitness level in both of us, and once I see where some of the more advanced stuff is at, I can make a plan to move forward with our work.

With this in mind, I proceeded to set up the camera, thinking only of my ride plan, and how I could ride through all the movements I wanted to video. As soon as I got focused and got to work, so did Remy. All that tension melted away instantly. I wanted to get as much work done as I could while I was recording, so I quickly eased him from one movement to the next, and although there were plenty of mistakes and places for improvement, what I felt was a horse willing and listening, giving me a great effort even as I asked for things that were a little beyond where we’re currently at strength-wise. I had no whip and no spurs, and he got a little behind my leg, but that was it, that was the worst thing that happened. He tried everything I asked of him, and as I asked for one thing and then another and then another, his attention never left me, and we both completely forgot about monster hunting.

Remy, thoroughbred, cantering
Focused and working hard!

I ran through everything I could think of off the top of my head that we used to be able to do and I tried it, not expecting to ride any of it perfectly, but just to ask and see what he offered, mindfully riding every step to set him up as best I could and then make note of what went well and what fell apart, getting a feel for where things were at.  Once we got to work, I never felt the wind blow through the ring, and all the sounds that had been so loud faded away completely.  I finished and went to stop the phone from recording, only then realizing 10 minutes had gone by and felt like just a minute or two. Then as we walked on a long rein and I fumbled around trying to get my phone back in my pocket, I looked outside where a herd of deer were grazing. Remy walked past them without paying any attention, just relaxing as I scratched his withers. He had done well, and he knew it. It was a satisfying ride for both of us.

As it turns out, neither of us are afraid of deer after all. It’s just when our attention wanders we start to see things that aren’t there, and after a long day of work (in my case) and a long day lounging in the paddock (his case), I guess it can be hard to get the brain engaged sometimes! But creating a solid plan for the ride and having a few things in mind to accomplish makes all the difference.

I left the barn thinking “Good thing I recorded that, no one would believe how lovely relaxed he worked if they heard how the ride started!”, thinking about lessons I’ve taught that have started off similarly.  So to help you through your next ride that starts off the way mine did, I am sharing this story and video!

Moral of the story: There is a RESET button you need once in a while.  It goes like this:  1) Deep breath and big sigh 2) scratch the withers 3) come up with a plan, do something *hard* that requires constant communication and all of your focus, and your horse’s complete attention.  Ride a test, see how many times you can do your hardest movement, try a movement you’ve never done, or video your ride to see how long you can keep your posture perfect. Make a video of your best work, with the intention of publishing it online!  Ride as if you are being judged.  You have to outsmart yourself, find a way of making your new task take such precedence in your mind that you don’t have the ability to also still be thinking about what might be spooky. Get yourself in the zone. Your horse will follow your lead. It’s all in your head!

This is a little snippet of the ride… in the next post I’ll be sharing the full 10 minutes of video if you’re interested to see what kind of work a semi-out-of-shape ottb can do (spoiler: he can still do some good work! shoulder in, haunches in, half pass, and flying changes!), I’ll go through it piece by piece with explanations of how I analyze a video like this from a “constructive criticism” approach to make a plan towards improving our work and moving him up the levels, and I’ll share ideas for how you can use video as a tool to improve your own rides.  Check it out here: Video Analysis of my Ride


  • Susan FriedlandSmith (@SaddleSeeksHorse)

    I can totally relate to this. I remember my previous TB would always choose a corner he wanted to spook at–regardless of which arena I was riding him in. I started to anticipate over time which corner it would be. The perfect antidote is work, work, work and breathe, breathe, breathe. Thanks for sharing!

    • dressagefundamentals

      Oh, not fun!!! I’ve known a few horses that would choose a spooky corner, I think that must be one of the most frustrating “training challenges” a horse can come up with! One I knew would do it with his owner, but not with someone else in the saddle, so it was definitely something he’d figured out he could get away with with her, or her own nerves creating the spooky corner, or who knows what! Sometimes I wish I could just say to them “Come on, cut her some slack, she takes such good care of you and doesn’t really ask for much!!”

  • Terry Golson

    Exactly! This is why I neither coach my students to force the horse to go up to and face the scary thing, nor to “boot them past.” For new scary things I do let my horse look and ponder. On a recent ride we saw someone on a pogo stick. Talk about different! I breathed calmly while he looked, figured it out, sighed and walked on. It all starts with that calming breath and relaxing into work. Of course, it helps that you and your horse have a deep well of trust that you can dip into.

    • dressagefundamentals

      Oh my gosh, I bet a pogo stick would get most horses bug-eyed! That’s a funny one, and not something we run into often! Will have to remember that idea for bombproofing…. 🙂

  • Alli Farkas

    My goofy mare decided to spook at a cat she has seen a million times before. It was running up the long side of the arena, but the horse got herself busted because she ran after the cat instead of away from it. If you’re going to spook, at least follow the rules!

    • dressagefundamentals

      LOL!!!! That’s awesome! But credit to her, I love a horse that approaches something they are worried about to check it out rather than running first and thinking later!

  • Leslie Ann Fowler

    In my beginning classical riding years, I had a laid-back Arab gelding. Laid-back until we came to the end of the covered arena where the end doors didn’t shut together completely because of dirt/mud buildup. Sunrays would shine through in a beam. He spooked at this every time. I didn’t know how to deal with it at the time. I don’t have horses now, but in retrospect, how could I have handled it. Again, it was my beginning years in riding, but even if I’d had more riding experience, what suggestions could be given me?

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