Ah, the joys of winter riding!
While riding in the winter can mean lovely canters through picturesque snowy fields... more often than not riding winter riding means climbing on a fire-breathing dragon who hasn't been ridden in days or weeks because the neighborhood and subsequent riding arenas have been hidden under inches and inches of snow (or rain here in SoCal!) and hoping you survive. Sound familiar?
On days when our horses are super fresh or when we're riding in a new environment (at a show or riding in a any place we're not familiar with), spooking is par for the course! I don't know about you, but riding a horse who is prone to spooking is not fun. Unfortunately, horses do spook sometimes... even the coolest, calmest horses will sometimes get worried and spook. So what can we do?
"Where focus goes, energy flows..." -Tony Robbins
While Tony Robbins isn't a horseman, he is a pretty wise dude. Our energy follows our focus. And our horse's energy follows his focus. According to renowned natural horsemanship trainer Pat Parelli, "Spookiness is a lack of focus." So in order to stop our horses from spooking, we need to redirect their focus.
Parelli also goes on to say, "The opposite of a spook is a yield, so work on moving him towards a yield when he's in an afraid state of mind". Working towards getting your horse to yield will redirect HIS focus and YOUR focus!
Ways we can encourage our horse to yield on the ground
Flexing left and right - Standing at your horse's shoulder, take your rein or lead rope and pull it up to your horse's withers. Hold until he gives. Release immediately when he gives and pat him. Repeat several times each on each side.
Flex and then disengage the hindquarters - Like the earlier exercise, Stand at your horse's shoulder, take your rein or lead rope and pull it up to your horse's withers. When he gives his head, keep him flexed and use your fingers at his side (where you would kick if you were riding), and ask him to step away. When he steps away and his inside hind leg crosses under his body, release the pressure and pat him. Repeat this several times on each side.
Ways we can encourage our horse to yield in the saddle
Flexing left and right - Just like our exercise from the ground, take your reins and pull up toward your belt buckle. Hold until he gives. Release immediately when he gives and pat him. Repeat several times on each side. Most horses end up relaxing, licking, chewing, and lowering their head and neck on their own.
Leg yield on the circle - Riding your horse on a large circle, as him to leg yield out on two sides of the circle. This exercise is described in detail HERE. In a regular dressage court, this exercise works well in the center of the arena. Leg yield out on the "open" sides of the circle. Your circle will end up more egg-shaped, but your horse will need to think more about yielding and moving his feet and less about spooking.
Spiral in and out on the circle - From your 20 meter circle, little by little spiral in to a 10 or 12 meter circle. Then leg yield back out to your 20 meter circle. Because the circle size is always changing and he's having to yield the hind quarters (leg yield) for a majority of the time, your horse will have to really thing about where he's putting his feet and will need to redirect his focus.
Serpentines with leg yields - Start by riding a three loop serpentine in trot, using the full arena. Turn early, making one of your loops a little smaller, aiming for the quarter line before the rail. As you ride the turn, leg yield out toward the rail. As you finish riding the loop, straighten your horse and change direction. This exercise is described in detail HERE.
Here is how we go about flexing the horse on the ground, flexing and disengaging the hindquarters on the ground, and flexing under saddle.
In the above video, I redirect Steve-O's spook into a leg yield. He begins to spook and brace against me in the corner, so I turn early and leg yield from the quarter line to the rail.
One thought to remember in all of this...
"Horses interpret our emotions through a predator lens by default. If we are afraid of them spooking, they will most likely interpret this as predatory energy, causing them to be more nervous." - Pat Parelli
As we're trying to redirect our horse's nervous energy, we have to keep our own feelings and emotions in check. If we're nervous or afraid, the horse will feel it and become more scared.
But the good news is, we can control our thoughts and emotions. As our non-horsey but oh so wise guru Tony Robbins says, "Remember, what we FEEL is a result of what we're choosing to FOCUS on."
Just like your horse, when you're feeling uncertain or nervous, focus on getting your horse to yield and good energy will follow!
Give a few of these exercises a try the next time you and your horse are feeling nervous and let me know how it goes! Happy riding!