Monday, February 6, 2017

I’ve been thinking about (and talking to Susan about) how sensitive to her environment on the trail Khaleesi is and how interesting it is to me to see that seem to increase over time when I would have thought it would decrease.

Then just the other day I read an AERC page question about what to do with a nervous horse and decided it might make a good blog post. 

We often call this spooky in the horse world and I looked up the definition: a person or animal that is easily frightened or nervous. 

Then I looked up sensitive: quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals or influences. 

I think for Khaleesi I prefer the second definition. I don’t sense she is in fear and she’s not a nervous horse. However she is particularly alert to changes and energy and boy sometimes she can react fast to them as well!

This has been interesting to me to observe and consider. My first horse – Faygo – is just about as unspooky as you can get. She’s been there and done that and there is hardly an animal she wastes a moment of concern over. (um- except sheep… she is terrified of sheep)  

She will occasionally fret a human thing in a natural landscape (a folding chair on the trail… an old camper in the woods). I would say on the whole she was ‘well desensitized’ in her training.  

This makes her safe for almost anyone to ride- safe is good, especially for a green rider – which I was when I began riding her. 

I wanted to say she still is sensitive but the more I think about that…. I’m not so sure I believe it. 

The woman who did the bulk of her trail training and is responsible for helping create the very very fine fabulous Faygo talks about how she had to use a pretty harsh bit to keep her from running away with her at first. She can sometimes be barn sour to this day and it takes a lot of work to keep her mind with you and not ignoring everything you ask to just GET HOME. At times it takes a very firm hand to get her ‘back’ to you. 

She is incredibly smart but she’s the horse out of the 3 I have to remind about leading 100% with me. She understands but occasionally just doesn’t want to cooperate with humans and she’s the horse who often won’t take the ‘good deal’ (She likes to push her limits and it takes some volume sometimes to get her to cooperate) she gets irritated at times and just wants to ‘get it done’.

The more I consider it, the more I realize she’s not particularly sensitive. 

This doesn’t mean she’s not a great horse. I love her deeply and she has amazing strengths and a huge heart – there isn’t a mean bone in her body. And she always looks like she stepped out of a fairy tale. 

I don’t know what her life was like early on- but I know she was a breeding mare for a while and I’m not sure anyone early on took the time to connect with her, or if they just forced her into doing what they needed for expedience and she kind of learned to shut out humans and well- get it done so they would leave her alone. 

I’m glad my friend saw such potential in her and put the time in with her as she is a special horse and one that has taught me a lot. 

So that was the bulk of my horse experience. 

Enter Khaleesi- who I decide to build from feral to reliable trail and endurance horse because I want to learn how, see if I could do it, and have that connection.


I wanted a horse no one else had spoiled, treated too harshly (shut down), ridden too hard too young… traumatized (trailer… stall… farrier you name it)… or even overly desensitized. 

So here I am trying to learn the very fine lines between safe and shut down… between listening to them and letting them take over… healthy respect and fear… and as it turns out spooky and sensitive. 

I honestly don’t remember her first year on the trail as being one she was quite so ‘in tune’ to the energy of the woods. However there is a heavenly section of trail that always has beautiful footing, flat and scenic along the river that I love to trot and canter. This is one place I began to notice a gradual increase in her reactions to environment.

I remember a time when we’d just float happily through. Carefree. 

And over time I started to notice she was on a higher alert there. It makes sense: there is the river on one side and thick brush on the other with occasional campsites just beyond. It is certainly a gauntlet of energy and activity as all kinds of animals cross the path from river to shelter, some using the campgrounds for foraging anything dropped around and sometimes fishermen in the water. One time we even had a deer jump out in front of us from a thicket (this was not what started her behavior here it was somewhere in the middle of the timeline from when it started till now). 

Sometimes her orange alert status makes the ride a little less fun for me- there are definitely times when the woods seem more ‘alive’ with changing weather, time of day or gusty winds – but I’m not afraid of her. 

I’ve been cantering along with friends (different trails entirely) when she put her head down- saw a boogeyman in the thick brush and jumped across the trail mid-canter. I laughed out loud because it was so surprising but was over before I could worry. I never felt unstable. 

It’s now normal to have a nice ride- alone or with friends- and have her trotting along and jump sideways at something mid stride and keep on going. To have her checking out the periphery and moving her ears to sense what’s out there. We’ve spooked grouse and turkeys close at hand- she stops short usually but we’re always fine. 

She’s not usually afraid (once or twice I have dealt with actual fear and moved through it). She doesn’t turn to run, she doesn’t mind moving forward, and neither of us is nervous. 

So I would have thought that with the amount of riding we do in the woods, often the same trails, that she would ‘desensitize’ and become more like Faygo is. Yawn: deer, turkey or bear… who cares. 

But I feel over this year she’s become more aware and alert to the woods rather than less. And that has raised some questions for me.

Is this bad or good or neither (just is)?

Is it something I’ve encouraged or just how she’s built?

Our relationship has been improving every month recently. I sense we are more connected than ever and she knows I listen to her without turning over control. 

Is she more communicative because she knows I’m listening? Giving me more information?

Am I not aware enough in her mind so she thinks she needs to be?

My general approach is to acknowledge when she’s in alert mode

Yep- what is it? Deer? Squirrels? Birds? I’m pretty sure we’re fine. 

And then just go on riding with calm and relaxed body and breathing. 

Am I giving too much thought and attention to it?

I sense animal energy in the woods – and Jaime seems to notice it too- I need to be concerned!

Or if I ignore it completely do I encourage her to get ‘louder’ in her communication?

Boy she is so unaware up there I’d better really make a big deal so she know what I know about the animal activity going on around us- I don’t want her to be taken by surprise!

And finally is this part of keeping the sensitivity and life in my horse? Which I do want.

I love that generally I can ask very quietly for something and she is already in tune to me so I can think something and she’s already sensing what is coming. Unless she’s distracted I don’t have to use much body language to get her working with me. I consider that sensitive. Does keeping that door open also mean she’s more sensitive to the environment around us as well?

I did try an experiment the last time we trotted the ‘gauntlet’. Instead of being aware of her attention going every which way around us, I was proactive. I began to go through a mental list of my riding and cycled through these thoughts:

  • Am I soft in my body and joints? Am I holding tension anywhere? Am I breathing? Can I melt into the saddle more and be one with my horse?
  • How is my position? Am I balanced and my seat contact correct? 
  • Is my heart in it? Am I here 100%? Present?
  • How am I carrying myself? Am I helping and encouraging my horse be able to carry herself well?
  • Are we connected? Me and she. 

All those things impact how my horse moves and carries herself. My body mirrors and affects hers. If I brace she will brace. If I am soft she can be soft. If I am unbalanced she has to compensate. 

It was one of my favorite miles ever. She was a little less occupied with the environment and more connected to me. I felt changes in her as I checked myself. I felt her carry herself with more power. 

I was proactive instead of reactive.

I will definitely use that concept again. 

For today I want my horse more sensitive to me and not necessarily desensitized to everything I can find. 

First you just can’t truly desensitize to enough situations and having a bond and trust are far more valuable to take with you into the unknown. Second I don’t want to kill her instinct, quickness, energy and responsiveness but I do want to encourage her to think first before fleeing especially if I’m on board. 

I also believe in some cases desensitizing can break the trust and relationship when it overwhelms the horse and gives them no escape. This is a concept I’m curious about called learned helplessness and having no ability to get away from something they are terrified of – the only option they have left is shutting down to cope. Problem is it can look like success.

I also would say there are horses more truly spooky than others, some horses are more nervous and worried. Some people may argue over the split hair of spooky and sensitive as either way it can be disconcerting to ride a horse who makes sudden adjustments while motoring down the trails. 

This is something I’m still observing and sorting out. So feel free to comment your own experiences!

Published by JaimeHope

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

One thought on “Spooky

  1. I’m so glad I found your blog! I’m on the same path as you in many ways but with a horse that had a lot of baggage and quirks. I walk that fine line of allowing Beaux’s strong personality come through and saying “Hey dude, take it down a notch”. Beaux doesn’t have much spook (off track Standardbred well except for peacocks but those are terrifying) but he has also become much more in tune with the “great out there” the more we ride. I also ask the questions “is he just more focused and alert” or am I, by acknowledging that he is alert, am I feeding that?

    Thank you for your timely blog, this gives me food for thought on where we are in our training for LDs and future 50s. Best of luck and happy riding!

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