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Spooking on the Trail

 Hi Ed
I could use your training advice for my 6 yr old
 gelding that I have finished myself.  He is excellent
 with groundwork and obstacles (tarps, bags, etc.) in
 the arena.  But, I have found that he is a somewhat
 reactive horse, especially when he is afraid.  He
 tends to want to hop up in the front instead of going
 forward.  He has recently developed this with trailer
 loading, and riding on my trails where deer have
 jumped out of the brush suddenly and spooked him.  I
 have hauled him several times and trail ridden him a
 variety of places.  I have a lot of wildlife on our
 property that jumps or flies out suddenly, and this
 stresses him just heading in that direction.  Now, he
 spooks and whirls at every little movement.  I
 recently hit the ground hard after he spooked at
 something.  Do you have any suggestions on how to help him
 get over this, especially with the deer?  When we
 trail ride off my property in parks in the woods and
 he sees deer ahead of time, he is fine.
 Thanks for any help,

Hi Sonya,
As far as your six year old spooking on the trail, I am assuming you have
already done several sessions of a full despooking, desensitization program
introducing lots of different scary items to him gradually and becoming more and more vigorous with them while using lots of approach and retreat when he is standing calmly accepting these things.  (This complete process is shown in detail on our "Foundation Training" DVD which you can order from our web site at www.eddabney.com/video.htm.)  If this procedure is not followed properly in a careful and deliberate manner you can cause more harm than good and actually teach your horse how to be afraid of everything.

Next step - "The Controlled Catastrophe" - After all your despooking on the
ground you should have a helper on the ground with you mounted in the round pen.  The helper suddenly waves a flag or tarp, etc. while you keep your horse facing the helper and calm him down by rubbing his neck and talking softly to him.  You should be riding in a snaffle bit (no shanks) so if he spooks and bolts you can lift one rein to the side (lateral flexion) and
keep turning him into tight circles until his feet quit moving (the one rein

If he is ok after several sessions of this then just do more and more trail
riding giving him lots of experience and exposure while you stay "on your
toes" so you are ready to do a one rein stop any time he
even thinks about starting to spook.  Make sure you do all your Six Keys to
Harmony ground exercises before you mount up as a pre ride check list to
gain his attention, build his confidence in your leadership and have him
focused on the job at hand and accustomed to taking your instructions.  Then
you will be able to mount up with more confidence that the ride will go well
and he will feel your confidence which will help him be braver and calmer.

It would also be a good idea for a while to let him follow an older
experienced trail horse until he has had lots of trail miles and begins to
settle down and not be afraid of everything.

Let me know if any of this helps or if you have any other questions.

Enjoy the Journey,

Ed Dabney is an internationally acclaimed clinician, presenting horsemanship and riding clinics all over the US and in Europe.  In 2007, Ed was named Champion of the East Coast Trainer Challenge Series by Equine Extravaganza.  Ed was honored to have been selected by the University of Georgia to teach their senior level Young Horse Training course.

His training articles have appeared in many major national magazines.  Ed produces instructional videos and the “Gentle Horsemanship” TV program which has been seen on RFD-TV.

Ed's blending of natural horsemanship and classical equitation has made an indelible mark with students all across the United States and now also in Europe, drawing the attention of serious riders searching for the lightest touch and the deepest connection with their horses irrespective of breed or discipline.