For example, during a very good lesson, another student in the lesson was too warm and took her vest off and placed it in the corner. When Ralph and I came around that corner again he stopped dead, spread his forelegs wide, leaned his head down and flared his nostrils. I pushed him on forward and it took about 6 circles in the same corner for him to accept it as non-threatening. And for the rest of the lesson every time we passed it, he was slightly distracted. I have been told that I need to accept that he is simply a ‘looky’ or ‘twitchy’ kind of horse and to ride ready for anything. He has probably always been that way and will always be that way, but I’m not sure I believe that. Maybe I just don’t want to believe it because it’s taking the fun out of riding.
What’s happening now is that my own anxiety is climbing which is contributing to the problem. And I find myself wanting to ride with crop and spurs now (which I have never done). But I know this is simply a reaction to my own fear and wanting to control the horse or intimidate him into being more scared of me than what he is already afraid of so I haven’t yet. My concern is that my own escalating anxiety will escalate his as well.
So, finally, my question is: how do I desensitize Ralph to an entire environment? I have watched the online videos at the Uni and I understand the incremental approach when it involves a ‘stream’ or plastic bag or poles, etc but I am having a hard time translating that approach to an entire structure and the environment of the indoor riding arena. Any advice is greatly appreciated!
Monty Robert's Answer: Welcome to the real world of dealing with a spooky horse. My riding these days is limited to a horse you have probably seen on my Equus Online Uni lessons called Nice Chrome. He is a ‘twin brother’ to your horse where touchy, feely, and spooky is concerned. I can’t’ count the number of times I have been told that it is hopeless to deal with his issues. They say just acknowledge it and get over it.
Chrome is still spooky, touchy and feely but I am able to contend with certain challenges that were impossible when I took him over at three years of age. There is still a high pulse rate and adrenalin level but the volatility has subsided substantially. We do not have to accept danger with this personality feature. It is, in fact, a fantastic advantage when seeking a horse that is able to rise to world class performance.
Sensitivity is essential to achieving high marks in virtually every discipline that we deal with. Horses that lack elements of sensitivity are wonderful for therapeutic riding and educating entry level riders but it’s difficult to cause them to rise to laudable performances in the areas of competition which include dressage, show jumping, reining, cutting and the like. It is important however that you remain safe.
In a high percentage of cases regarding horses that are less than comfortable in indoor arenas, it happens that they express their concerns because they had bad experiences in that building. This is not always the case but it is well over the majority. The challenges that you have outlined in your question would indicate to me that one could deal with these elements, while remaining safe, if the horse was being led by another horse with a rider on his back.
I am thinking of things like the sand on the wall in particular. Spending time actively in the building without the rider on would tend to reduce the anxiety level. I might also suggest that one consider, if possible, placing some sort of enclosure in the building and causing the horse to spend substantial periods of time just existing in that building. Each of these suggestions would follow a litany of ideas that I recommend for spooky horses.
The Equus Online Uni has several lessons that outline the procedures that I typically utilize for spooky horses. A horse like this would complete that list over and over again and in various locations to more deeply imprint the acceptance of them. Good luck, stay in touch and let us know how it’s going.