Friday, July 8, 2011

Any Suggestions?

It seems Tucker has learned a new game.  A game I don't really like playing.  I need some help.

You may have noticed a slight increase in frequency of posts about things that Tucker is pretending to be ridiculously afraid of (or maybe legitimately afraid of, I'm not sure).  I'm beginning to suspect that this may be a game he's invented, which gets him out of work for a minute or two, and is starting to get on my nerves.

Since Tucker is generally the brave, unflappable, dependable sort, when he spooks at something (which until very recently, is a total rarity), we calmly walk up to it, sniff and snort, arch our neck, and then take a deep breath and realize it's just a tractor/cat/fallen tree limb/tarp/etc.  We can then carry on the ride and he won't spook at it again, ever.  I'm totally okay with this type of spooking -- cautious about a new object, but willing to approach it, and sensible once his brain has a moment to process it.

But recently, the list of things he's spooked at has become increasingly lengthy and somewhat ridiculous:  a traffic cone; a pile of bricks; a puddle; a pile of wood; a lawnmower; a jump standard on its side; a flatbed delivering sheds (okay maybe I'll give him that one); a sleeping dog; a horse wearing a scrim; and last night, a stack of hay.  Granted, many of these were during the rehab process, so I chose to ignore them figuring he just had too much pent up energy.

That brings us to last night. I brought Tucker in from turnout to ride and a torrential downpour started almost as soon as he was on the crossties.  The loud noise of rain on a roof has always been something that for reasons unknown, scares the bejeezus out of my boy.  This is legitimate fear - his eyes get huge, he can't stand still, his ears flicker back and forth, and his pulse races.  I get it.  It's really loud and he can't figure out where the noise is coming from, and he can't get away from it.  We've had to make a couple of rapid exits from indoor rings to avoid major incidents, and once he is standing out in the pouring rain, he immediately stops panicking. 

So, I got out the cat toys I keep in my trunk for just such occasions, plugged his ears, and stood by his side until the noise subsided.  He does this thing when he is scared -- he used to do it as a baby all the time and now only does it when he's really freaked out -- he does a very quick back-and-forth nuzzling with his upper lip on my arm.  It's a very clear "Mom don't leave I'm scared" message that is very different from his usual signs of affection, and it just melts me every time.  What can I say? 

As soon as the rain stopped, we went down to the indoor and I figured since he'd had a couple days off and he was already sort of on edge, I'd yank his tack off and let him bounce around before I got on.  So he did his usual galloping bucking frolicking leaping routine for about 3 minutes and then walked over to me with a big sigh and a much calmer look on his face.  Looked as though we'd have a great ride.

And we did -- except for the first five minutes, which I spent convincing him the hay stacked at the end of the indoor (which has been there a few weeks, which he's seen before, and which he had just been galloping past), was non-life-threatening.  He at first refused to walk toward it but gave in after a swift kick in the gut, approached it with arched neck, snorting, and sideways walking, but as soon as we got up to it, he reached out and grabbed a bite.  Really?  REALLY?  You're so afraid of it that you have to EAT IT?  Needless to say I was annoyed, but I told myself to let it go and enjoy the rest of the ride.  Which, for the most part, I did.

That is until the middle of our ride, when I trotted down the center line and he decided that the stacked hay, from this angle, was once again deadly.  Are you kidding me?  We're fifty feet to the right of where you JUST trotted by it and now you are once again terrified?  And this time, he not only stopped in his tracks, but then got stuck in reverse and practically ran backwards.  So I gave him a smack behind my saddle with my hand, we moved forward, and went down the centerline again, this time with pricked ears but no spook.  We finished the ride in a nice relaxed manner, cantered in both directions, no more spooking.  Note that he walked by the hay on a long rein at the end of the ride and didn't even notice it.  Clearly, this is not a legitimate fear.

My theory is that the spook arrived during the rehab process because he was having trouble dealing with his extra energy, and now it has become a game, or a bad habit. I believe he needs to be reminded that he is not a spooky horse.  I talked it over with Alicia, and we think I probably need to get on one day next week (not tonight, because we are showing on Saturday) with a stick in hand and get after him a little if/when he decides something is too terrifying for him to work.  I'm fine with a little neck-craning or ear-pricking that you can ignore with a little over-bending or getting his brain busy with a leg yield or something, but I am kind of drawing a line at sticking his feet in the sand and refusing to move, and definitely at running backwards.  Not cool Tucker, not cool at all.

But... at the same time... he is a huge wimp, and this will undoubtedly send him into a blind panic.  I really hate the thought of freaking him out by getting after him, and a freak out is a foregone conclusion.  When I use a stick to send him forward, even if it's just one or two well-timed spanks that wouldn't even warrant an ear flick from another horse, he will melt down and need to be talked down off the ledge for the duration of the ride.  Such an overdramatic delicate little flower.

So... is there something I am missing here?  Does anyone have alternate suggestions?  Or am I just being a baby, and I should fairly and properly discipline the bad behavior and then move on?  I am opening the floor up for discussion.  I would love to hear any ideas you may have, especially if it doesn't involve me sitting on top of a 1200-pound powder keg who believes he's just been brutally attacked by a mother-gone-mad.


  1. I'm going to toss out a couple ideas.

    Lily got very spookynafter a long layoff. This was a horse that never spooked. She is still not over it, we have been back to consistent work for about two months. I'm giving her time and I've gone so far as resackng her out and it helped.

    Sometimes we inadvertently focus on things that and don't realize it, so I would do an internal check.

    And lastly here can be changes to a horses vision and might be worth testing...

  2. Have you had his eyes checked? A vision change could cause sudden, ridiculous spooking in a normally unflappable horse.

  3. Hey Tucker and Marissa! If you want comments like the ones on my blog,, then just go to and follow the instructions there. It's free, but be warned—you cannot import all your old Blogger comments. You'll still have them, but no one else will see them. This is a glitch they're working on fixing. :(

    Ears to you, Fenway Bartholomule

  4. Hmm, so interesting and not fun. I think the suggestions of the eye check would prove to be smart to eliminate quickly.
    Secondly, being I too, have a sometime brave boy or a cringing shaking baby, I get the frustration at spooking at the silly things. (Butterflies have almost de-seated me a few times from a side leap spook)
    Is it pent up energy? Is his feed up too much for what he's doing? Maybe reviewing his diet to see if there isn't something making him more amped?

  5. Ok... I too have pretty unflappable horse.. Most days a bomb in front of him will not set him off. Rarely, but every so often, the corner is scary or the plastic chairs by the mounting block suddenly look funny.
    I generally will give him the benefit of the doubt for a few passes...keep in mind we are at home and I have ridden his same horse facing 40 mph tractors and combines chopping corn without even the flick of an ear. Not too mention he is a saint at shows.
    But at this point I know that at times his spookiness is resistance and the raised head and evading steps are a way to aviod real work. After the 4th or even 10th time past the death trap he gets a decent crack with the dressage whip and some hard work right by the scary object. Maybe some spiral in spiral out or some leg yields on a circle towards the obejct of death. 9 times out of 10 those spots are less scary in about 10 minutes or less.
    Horses aren't stupdid...I think Tucker knows his mommy loves him and would rather coax him through scary situation then be mean and make him work.
    horses are

  6. I once knew a horse who would spook in the same corner (near the parking lot) at the same noises, day after day. He would also spook and refuse jumps that had been there un-changed for weeks. We made him work hard whenever he would spook, and eventually he got better.

    My horse is a bit spooky, and will trot sideways, arched necked etc, and I just make her circle and work until she is at a relatively acceptable level of focus on whatever's scary. If spanking Tucker will send him into a fit, then I don't know if it's worth it as it might just make him more tense all the time.

    I tried a Vit B1 supplement from smartpak once that really seemed to help with my mare's overall ability to focus on the important stuff, maybe try that?

  7. I like the Vitamin B idea and when he spooks make him work really hard. I don't agree with the spanking if this makes him even more tense.
    In lessons when Sam has been silly and spooking we have made small circles and made him really work deep and round. He soon got the idea to go forward even if he though it was scary!
    Good Luck it is an awful trait!

  8. I came back to read some comments...I think to each their own BUT if I spank and force Laz past something he spooks at, it's melt down city. It does not work for him. That being said, he spooks when generally fearful, I feel the heart rate, etc. I'm sure there are just cases where the spook is just b/c they are bored (I rode an Arab JUST like that and yes urging her on w/ a spank did the trick). I don't know if Tucker is that horse to evade his job. He seems so happy about it. What are your thoughts?

  9. Having worked with several young TB's and WB I personally think that the spanks should come as a last resort. I personally have had a lot of luck with making the horse work harder when they are spooky or resistant.
    I have one of the most bomb proof Appendix QH's ever. He's a modified jumper but every one thinks he's a hunter or a kids horse (til he jumps). After several layoffs, spring fevers, or even just being young moments, I usually start by walking away from the object. (Ignore it, like it never happened)Then start doing leg yields, circles, transitions, and figure 8's and quietly working towards the scary Cheetah. If he goes close or past the object without issue we get to just trot or canter around for a bit. Should he act up again, we immediately go into a leg yield or circle, etc.
    He picked it up pretty quick and now it typically only takes one leg yield before hes focused again.
    If it is an actual spook I'll let him look at the object. I have had very good success with this method on a lot of my green beans.

  10. While catch riding, I've had this strange "I'm spooky now, FYI" happen with a number of horses. The only real lesson I learned is every horse needs something different to get them through. Because they did not belong to me, even if I suspected it was deliberate icky spooking (not what Tucker is doing, but the "I'm challenging your authority" spook.) I had to start with the mildest response, and work my way around the tool box.

    One horse seemed genuinely afraid...but only when he was full of himself. A crop would have set this particular horse off, but I needed something to say "enough" when circling etc made no difference. (I like anonymous' suggestions, I those are always my baseline starting places.) I carried a popper and whapped my boot instead of the horse. The sound was enough to push him over the hump into un-fearful, quiet work. I ended up downgrading to a bat, and he eventually got over it.

    Wet saddle blanket time cures a lot of spooking as well.

    Our advice is great (I love advice from other horse people!), but you know Tucker best, and will know where to start, and with what...


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