Understand your horse’s flight response
and learn to convert fear to bravery.
Imagine riding into the same arena where you school every day. Overnight, the barn manager decided to hang up a new banner, making a familiar setting suddenly seem new and terrifying to your horse. He takes inventory of everything in his environment, and this new addition is spooky. He is on edge. He sees the banner flap, spins and heads for the gate.
/ The Flight Response /
You’ve probably seen many horses startle and attempt to flee; this is flight behavior.
It’s run now, think later, and one of the most defining characteristics of the equine
species. When a horse is motivated to run, he can run up to a quarter mile before
he even considers slowing down and thinking about what spooked him.
While flight is one of their strongest defense mechanisms, horses are also instinctively curious. Once a horse rules out flight as a response, he wants to investigate—
but the two behaviors are diametrically opposed. In my approach to de-spooking,
it’s all about ruling out flight (fear), and encouraging investigation (bravery).
There’s no such thing as a fully “bombproof” horse that will never startle. It’s
fine for horses to spook at something in the pasture, but the behavior is not so
fun when you’re up there in the saddle. A spook, turn and bolt response can
unseat you and result in an injury.
Run now, think
later is one of
of the equine
The good news is that you can
convert your horse from flight to
investigation—and create new habits
that will help him learn to stay put
and be brave enough to face what
once caused him fear.
/ Changing the
Flight Response /
When I’m in the saddle and a horse
spooks, I stop him assertively and
make him turn and face whatever
he’s afraid of. I never circle, but rather
turn one way, then the other to keep
him turning toward what he is afraid
of. If you circle, half the time you
are turning away from what he fears,
therefore encourage flight.
If I keep turning him toward what
he’s afraid of he will eventually give up
and decide that it’s OK to stand still.
BY JULIE GOODNIGHT WITH HEIDI MELOCCO