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One of the best things you can do to build your horse’s confidence on the trail is to introduce him to as many spooky objects as you can. I have a junkyard of sorts on the ranch where I store discarded machinery parts and other items around the ranch, such as old hay feeders, Ritchie waterers, pipes, concrete slabs – you name it, it’s probably hiding out here! This area makes a great de-spooking tool for horses in training because there’s an endless number of objects they can spook at.
When an Academy Horse comes in for training, the first few times he’s taken out to the junkyard he spooks at nearly everything and the Academy student has to circle and turn him back in toward almost every object. By the horse’s last week on the ranch, he can ride around the entire junkyard on a loose rein and he’s bored to tears. I love it when my horses go down the trail like that.
While you can’t possibly introduce your horse to every single object he’ll ever encounter on the trail, what you can do is give him the tools to confidently work through a situation in which he gets spooked by an object. If you’re always consistent about immediately putting the horse’s feet to work and circling him around the object until he’s using the thinking side of his brain and is confident enough to stand next to it, it’ll take you less and less time to go through that process with each object.
You’ll also find that the more you introduce your horse to spooky objects and use the steps I described to work him around them and get him to use the thinking side of his brain, the less he’ll actually spook. Even if he’s never seen an object before, he’ll be less likely to use the reactive side of his brain and panic. As soon as you feel the slightest bit of nervousness from him, you’ll direct his feet. You’ll take control of the situation and be a confident leader. Your horse will learn to trust you because you get him safely out of situations in which he’s scared.
Imagine the thinking side of your horse’s brain as a muscle. The more you use a muscle, the stronger it gets. Let’s say I went to the gym every day for a year and I lifted weights with my right arm. At the end of the year, my right arm would be bigger and stronger, and it would be more useful to me. Now, let’s say that after a year I quit going to the gym. What would happen to my arm then? Every day my arm would get weaker, flabbier and less useful. Pretty soon, I wouldn’t be able to do as much with the arm as I used to.
That’s the way you need to look at the thinking side of your horse’s brain. It’s like a big muscle, and the more you exercise and use it, the more proficient it will get. The less you use it, the weaker and less useful it becomes.
Some horses get really smart about spooky objects and realize that if they go up to a “scary” object they get a rest, and they will actually try to go up to objects just so they can get to stand still and relax. It’s a really good problem to have.