©2014 Horses & Road Safety Awareness
Life for a horse can be pretty scary. In the wild they have to constantly be aware of danger in the form of predators, so thousands of years of this behaviour is ingrained into
our horses. There are not likely to be many predators in the meadows of the UK but anything unknown or sudden can make a horse think its life is in danger.
It is true some horses are stubborn and will stop and refuse to co-operate with you, but learning the difference between a scared horse and a stubborn horse can be
achieved by knowing the body language of a horse:
Snorting / flared nostrils
Head in the air, not moving about
Refusing to move forward
Standing very still or attempting to spin, bolt, prance or unseat rider
Ears pointed forwards and not flickering
Head lower but can be high, usually moving about
Walking backwards or sidewards without listening to aids
Ears to the side, flickering or back
Pawing at the ground
Looking around the area, not focused on one particular area/object
Stubborn horses need work with schooling and training, but what can you do to make your horse unafraid? Wendy Avery explains:
“Hi my name is Wendy. I am 43, have been around horses all of my life and I have two very different horses.
I have owned my 18 year old Irish Draft cross 'Nick' since he was 3 years old. He has always been a very brave and
confident horse and can remain in control under the most challenging of situations. A lot of people refer to him as
'Bombproof'; however his biggest downfall is someone approaching him to attach a rosette to his bridle or hand me a
dressage score sheet. People are surprised when such a calm and confident horse takes fright like this. I never fully
resolved this issue, it was easier to simply ask people in advance not to hand me anything or to fold it before handing it
In most situations, Nick thinks first, then reacts. If I am quick, I can control the reaction he chooses and praise him when his
reaction is a safe one. Even if something takes me by surprise, more often than not, Nick's reaction is safe. I am very lucky
to have such a wonderful horse, but I could never suggest that he is bombproof.
I have owned my 8 year old TB x Shire x cob 'Spider' since he was 3 years old. I realised very early on that Spider is not
naturally 'brave' and would never be anywhere near bombproof, so I have tried to make use of his trusting and inquisitive nature to try to help him to cope with situations. If
nothing else, I was determined to remain safe if anyone approached him with a 'flappy' thing!
Spider will react to something before thinking, so I really have to be several steps ahead of him to try to stay safe.
When hacking, I see more and more balloons, bunting, flags, kites and colourful children's' toys now, so I have tried to make these objects part of everyday life for Spider, in
the hope that it prevents him from spinning and bolting if he comes across anything when we're out.
When he was 3 years old I introduced him to the 'Touch' game by asking him to touch a treat tub lid (target) with his nose, from the verbal command 'Touch!'. When he
touched it I would click my tongue and give him a treat with my other hand. I would ask him to reach up and touch the target above his head, round to his side and between
his front legs. I also use a cat toy on a stick which has a bell in it, so that he can locate the target by sound if he can't see it.
Then I added other objects such as an unopened umbrella and asked him to touch that. The first time I walked across his field with a huge golf umbrella up he instantly knew
this was something he would be rewarded for touching!
Eventually I was able to hold objects that he was already familiar with whilst riding. I always start slowly, with the object folded, then unfold it as and when safe. I had already
got him used to objects being dropped or dragged, so if I had to drop something from his back it wouldn't alarm him more.
Children on scooters and cycles often want to catch up with horses to say hello, without realising that they may scare the horse. Despite Nick being terrified of show judges
with rosettes, he is excellent with children who run at him carrying all sorts of strange objects. I think his caring nature towards children (and the chance that they are going
to stroke him and adore him!) helps.
To help Spider with this occurrence, I made use of fly-tipped kiddies' toys which are great, especially if they've seen better days. If the wheels are rusty and out of alignment
they rattle, squeak and shoot off at odd angles. I started off at a distance and only got closer as his tolerance and acceptance allowed. Scaring him at this stage would have
been a setback. He is an inquisitive type and quickly followed me and my new toys round for treats.
I find with some horses that turning my back to a scary object can help. If I'm not scared enough to look at it then hopefully the horse will see it as less of a threat. When
hacking, I find that looking over my opposite shoulder on the approach to something which may cause a problem (such as a litter bin or discarded cardboard box) can help in
a number of ways:
If your horse spooks you know what you are jumping into
You can turn your horse's head so he is aware of things that are more dangerous than his 'perceived' threat
Your blocking aids on that side are automatically engaged to discourage movement in that direction
Your horse's attention can be diverted to what he thinks you are looking at and you've passed the scary object by the time he looks back!
I also leave scary things near their field, paddock or schooling area and gradually move them nearer. They currently have bunting on the paddock fence after I spotted a local
bridge with bunting on both sides. Hopefully when crossing the bridge I won't end up in the middle of the road when strong cross winds catch the bunting.
I also place objects on my horses' regular route between field and stable. When leading the horse past I make sure I walk next to the object, so that if the horse does panic it
will jump away from me, not on top of me. It also helps their confidence if they see that I am happy to go past it confidently.
Some horses would like the games I play with Spider, but some would hate it. All horses are different and need an individual approach.
It doesn't matter how much work you do, they are still unpredictable, but doing as much as you can to prevent and accident has to be a good thing.”