Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Riding Scared: Working Horses Through Their Fear

My last post was about what to do when the rider is scared, but if we had horses that were never scared of anything, we probably wouldn’t be either. Our fear really comes from not knowing what our horses will do and if we can handle their fear responses and keep both ourselves, and our horses, safe.

Shirley shared a post for Radek Libal a few weeks ago and, since then, I’ve been following him on Facebook.  It was no little bit of serendipity that he just released a video addressing the topic of fear in our horses and how to handle it.

The horse he’s riding does exactly what Leah does when she gets to a scary situation. That whole blowing out to the right or left. For her, it’s almost always the Left. I loved watching his video. He is so good at explaining things and making them simple.  The last portion of the video is an ad for signing up with him. I think the cost was ninety something dollars for a  lifetime membership.  I just might do it because I LOVE his content.

(You can see Bee has one ear on the tunnel and a scared eye.)

I took B over to the barn next-door before they tore down the tarp tunnel. Turns out, Bee is actually braver than Leah with this particular obstacle--which doesn't surprise me since she allows me to completely cover her head with the tarp at home, whereas, Leah isn't okay with that yet.

We walked through the tunnel together, several times, from both directions.  She was able to listen to me in the tunnel when I'd put my hand up to ask her to slow down.  I am not riding Bee at this point, so we didn't do that. The ground is still too frozen and snowy and slick and I don’t want to take a risk on her.  When spring hits, we’ll start back in saddle and do a lot of work trailering her down to the equestrian areas and trail course obstacles.

I continue to work with the horses in the outdoor arena as long as they have decent footing. My work is mostly consisting of getting Leah to be calm. I do a lot of taking her from barrel to barrel and picking up a cone and then back to the next barrel to deposit it. Little things like that bother her. But with work they shouldn’t. She is doing much better at stopping and then going over obstacles.

The video by Radek Libal really sums up what we worked on at the last clinic: keeping them faced up as you work through the fear. It’s not about putting their nose on it, (although if they do become curious about it and they are thinking about it, they may decide to put their nose on it), instead, it’s about facing the fear and slowly getting closer and closer without running away.

A few extra thoughts about working them through fear:

1. Only ride with people who will be patient as you work through the fear.  It might take a while, so they should be prepared to sit back and relax.

2. Listen to your horse and his fears and don't just disregard them all as unfounded.  Last week, I asked Cowboy to step on the bridge above with me in saddle, and he wouldn't do it.  I dismounted and had him put a foot on it and he slipped.  He was right.  I praised him.  When the bridge was dry (above) we did it all again and Cowboy went over with NO PROBLEM.  It was always about the slippery bridge--not the bridge itself.  On the other hand, there are some things that are scary, but still very safe and we're going to override their suggestions.  We need to have a way of communicating with them that says--I hear you.  I have thought about your warnings.  But I say it's okay.  Or, And I say you're right, we're not going to do this.

3. In the video, Radek is in an open, flat field, but sometimes we get to places on the trail where there isn't a good spot to safely work them through the fear.  I like to scout out rides and really ask people about them ahead of time so we'll know what we're facing.

4.  There's nothing like a trail ride to test every bit of the work you do beforehand and, sometimes, you just get into a real mess--but still, the little things can make big differences.

There was a ride a couple of years ago where I let my friend--an old Cowboy who passed away last fall--lead us up a narrow trail near his house.  His horses had done it a thousand times, and I trusted him.  The trail was steep and overgrown in parts, but rideable.  Unfortunately, Cowboy's bit broke leaving me with nothing but his headstall.  At the same time I realized his bit was broken, I saw a log coming up in the path.  I quietly dismounted and got in front of Cowboy because the trail was too narrow for both of us.  Dismounting wasn't normal, so he started to get scared.  When we got to the log, he evaded going over it by going to the side and then almost falling down the side of the mountain.  He had to really dig in and pull himself back up--which thrust him forcefully onto the path.  He was paying attention to where I was, and he didn't jump ON me.  The log didn't seem nearly as scary as what he'd just been through, so he walked right over it and we were able to navigate the rest with just the reins and headstall--broken bit hanging down on both sides.  All of this, and we were sandwiched between four other horses on that narrow, steep path.

A couple takeaways from this.  First, I was smart to get off before we got to the log. What if he'd done that with me on him?  Would he have been able to correct?  Would I have thrown him off balance?  Second, Cowboy respected my space even when I didn't have any real control of him, and that was something we worked on a lot before we ever hit the trail. It paid off.

But on the flip side--I should have been working on dismounting before that happened.  I should have practiced dismounting on trail rides when things weren't scary and then maybe he wouldn't have gotten so worked up.  And, it goes without saying, I should have paid more attention to my tack!  But things do happen, even with the best intentions.  I've had a rein snap on me before--and it was a  new leather rein.  I've heard of people losing their saddle rigging.  Things happen.

And another lesson learned, my friend was nearing the end of his days (he died of cancer last fall) and he didn't have any real fear for himself anymore.  He kept suggesting the most dangerous routes on that ride.  It was in a park I'd ridden a thousand times, but the places he was leading us to were the most treacherous--railroad tunnel so low we had to duck through it on our horses--and this steep path.  He suggested another path, but I overrode him.  The lesson from that is, when your guide is demonstrating a lack of regard for safety, stop following the guide!

Will you look like a party pooper?


Will you look like a scaredy cat?


But at least you'll be alive!


My back is getting better every day. I purchased a back brace and wore it for a couple of days and that seemed to really help. For anyone else going through this I would suggest getting a back brace at the very start--apply heat and take Motrin for the inflammation.


I have lots of plans for this property as we get ready for a foal baby.  Fingers Crossed!  One is to combine two stalls into the barn into one big foaling stall with a video camera.  Since we'll have lost stalls, I want to build a 36' loafing shed to make up for it.  Honestly, I like loafing sheds better than barn stalls.  The horses seem to prefer them, too.

Well, time to stop blogging and get out with my horses.  I feel very lucky to have them.  They inspire me to get out in snow, wind, rain and ice.  I LOVE to see my herd!!


  1. This post truly shows your wisdom. Thank you

  2. A lot of good content here from both you and Radek. He brings up one subject that I've long debated with other bloggers and horse trainers on: Whether to make your horse face what fears him or ignore it.

    1. Interesting. When I rehashed the clinic with my friends, one wasn’t too sure about the facing it suggestion either. She didn’t say why. I think it’s semantics. I agree that you shouldn’t make something scary that they aren’t scared of and overdo it like I’ve heard of some people doing, but when the horse is showing fear of an object you don’t want them to be afraid of, what choice do you have but to work through it while facing it. He was making him move his feet and not letting him just stand there or bolt. Some places are too tight to work in circles and dangerous if they try to spin around. It seems a good idea, to me, to train them to stand and look at it—it’s usually water in my case—and then through and over. I let them take their time—smell, drink, put a hoof in—they’re just trying to assess it. I imagine, if your horse really gets to trusting you, he’ll be willing to try for you without too much drama. The first colt I ever raised and trained would do anything for me. He was golden. Leah had a bad accident as a foal and about ripped her back leg off in a cattle guard. She will always be nervous about where she puts her feet.

    2. I should add—especially if it’s something you’re going to encounter a lot. I also think it helps when you work through fear at home or in a safe environment so that when you are on the trail you have dealt with some of the issues of how you communicate and get through fear. At those times you usually don’t have the luxury of wide open spaces to do circles. At home, you can control a lot of factors.

  3. I think it’s our job to help our horses face their fears. I do it with patience and time. Doesn’t matter how long it takes even a small try is better than nothing. I also agree that working at home is better and it gives you a lot more time to work it out.

    Brings to mind a lesson years ago. My daughters horse Nate was afraid of a water jump. The trainer kept yelling at her to make him do it no matter what it took. She told the trainer he was scared and she wasn’t forcing him over it. After some more discussion she told the trainer “ lessons over pal.” The next day she took Nate to the water jump again (hand walking) and introduced him to it calmly and quietly. He got over his fear, she mounted and he never refused it again at home or at a show. So there’s a common sense lesson in that experience.

    1. That's a great lesson to learn. Your daughter was smart and strong, and it paid off.

      Yep, you need the time--both at home and on the trail. Time. Patience. Common sense. If you practice all of that, things work out pretty good.

  4. Everybody has a different way of doing things, but gaining trust and respect is key to having a great relationship with your horse. I trust Beamer, even though he has his evasions, I know we can work through them. It will be fun getting to know Gussie again, she was always a bit opinionated but not too bad.

    1. I know what you mean. Like you and Beamer, I trust Cowboy and I know I can handle his evasions. Leah is also opinionated and a little aloof. We're still building trust and partnership because it didn't come as naturally to us.

  5. Re#2: I can think of 2 instances when I didn't consider my mare's trepidation at all & I pushed her... Should come as no surprise that BOTH times, she was right. Listening to her instincts the first time would've made me a better rider, sooner. Lesson learned. That mare moved on to a teaching position with a 13 year old girl a number of years back - that gal has turned out to be a pretty good learned herself. Haha

    Re#4: As Dr Phil says, "never substitute someone else's judgement for your own good sense". I'm up for challenges, but if something makes me fearful then (by this age I know that) I owe it to myself to assess that feeling. If my fear is valid, I have no qualms saying no (that ability having come as a gift from experiencing a hard knock or three).
    Safety of my horses is paramount, & only I know what their true hot buttons (as opposed to the occasional 'Do I HAVE to's?'), so I ride accordingly & judge each concern fairly before acting (see Re#2).
    Luckily for us, we've had our little band here for quite a number of years, so they don't have any real issues anymore. It's awfully nice for Mr Shoes & I to have point & shoot type horses. They each had knowledgeable, thorough training to start with, & we have put in the wet saddle pads to help them become even better over the years. We actually call them 'the Never-could-part-with-3'. Happy times well spent for us all.

    Today was warm, so I rode my good gelding and ponied the 2 mares in a brace alongside; I'll bet that would've made for a pretty picture against the sparkling snow, but we were all alone today.

    1. You’re lucky to have three great horses right now. Life is good! Yes, it sounds like you’ve learned the lessons. Who would of thought the most important thing about horsemanship would be learning when to say no and having the courage to say it. It’s just all about trusting yourself. Dr Phil said it well.

      Where is the cameraman when you need him? I bet that was a beautiful picture!

  6. Do you have any video of that? I'd want to find out some additional information.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.