View Full Version : Conquering the Imaginary Demons

Dec. 7, 2009, 08:30 PM
Quick Summary- 3 yr. old horse was scared of white plastic lawn chairs. Thought she overcame her imaginary demons after several chairs and her spent a couple hours together in the round pen. This process occurred 6 months ago.

Since that process she has gotten much better and hasn't really been bothered by them too much. She was spooky when one of these evil demons showed up in the indoor about 3 months ago, but she became use to the chair or at least I thought that was the case until yesterday.

Same chair, same location, nothing new or different in over 3 months. The mounting block is next to the chair, no problem mounting. First sighting after making a rounding the ring sent tremors through her. Slinking her way to the chair, sniffing and inspecting, I thought all was fine until the next loop. Again, shaking and not forward, she spun and galloped uncontrollable until we found the wall. Turned and returned getting to the chair this time for another inspection.

Began trotting and still had issues keeping forwardness into that corner. As I was able to get her working and attention at other end of the arena, I improved the situation but she was still not comfortable or relaxed heading toward the chair.

I'm afraid that this may be an ongoing problem and would like to resolve this issue and put an end to her imaginary demons. I understand that she is 3 and I hope this is just a stage in her development. What really concerns me is the fact that I thought that she had been desensitized and overcome this fear and if I don't resolve this issue and understand it, I will be subjected to similar problems in the future.

So any advice or experience is greatly appreciated.

Dec. 10, 2009, 08:42 AM
Ok, here's what I do . . . My mare was afraid of bicycles and this is a problem because my Husband goes with me when I go to the local xc course. I don't always have afroend tog o with.

Sooooo he takes a fanny pack of carrots. The rest should be self explanitory. When we get close to him he offers a carrot, now she runs after him. It's great because he can bike along as we jump jumps and the little monster, errr I mean mare gets a treat for every jump.

Try and put a bunch of carrots on the chair:) and go buy more chairs, put them in weird locals and always have a carrot on them.

Dec. 10, 2009, 09:01 AM
"....What really concerns me is the fact that I thought that she had been desensitized and overcome this fear and if I don't resolve this issue and understand it, I will be subjected to similar problems in the future."

:winkgrin::cool: You got it. She's an event horse, right? Yes, I see she's 3 but every eventer I've ever had has had a boogie man somewhere, whether it is the banners at show jumping, the chair in the indoor, that certain rock on the side of the path, etc. Strong, brave, brilliant competitors, terrified of stupid things that have nothing to do with the work we're asking the horses to do.

I always ask them to take a look and sniff. They snort, whirl away, I ask them to go back and look again. Stand there for as long as it takes for her to not be quivering or spinning. Pat pat, good girl, and YOU turn her away. It is tricky sometimes. Your timing is important. I have friends who always turn their horses away from the scary things and not allow the peek or sniff. I also will work the horse at the distance away where he has stopped flipping out-as close as possible without the reaction happening. Once he's focussed and working, inch the circles a little closer, be sure not to get within the scary range but allow the peeking as you pass by the thing. It is a royal pain and makes me completely nuts but the more of an issue you make of it once you've had the initial sniff and snort, the bigger it will become. The really tricky part is being ready for the spin-bolt but not anticipating it!! You have to be cool and not let on that you're fretting about that chair! Do remember she is only a baby. Life happens pretty fast when you're only 3.

Dec. 10, 2009, 09:20 AM
Honestly, I would take the chair out for now. Give her a chance to settle and learn what work is all about, then bring it back in next summer or so. She's only three, and I bet she's a bit overwhelmed with everything at the moment.

Dec. 11, 2009, 07:04 PM
Thanks to everyone that responded to my dilemma. I think that I am coming closer to understanding when the demons are appearing.

First- The weather has changed here and with blustery temps comes the classic frisky attitude that seems to lie dorment in the heat of the summer.

Second- When we were in the ring, we were alone and she probably did have some separation anxiety that rendered itself into the familiar chair demon. Something that could occupy her thoughts over leaving the barn clan.

Third- She has been the simplest young horse that I have ever had to start. She has been absolutely amazing with a good work attitude and consistently improving balance and rythem. It is so easy to forget her age and stage of development. So, hopefully time, experience, and maturity will allow her to overcome this ridiculous demonizing game.

One thing I know that if this is the only problem that I encounter, I'll consider myself extremely fortunate. Also, the future will look pretty bright beyond the chairs.

Thanks again and keep the suggestions coming. :yes:

Dec. 12, 2009, 11:35 AM
First, some horses have "contrast" issues. Depending on the light conditions, a white lawn chair is BLAZING bright on an otherwise dark, green lawn ... worse on bright vs. cloudy days?

Next, those lawn chairs are very prone to getting launched by a gust of wind. Wouldn't take much for a horse to think, that thing is about to pounce on me!

Finally, a little anecdote to share the horse's perspective:
I was working a horse on our exercise track, near the dressage ring, where a clinic was being held. Lots of people sitting in lawn chairs.
No problem.
Next day, same horse, same exercise track.
Lots of lawn chairs by the dressage ring - now EMPTY. Horse spooks big time!

... in his mind, OMG - those chairs ATE all the people, and I'm NEXT!!!!!

Agree with previous posts - carrots in lawn chairs help, I'd go a step further and try feeding grain and hay from a chair.
And as it's been said, she's just a baby. Be patient.

Dec. 12, 2009, 01:13 PM
I'm afraid that this may be an ongoing problem and would like to resolve this issue and put an end to her imaginary demons. I understand that she is 3 and I hope this is just a stage in her development. What really concerns me is the fact that I thought that she had been desensitized and overcome this fear and if I don't resolve this issue and understand it, I will be subjected to similar problems in the future.

It's good that you see that this could become a learned problem, and that you want to nip it in the bud now. If she’s physically mature enough to be backed and working walk/trot under saddle, whether this is a "stage" or not, it’s definitely time for her to grow up. :yes:

I agree with the other posters, particularly RiverBendPol, who said that the youngsters need a chance to look and figure out what’s going on—I absolutely, positively agree. And, fortunately, your mare has had the experience in the roundpen, and she stood beside the chair when you mounted. Barring any eyesight issues (and even then, it's debatable), she has no excuse to act up now.

The bottom line is that spinning, galloping away, spooking, bucking, etc, is a disobedience to the rider. Depending on the particular situation, it equates ignoring the leg, the seat, the rein, you name it. This is unacceptable, this is dangerous, and doing anything more than twice becomes a habit. Learning to ignore the rider’s aids at 3yo equates one hell of a demon by 5yo or 6yo (and is one reason why “cowboys” are becoming so popular now, as riders have created monsters they can’t handle). The baby TBs, the WBs, the ISHs—slow developing or not—each horse needs to understand that the rider is serious and means it.

How many times has she spun and galloped away? There very much needs to be some more communication between you and her before she tries this again and someone gets hurt. My gratuitous advice (:winkgrin:) would be to put her on the long-lines, get her working forward and responding to you, and start instilling a sense workman-like behavior and being brave. Yes, every horse is different (yadda yadda yadda), but at 3yo, she better start paying attention.

My horses are started on long-lining, and immediately learn that when I say whoa or go, there is an instant response. Before I even sit on them, they have full comprehension that when I say stand, they stand; when I squeeze lightly, they move forward, period. If they are greatly concerned about something new, they can stand still and look to figure it out, but no moving, taking off, spinning, and absolutely no backing up. At 2yo or 3yo, depending on the critter’s physical development, this law is written in stone. None of this “oh, poor baby is scared” BS. End of story. A horse that spooks and takes off galloping at any age is dangerous, whether it’s 3yo or 13yo, 13h or 17h.

When a horse spooks, spins, or takes of galloping, gently patting and reassuring it, or just avoiding the scary thing by circling at the other end of the arena, reinforces acting scared. Horses want guidance and an alpha leader. Sit up, push forward, and get on with it. :yes:

Dec. 12, 2009, 01:23 PM
Agree with previous posts - carrots in lawn chairs help, I'd go a step further and try feeding grain and hay from a chair.
And as it's been said, she's just a baby. Be patient.

Could someone please explain to me why a rider would want to teach a horse that it needs food to be brave? What happened to the idea that the horse needs to listen to his rider, and as such, needs to be brave and deal with something spooky because the rider wants to get from point A to point B? Or, I guess a better question, what happens when the horse balks when you want to go through a spooky patch of trees, past a bunch trash cans, or even over a coop, and you unfortunately ran out of carrots five minute prior? ;)

And 3yo, almost 4yo, is NOT a baby in this context. The horse is not being asked to piaffe and flying lead change and doing a trail course-- it's being asked to walk forward, past a familiar obstacle, on its home turf.

Dec. 12, 2009, 01:37 PM
Food has to do with comfort level.
Food requires licking and chewing, which releases saliva, which contains endorphins that calm and aid in digestion. Nature made a horse to graze of course as you know but also built in an automatic digestive aid, saliva, and a funky little trapdoor like epiglottis, so that in case the horse had to bolt from a predator with something in it's mouth it would not swallow it and choke.
Food has to do with the basic necessity of the horse's hardwiring - find sustenance and then find shelter. Food can't be bad. That's why we treat with spooky things.
I had a very spooky and green Lipizzan mare who was scheduled to show at Dressage at Devon, the worldwide center of spook-dom for a green horse. Banners, flowers, winds, rain, people, horses, loose horses, running people, tack shops with stuff flapping and blowing right next to the ingate etc. I put up all sorts of spook stations in my ring, with all kinds of junk, blowing cooler, broom with spinning empty feed sack over it, etc. I put grain in a bucket, just a few handfuls, at every station. We went out and went to work. When she got close enough, she got the goodies. I did this two weeks before we went and she was a different horse.
When she won't go near, do what Phillip Dutton does. Go close - not right up but as close as she will let you and still stay within the aids. This might be half the arena away, but be patient. Next time around the circle, fade over a step closer. Next circle, a step closer until you continue to have control passing by within a few feet. And the next thing to do is ignore it as hard as that is. Insist on listening to the leg and hand, back off requiring anything fancier or more difficult, just circle nicely over HERE slowly getting closer to the chair, and after work, get off, walk over to it, sit, feed carrots, hang with it and make her feel the reward is all caught up with the chair - both the carrot reward and the good work, all done, rest now reward.
Good luck! :)

Dec. 12, 2009, 01:46 PM
I totally agree with Glenbaer ..... They are not really babies at 3 and 4 (Green and inexperienced yes..."babies" no...They are pretty much grown and can be bred, trained, etc at 3) and need to learn early on to do as they are told when they're told not when they feel like it or can be pursuaded to. That inability to follow instruction in a timely fashion can cost you...

Dec. 12, 2009, 02:53 PM
Tired horses are good horses. Forward horses are better horses.

If she snorts and gets all tense get off and free lunge her until she slows down then get back on. I am getting older and not any braver and there is no point in working a spooky horse with extra energy.

Then get her forward, get her head down, and make her forget all about that chair and think of nothing but you and forward

Dec. 15, 2009, 07:42 AM
Gotta love the cold weather and a young horse, which equals amusement. The chair which we mount by every day took a back seat to the pile of sand outside the door to the indoor. So far, her brain seems only developed enough to concentrate on one demon at a time.

Thanks for all the advice. I have been longing, ignoring, riding through to the best of my ability, and after a bolt really getting after her to let her know that it's unacceptable, followed by good work and praise. This seems to be working. It's the blind, scared run that causes me the greatest concern. She has a good work ethic for the the majority of the time and is responsive to the aids except for this bouts of fear and they can be pretty ugly.

I know that time is on our side and warm weather will be here in six months.