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Any hope for a very spooky mare?

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  • Any hope for a very spooky mare?

    I have a 10 year old mare. I orignally got her as a brood mare but after she lost two foals I turned her into a riding horse about three years ago. She shows a fair bit of talent for dressage and really does love to work however she remains fairly spooky. Even in a ring that she has been ridden in hundreds of times she will spook, mostly minor, at the same thing she has gone past dozens of times. She loses concentration and then starts looking for more scary stuff. It seems to be mostly things on the ground and mostly at faster speeds e.g. stuff she doesn't look at when walking she will react to at a trot or canter and it makes for a pretty tense ride. Not always however, I will get two or three good rides and then two or three where I am just about pulling my hair out trying to get a nice circle with her ogling a pylon or a pole on the ground.

    Absolutely nothing wrong with her eyes, had them checked.

    She will hack out but is on high alert the whole time and really looks for trouble. She doesn't do much when she spooks except stop dead and bounces up and down, but she is a big mare and very quick on her feet so therefore fairly intimidating. She hasn't done any really dangerous stuff so far such as bolt, buck or rear and really doesn't seem to have a nasty bone in her body. She's just a real chicken.

    We've been through a lot together and I love her and she is pretty affectionate with me....do I persevere with this mare or sell her on to somebody who has more patience than me? Does anyone else have a previously spooky horse that has reformed. This is one horse I hate to give up on.

  • #2
    I have a TB, home bred, who is 15 now and he's been chicken his whole life. He too is really talented, but I've had to readjust my expectations because of his fear. Now I'm just delighted with him if he hacks down the road he's been hacking down all his life without scaring himself to death seeing ghosts at every turn. Now that I have virtually no expectations of him and have taken all pressure off him he has improved a bit but we won't be doing anything adventurous any time soon.
    I think he would be really happy as a trail horse tucked in behind mr sensible - he'd do that all day long because he would hand all responsibility over to mr sensible.
    I don't think I could sell him, I'd be too worried he'd end up in a tin of dog food after a miserable time.
    I don't think it's my fault, I backed my 4 YO last year and he's normal, happily tackling things my TB would faint at.
    It's just him. I have stopped feeding him anything apart from grass and hay and he does seem marginally calmer.
    No calmer I've tried with him has ever made any difference, nor any tough love, NH program, etc.
    He is adorably sweet, and I'm enjoying him much more now I've given up the idea of competing him, he has other things to offer - he is teaching me a lot about sensitive riding, how my position affects his movement - too many things to list. Things that I can use when riding my other horses who aren't as sensitive as him but are braver!
    For that, he is priceless to me


    • #3
      Are there shadows in the ring, and are you riding under trees? I know you had the eyes checked, and I don't know your mares breed... but have you considered night blindness? My mare is fine on a normal eye test but cannot see going from light to dark. Going into an indoor affects her, as well as shadows outside on a bright day, walking in/out of a barn and of course at night she has problems with the lights/dark. It is common in Appys but is also seen is TB's and Arabs? It is an easy fix though if it is that! My mare and I show and do lots of stuff, we get time for her eyes to adjust if we are in an indoor. She seems to freak at nothing, but we have come a long way as I can identify the offending light/shadow and we work through it! It's lots of trust and understanding, but you two can work though it.


      • #4
        I used to have a VERY spooky mare who I absolutely loved otherwise. Very sweet and talented, but just really, really spooky. She never did grow out of it... I had her from ages 5-9 and she remained just as spooky. One thing I found that helped was to not dwell on her spooks or try to help her "get over it." Instead of making her confront things she spooked at, I would just move on like it didn't happen (assuming she didn't jump out from under me, which makes this much more difficult to do). This was kind of a big "no duh" once I finally started doing it, but it was the opposite of what I had been taught to do with mild to moderate spooks.

        I also discovered that she was better away than at home. At home she seemed to know what to spook at (and it was a lot of things), but when we went somewhere else she was much better. If you're planning to show, he might be similar and put in some good rounds when you're away.
        If the pony spits venom in your face or produces a loud roar, it is probably not a pony. Find another. -The Oatmeal


        • #5
          Any chance of ulcers making her jittery and tense?
          I tolerate all kinds of animal idiosyncrasies.
          I've found that I don't tolerate people idiosyncrasies as well. - Casey09


          • #6
            Smart Calm Ultra! I know there is a lot of debate about calming supplements and whether they do anything (and they don't for certain horses), but I have a completely different horse with it.

            I made the mistake recently of taking my mare off supplements thinking they were just a waste of money, and at first, I couldn't figure out why she was so hot, spooky, tense, and uncooperative. Then it hit me, and I put her back on the Smart Calm Ultra and had a new horse shortly after.

            Nothing works for everyone, but there's no harm in trying it for a month and seeing what happens.

            And of course, keeping the horse busy and engaged is the best thing for the easily distracted and spooky types.


            • Original Poster

              Smart Calm Ultra.... never heard of it but I will google it. She's only on one cup of a mineral supplement now so she gets no grain at all. She's an easy keeper so therefore wears a grazing muzzle while on pasture during the day.

              She spooks while riding in the outdoor ring at midday with no shadows at all. Funny thing is that if I lead her she will follow me anywhere. If she seriously balks at something on a hack and will not move forward I can dismount and lead her literally over or through the scary object.

              She is also the most reliable horse to lead or handle out of my bunch. If everyone else is acting like complete idiots I can grab her and use her to calm the rest down. It's just a real puzzle that she is so spooky when in the saddle and it is not just me that finds her that way I have had several people ride her and they all comment on her level of distraction.


              • #8
                How well does your saddle fit? Is she sore in her back?

                Pain and the resulting tension can create hyper alertness which will cause spooking. I'm guessing her head is up too when you ride her. This puts her on the edge of fight/flight. Address the tension/pain in her body, encourage her to lower her head.

                Also, completely ignore what ever she thinks is scary DO NOT even look at it!


                • #9
                  SmartCalm rocks- I don't use it on my guy (i have a QH who would probably be like the living dead on any calming anything) but there are a few high energy saddlebreds at my barn that have done fantastic on it. It just takes teh edge off.

                  Also, when I had my TB gelding, he was a spooky little thing. When we would hack down the road, or just go for a trail ride. the thing that worked wonders for him was a Shadow roll (Think John Henry and Zenyatta from the racing world). It did not let him concentrate on his shadows, (let him feel like he had a little warm sheep hugging his nose!) and he became a much better horse on trail when he wouldn't concentrate on things.

                  Another thing to think about, how are you reacting to her under saddle? Some sensitive horses can pick up when your heart starts beating fast, or your breath quickens.. Do you let her pause at every scary thing, or do you push her through it? I admit, sitting a frightened horse can be extremely difficult to keep calm and composed, but it really does help if you can!


                  • #10
                    My mare has gone from spooky to looky in the 3 years I've had her. Part of it is that she's more mature (she's 13 now), part of it is that I am a better rider and I'm less likely to anticipate spooks, etc. She *is* a Morgan, and they have a well-deserved reputation for being looky and easily distracted.

                    It sounds like your mare is more a "startler" or a "balker" than a horse with a super-dangerous spook. Mine is similar, though she will get a bit more, um, dramatic if she's really scared. What seems to help mine is talking to her, a lot, when she startles. If I'm working her in an arena and there's a spooky spot, every time I go past it I praise her while giving a tiny twitch on the rein away from the spook to remind her to listen... and every time, it gets a little easier.

                    I have mine on the regular SmartCalm; I have tried the Ultra but it isn't different enough from SmartCalm to justify the extra cost. Calming supplements work differently on different horses; for a very brief time I had her on Quiessence, which came highly recommended and is very similar to SmartCalm, and it made her batsh*t crazy! So you may have to try a few things if you go the supplement route.

                    Actually, in your follow-up, you mentioned using your mare to help calm other horses. I can use mine for the same thing (e.g. the BO will turn out new horses in the paddock next to mine; especially if they are young horses, her body language soothes them.) Also when trail riding, if a horse in front of her balks at something, I can usually move her up front and she will lead the other horse.

                    I consider mine to be a "herd mare" as much as anything; all that lookiness etc. is in service to monitoring the environment for risks to herself and/or her buddies. She spent the first 10 years of her life pastured with a herd of anywhere from 5 to 15 mares, fillies, and foals, and was second in command, taking charge of the younger fillies and very subordinate mares while the herd leader was alpha over the more dominant mares.
                    You have to have experiences to gain experience.

                    1998 Morgan mare Mythic Feronia "More Valley Girl Than Girl Scout!"


                    • #11
                      Magnesium supplement!


                      • #12
                        Is she an Alpha Mare?

                        I have one like this, and the spooking at home is (for her) an evasion, based on the fact that it is her "home turf", and she feels the need to "be in charge" at all times. (She is 13, I evented her up to Prelim, and she has had extensive show experience--has actually been extremely successful competitively!)

                        She is not *actually* afraid of the mounting block, the birds in the trees, the sight of another horse, leaves blowing, etc. (Though she is reactive and hypervigilant by nature, I have done extensive groundwork with her, and she has lovely manners and is calm and confident when I am NOT in the saddle. She will completely ignore the same things she spooks at U/S when I am leading her from the ground.)

                        When off the property (either schooling or competing), she has "moments", but is mostly very good, knows her job, is focused on it (and on ME!), she's a great competition horse. When she was younger, I got her off the property a lot for schooling, and introduced her to jumping and scary stuff gradually. I moved her up through the eventing levels, getting her used to things that she was intitially worried about (as a greenie, when it was to be expected), and I took my time. She now has NO fear of anything (off the property), and bravely jumps whatever is in front of her, without a peek. She's as brave as a lion, because she trusts me.

                        At home, she initially ignores everything, but starts noticing EVERYTHING (and spooking at it) the instant I am on her back and ask her to work. She walks calmly up to the mounting block, stands quietly, I ask her to walk off on a long rein, she's completely relaxed, and then BAM! "What's that?!?" It usually escalates when I start to do trot work (or even walk "on contact", because this means she is "working", and she would prefer NOT to; she must be in charge, you see )

                        This is all completely gratuitous, and has nothing to do with actually being afraid (the tip off is her behavior when NOT U/S, and her U/S behavior away from home.) You can try Magnesium Supplements (I have had my mare on them for years, along with Mare Magic, Succeed, etc., et alia.) She also gets no grain, just a vit/mineral supp and alfalfa forage (and U-Guard.) She doesn't have ulcers, but you might also consider this in your mare's case (though it sounds "behavioral" to me.) As the other posters said, be aware of your riding and be sure you are breathing, breathing your aids (rein and leg), and sitting soft and deep. Don't look at what she is looking at, keep your eyes up (and soft also), and keep her focused on YOU, if you see her ears prick towards something, immediately ask for an inside bend from your leg and rein (a submission tool), and make her work, keep her feet moving! I have worked on cueing my mare to drop her head (if she gets reactive, I make her do a "head down time out" where she drops her head and I soften the rein and have her stand there for 30 seconds, all the tension and adrenaline drains right out, then we start again.) Bending is your friend, as are ground poles, transitions, and quick reactions to her innattentivess--get her WORKING and back on your page, before the behavior has a chance to escalate. Keep her busy! It takes a very patient and determined rider with well-timed, soft aids to effectively ride a horse like this, but hang in there. Good luck, I know from experience how exasperating it can be, but don't buy into her mind games. Groundwork exercises are also very helpful, any time her head is down, and she is relaxed and tuned in to you and figuring out her footwork (which keeps her brain occupied), she will be focusing on the "human in charge", which will help diffuse some of this. The goal is to train her to submit and trust *you* to lead *her*.

                        If your horse is like this (and is different off property), then you can rule out saddle fit, eyes, back problems, feed, etc. (Believe me, I have been through it all, and the bottom line is I have "two different horses", the on property one and the off property one. She is happy and sound and feels great, just HAS to spook at home because she feels the need to! Don't let your mare snow you )
                        "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."

                        "It's supposed to be hard...the hard is what makes it great!" (Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own")


                        • Original Poster

                          She actually goes along in a frame with her head down but jerks it up when distracted or spooked. I feel like I am constantly nagging at her to keep her head down which does help calm her but she will spook even when she s eems like she is collected. Doing 20 metre circles the other night and keeping her bent to the inside, because she was trying to look at something outside the ring that had caught her attention, the wind picked up and must have blown whatever she was looking at and she did a 180 on her back end, perfectly balanced so she could turn and look at it. She almost sat right down, luckily she is the most comfortable horse that God ever made. I made no comment and kicked back into a trot and continued what we were doing and she carried on like nothing had happened.

                          Saddle fits fine, she's an extra wide and I had the saddle professionally fitted.

                          She is such a calm quiet mare in many ways but I think she spent her first four years in a large herd as a brood mare and did not have much people contact or experiences. For example when I first brought her home she was terrified of children and literally shook at the back of her stall if they ran past. Once she figured out that they often brought treats they quickly became her favourite type of human.

                          She's a tough horse to figure out. Somebody did point out that she would be better away from home when she doesn't anticipate something out of place etc. and yes, she's been to three shows, placed every time and behaved much better than at home.


                          • #14
                            I think you have your answer

                            Do you have access to a round pen? That might be another helpful tool (though you will need help if you haven't worked a horse in one), in the meantime, work on getting her to bend and stretch DOWN to the end of the rein to cue the "head down" response; going along in a frame isn't the same as stretched down and round and deep with an elastic connection (and she will still be able to hold tension in her topline, even if you have her on contact with her nose tucked in.) Again, work on bending her with a loooong neck on a stretchy contact, and try to get her to step underneath and across with her inside hind (displacing the hindquarters, in Western and NH terms.)

                            It sounds like some desensitization might also be helpful. (I got my mare as a 5 year old, and she was green as grass--had only been off the breeding farm once, and had barely been started, w/t/c. She had never been ANYWHERE, so was an adult horse with an Alpha opinion of herself, but no experiences "off the farm", or with new and scary things. The older they are when they are introduced to new things, the longer it takes!)
                            "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."

                            "It's supposed to be hard...the hard is what makes it great!" (Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own")


                            • #15
                              As an addition to any training ideas for her you need to work on you too. Do you anticipate her spooking which makes you tense and then that feeds to her? Mares can be super sensitive to outside emotions and you may not even realize that you're transferring that to her.

                              An easy trick is to put some music on while you're riding and practice keeping your breathing in beat with the music which will help keep your heart rate down and keep you more relaxed which will transfer to her.

                              For her, I like to take the spoilers to the ring with a good buddy and turn them out for a while to explore. And if you can get their buddy in the ring while you ride that helps too. Even if you're there by yourself if you can tie a friend up in the ring with a hay bag sometimes that makes a huge difference.

                              Don't give up on her.
                              Strong promoter of READING the entire post before responding.


                              • #16
                                I remember reading a dressage queen, one of the big names, saying that she rates the spooky horse as if you can keep going to the point that the spooks diminish you are left with the sensitivity. I have more than one horse, if he were my only one I'd be able to put a lot more time into him and maybe get to that point.
                                Worth bearing in mind I thought.
                                Also I second this by Sweet Mutt
                                . One thing I found that helped was to not dwell on her spooks or try to help her "get over it." Instead of making her confront things she spooked at, I would just move on like it didn't happen