We have all been there. Peacefully hacking along, enjoying the view, when suddenly your horse launches itself sideways, leaving your heart thumping, and your nerves trembling. Spooking is one of the main reasons why people do not hack their horses out, but it is possible to help your horse build in confidence and reduce the possibility of spooking.
First though we have to accept that horses are flight creatures. Their survival depends on their ability to flee when in danger, the problem comes that they can’t differentiate between actual danger, for example a lion, and perceived danger for example a crisp packet in a hedge. However, with training, we can help them.
Begin with working with your horse on the ground in a safe environment, such as an arena. Make sure that your horse is listening and responsive to you on the ground. There is no point in expecting him to listen to you when he is scared, if he is incapable of doing so when he feels safe! Start with something small, such a bucket, make sure that your horse will walk quietly past the object at a distance before beginning to move closer towards it. Only once he is happy with this should you begin to increase the difficulty of what you are asking of him.
If there is something in particular that your horse is fearful of on your hack, break this down into small, manageable steps. Does he spook when passing a farm? Are their flapping plastic bags and tractors? Work on each item separately. Begin with a small plastic bag, tied to the fence, again ask him to walk past at a distance. Gradually reduce the distance between the horse and the scary object, always praising him for the correct response. Once you can lead him safely past these objects, change the environment. Set up obstacles in a field and repeat the process in this different location.
Once you are feeling confident in the field, you can progress to leading him on a hack. Again, build up slowly. Don’t head straight off to the most scary hack, but rather build in stages so that you and him can grow in confidence. Only once you can do this should you progress to hacking him out.
If when hacking you become nervous or fearful of something, find somewhere safe to dismount and lead him past. The horse has not won if you dismount. In time he will become more confident, as he watches you walk calmly past, rather than feeling you getting nervous on his back.
Horses are incredibly trusting, they put their faith in us that we will protect them. If he trusts you, he will believe you when you ask him to walk past the scary plastic bag. By carefully putting the building blocks in place and helping him to overcome his fears in small, bite-sized chunks, you can turn your anxiety into enjoyment, and your fear into pleasure. While we cannot control the environment around us, we can work to give us and our horses the tools to help control our responses to whatever we come across.