Spooking vs Not Spooking

I watched a video a little while ago that someone had posted online of a pony coming up to a jump (a very tiny jump as it was), then braking hard and spinning in two different directions whiplashing its rider both ways until the poor kid riding was thrown down the side of the pony.

The commentary about it went into details of why the horse must have “spooked”.

Heaven forbid that the horse could have done that intentionally!

It was a spook caused by lack of habituation to the poles they said, and no proper aids.

I tend to disagree with that assessment.

Firstly, I make the disclaimer that I know nothing more about the pony other that what I’ve seen in 15 second video. However, I can recognise a spook, and that was no spook. A spook is an involuntary reflex that comes about from a sudden or unexpected stimulus such as a noise, sound, or seeing a threating or unknown object. The body instantaneously prepares for flight or flight which results in the startle response. After the spook, we expect the horse to either act on the threatening stimulus (run or fight it) or to release the tension (move the body to rid itself of the energy gain).

It is, of course, possible for horses to spook at a jump. However, in the case of a horse (or shall we say pony) screeching to a halt and then spinning from side to side, this is highly unlikely to be a startle response. It is particular narrative which is gaining popularity in the horse world that the horse never does anything intentionally (i.e. it is always the rider or a training fault).

I cannot agree entirely with that (although it does appear to be a common cause of unwanted horse behaviours).

The horse will do what is necessary for their comfort and survival. It also means that they will intentionally say ‘No, I don’t want to do it.” Perhaps the early signals of ‘No’ were missed. It ends up being a big ole ‘HELL NO – OFF WITH YOU’ kind of statement.

I know this, deeply and thoroughly from my pony, Toby. He was a ‘Hell no’ kind of guy. He is still is to some extent. Since our communication became more two-way where I not only ask him to do things, but I also listen to him, that ‘hell no’, has become more of a ‘no thank you.’ These days, I’ve not had to laugh off my bruises and sandy clothes because we clashed about our ideas.

Horses have the ability to think for themselves. They are capable of varying degrees of planning and calculation. I don’t say that in a demeaning way. It is intelligence. How else do they know how to seek out the gate when they hear it unlatch? They have to go looking for an opening. That is calculating an outcome. A horse knows what that sound means, and they use that information by deducing and planning to investigate. In the same manner, confident and clever equines will know your weaknesses, using opportune moments to surprise you (if they are in a ‘No’ kind of mind frame). Not everything that they do is conditioned and patterned by training into their behaviour. Some of their actions come from their own ideas of how they can avoid doing something unpleasant.

It is helpful to know the difference between a spook (unintentional reaction) and a response (intentional action that is effectively the horse saying ‘No’). For a spook, there is not much to be done other than reassuring their safety and allowing the horse to respond in a way that allows them to deploy their nervous system to get back to a calm state. Since the reaction is unintentional, it should never be punished.

In the case of an intentional sudden action, then it is a statement about how they relate to something. Negative answers mean that there is more communication and negotiation to work through. The horse wants to avoid something, and they are letting you know that. It may not be rational to you (think of a toddler when they say ‘No’) but you have to validate them anyway, and then skillfully negotiate your way around it to avoid a complete meltdown.

Each horse has their own resistance threshold. The most willful ones are the ones that are openly communicating and they will teach you how to really develop a partnership. I cherish them for that.