My horse isn’t just unconfident – he’s scared!

“My horse is so scared of the carrot stick I can’t even START the friendly game — what can I do?”

Ah yes, the spooky horse, the horse that’s scared of things like the carrot stick, the dressage whip, the rope……I have had several posts about horses who are scared of objects…..

I can understand this situation very well because at the moment I have Coblet in the field: a horse who was so scared of ropes when he first arrived that when another horse was moving around trailing rope, he was so scared he broke through the field fence in his blind panic to run away.

He did come back, and he is getting more and more able to be confident around ropes — so it ended up happily.

But this issue of being so scared of something that it makes it impossible to even start playing the friendly game is a challenging one, and somewhat outside the norms of most horse training programmes or human training methodologies.

There are a couple of things I have found work really well and they come from very different schools of thought.   One is the “head down”  communication I go through in detail in the post “

Another approach I use is – positive reinforcement, a good example of which is clicker training.

One of the first things you learn when clicker training, or in any positive reinforcement programme, is something called Targeting.

The best way I can describe it is to use Coblet and rope as an example.

I have already described how scared Coblet was of ropes.  Any movement of a rope within 20 metres and he was running off to the far corner of the field, and shaking.

So I taught him to Target, and the principles of clicker training, using the following steps:

Step 1:
Spending some time in the field making the click noise and, each time I made it – giving him a treat
This established a link in his mind between the sound and the treat. I make the sound myself rather than have to handle an actual clicker – I find it’s easier when I have ropes and things to handle!

Step 2:
Then I held out my “targeting tool” – at the moment that is a short riding crop with a ball of duct tape on the end – anything will work, your hand rolled into a fist will work – just make sure there is a clear “ball” to touch.  As I held it out, I said “Coblet – Target!” then made sure the ball of tape touched his muzzle. I then clicked and gave him his treat.  I repeated this – making sure to use the same intonation for the words each time – and gradually moving the ball further away so he had to make a real effort to reach it.
This taught him that touching the ball or object was what I wanted and that a treat would be a positive reward for the effort.

I used his name before the target cue because I work with three horses and by prefacing with their name, each horse learns when it is their turn to target and the others wait to hear their name – it works well for me.

Step 3:
I bundled up a small rope (actually a 6 ft long string which is about half the thickness of a lead rope) in my hand – and then played the target game with that.  As he was successful in targeting my hand, I gradually allowed some of the string to show.  At first he did a double take, and thought about it – but as I just stood there and waited, he slowly reached his nose forward and touched the string.  That got a click and several treats. Over time this showed him that instead of being something scary to be run away from, string could also be something that paid off bigtime with treats when he touched it!

Step 4:
Through repeated sessions we got to the stage where I could have the string wrapped over my wrist and dangling – and he would target it easily – so then I repeated the process with the longer lead rope.

What this 4 step process does is break the habit of seeing rope as something to be run away from – and changes the negative associations with rope into positive ones.  Now in his mind, when he sees a rope in my hand, his first thought is not to run away – but to move towards it.  Positive reinforcement is a wonderful way to change a horse’s mindset about an object.

So if your horse is scared of the carrot stick or a dressage whip – start off with another object, teach the target game – and then build up gradually to using the scary object as the target tool….it might take a while as you can only move at the pace your horse is comfortable with but this is a great way of not only building your horse’s confidence in an object but also develops a habit of THINKING things through, which is invaluable in any horse, especially one we want to be as spook free as possible.

Once the target pattern is established, we can apply it to anything – wheelie bins, plastic bags – strange shadows…..

If we think of a spook as being an instinctive reaction to something surprising – then having a horse who has learned to look and think about something before choosing how he responds will make a huge difference!

So for those of you asking about spooky horses, and how to cope with a horse who is scared of something – let me know how you get on using the head down approach and the positive reinforcement approach to help with your horse.

Yours, in confidence



9 thoughts on “My horse isn’t just unconfident – he’s scared!

  1. hmm, this is interesting Cathy, when i first became the caretaker of my boy he was extreemly afraid of whips, ropes and carrot sticks, so i fully understand the frustration of wanting to start at the start with the friendly game, i was savvy enough to try something different and i spent time dragging a very large tree branch around while in the field after the fright of the larger moving object the savvy string and carrot stick didnt seam so bad,

    • Great idea Lesley! A good principle too. It is always better to have several strategies so I hope more people share more ideas!


      Sent from my iPhone

  2. Thanks Cathy, I will be out there tomorrow working on this and a good tip on making the ‘clicking’ sound yourself to make it easier when you already have stick/string/rope and treats to juggle! I’ll keep you posted……

  3. Cathy, I have used this technique quite often. I’m a huge fan of clicker training for helping to get past obstacles. I learnt that using a horse’s name consistently at points in your training teaches them that a change is coming. So for instance, when I’m ground driving I will say, “Beau, trot!” as my cue. When I want him to slow down, I use the word “And” but in a long drawn out fashion, “Annnnnd walk.” Thanks for a great post!

    • Hi Adria or Redquill — I love the idea of “presignals” — giving your horse time to sort himself out and prepare – as Tom Dorrance said “Prepare to position for the transition” — really good practice —

      plus, for the HUMAN the idea of a pre-activity signal is a good one as often I find the human forgets to prepare to position for the transition as well yet expects the horse to do it!!


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