Ask the Expert: How to Train a Spooky and Unpredictable Horse, Part II

Hi, I’m Caroline Rider of Rider Horsemanship. This month’s Holistic Horse “Ask the Expert” Q&A is about developing a confident, brave horse, both on the ground and riding. This month’s video is a sequel to “How to Train a Spooky and Unpredictable Horse, Part I”, created in 2014.

Please click here to view Part I:

You can see in this video, Part II, a calmer, more connected and relaxed horse – on the ground. I have been working with this horse, Zor, on and off for a year now. We have been working on our liberty, lunge for self carriage, balance and collection as well as our training level in dressage and trail riding. Zor is progressing well and consistently in all areas – and, we are still struggling with his confidence and bravery when it is windy and around new things and woods.

A few months ago, beginning around May, I began pushing Zor meaning I began working him in areas that he felt more uncomfortable and unsure. As a trainer I know that in order to correctly develop a horse’s confidence and trust I must work in an environment, a.k.a “safe zone”, that they feel most comfortable in first – way before I introduce the “scary place”. I work on specific exercises in the “safe zone” that help us connect, trust, partner and of course build confidence. I will not move out of this safe zone until my horse is responsive to my subtle cues, shows total relaxation and has rhythm to his movement (3 “R’s”). When he shows up with the 3 “R’s” and in three different yet comfortable environments I will move our work together to the next and fourth area, the “scary” environment. This environment is where we are challenged the most and where he feels threatened the most, such as; woods, trails, obstacles, trailering to another farm or facility.

Why do I wait to introduce the scary place? I wait for three reasons: 1) I don’t believe in, nor practice, desensitizing; 2) young horses learn confidence and bravery from their mother’s – who don’t sack them out or desensitize them and 3) because the scary environment, like your competition or show, is a test – testing how strong your trust is, connection, confidence in you as a leader and partnership – where the willingness to try shows up.

What you will see in the beginning of this video is how I take Zor back to the scary place we worked in a year ago and show you how well he handles the woods, aka scary place. I also show you how I take things up a notch by introducing scary noises and movement. This is to further test his ability to not only think his way through his triggers but to also build more trust in me and confidence in the situation – confidence in himself to handle his emotions.

Zor and I then continue to work through the same exercises we worked on in Part I while my student makes noise and walks behind the woods. Zor can’t clearly see her yet he can hear her and catch glimpses of distant movement. This of course heightens him into a low level of adrenaline, aka self preservation mode where he displays freeze and flight patterns or coping mechanisms/behaviors.

Once I feel Zor has connected with me through our online work and is showing relaxation and rhythm in his movement, I get on and ride him. I have chosen similar riding patterns or exercises to my ground work where I ask for control over his body parts: nose, pole, shoulder, ribs and hind quarters. You can see how worried he is at first and his heightened sensory awareness makes him leery, spooky and potentially unpredictable.

During our short ride I share with you the strategies I have learned that help you not only feel safe at this stage but keep you safe. Please keep in mind that I would not be riding Zor if I didn’t see, and feel, him soften, stay connected and become relaxed in our ground work. He must show up this way at least 75% of the time in our ground work too. This consistency is what gives me confidence and tells me it’s time to ride and work through his triggers safely.

Please visit for more education materials, DVD’s, clinic opportunities, training and the TAO of Horsemanship Online Foundation Course.

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10 Responses

  1. Alexandra Kruid
    | Reply

    I love that you ride bitless!! It is great to see a trainer that doesn't use fear and pain to accomplish their goals.

  2. Blume
    | Reply

    Hi Caroline, Zoar seems like he freezes when he's scared. What about horses that run around crazy when scared, how can you gain confidence around an unpredictable and flighty horse? My horse, thoroughbred X racehorse, did jump into me and I've been injured so need to gain confidence but because she's so jumpy Im not really sure how to go about getting back to her. Plus doesn't help that my brain is on alert too and I have unwanted picture scenes of her running into me.

  3. Dahlia
    | Reply

    This horse is exactly where my Friesian./Morgan in his younger years was. He was a big, powerful, spooky horse that lacked confidence just like this guy. These are the kind of horses that put you in the hospital if they are not managed and trained correctly and they are also horses that get dumped because people don't want to invest the time in them. You have to have a box of tools in place to manage these horses just like you say. These horses need to be kept busy and work and must have their attentions on you at all times (you said this all). The moment they don't is when you walk into the an dangerous arena. My horse learned that if he took his attentions off of me he would be put to work. He needed to accept that I was watching out for him and he didn't need to be on guard all the time. He was ready to bolt at any moment. These horses take a lot of work. I'm so glad this beautiful horse is under your owner and guardianship. He is one lucky boy. My gelding is now 12 and it took YEARS to get him where he is today…I can now canter him in an open field and he is completely under control and looks to me for leadership in all respects. It was a very long journey but well worth it. He is my horse of a lifetime <3

  4. LambertsLabelle
    | Reply

    Great video!!! I m just still not shure what you mean with "drop the shoulder".. ( english isnt my first language..)

  5. Dinka D
    | Reply

    My seven year old Arabian is great on trails, I've had him since weanling and have spent hundreds of hours trail riding, including doing a number of 20km and 40km endurance rides. He is usually very inquisitive and left brain in most situations, but it so happened that he went right brained on me last weekend. It's winter, so the weather is cooler. I took him on a trail that took us past some houses, people and dogs, cars, etc. He handled it ok on the way out, but on the way back he reverted to a right brain attitude. All he wanted was to bolt for home. I one reined him and jumped off. I worked with him on the ground and then got back on. He tried to take off again. This happened three times. I ended up walking him for about 20 minutes just to get him calm. Then I re-mounted and was able to walk him back calmly, although I had to correct multiple jigging attempts. It surprised me that he acted the way he did, considering his experience. In hindsight, maybe it was too much to ask on a cool winter's afternoon, in a new area with so many things to spook at. My plan is to go back there at first opportunity, and get off and work on the ground until he is super calm. I see it as a great opportunity to bombproof my horse.

  6. Richard Rider
    | Reply

    I have a 20 year old "Selle Francais" who is still afraid when riding out of our place…Will give a look at some of your videos; might FINALLY learn something. Wonder if we're related? cheers…rr

  7. Rachael Arbeit
    | Reply

    I love your videos and your work. I see so many horses that are high stress and anxiety all the time so. I always try to apply your concept to keep a horse in a calm state of mind.

  8. Jolene Redling
    | Reply

    Thank you so much Caroline for making these videos with Zor! I have been very frustrated lately and you and Zor have reminded me and I am ready to be patient and implement these techniques again. I have a paso fino that is very very spooky and right brained. I will continue watching your channel and look forward to watching Zors progress. Thank you!

  9. Caroline Rider (Rider Horsemanship)
    | Reply

    Hi Beth and Welcome! There are several ways in which you can help your horse overcome fear and gain trust in you as a leader and confidence and courage in themselves. I practice systematic desensitizing which is about approach and retreat. You gradually work your way to the scary object or place all the while recognizing your horses emotional thresholds during the advances. Soon as your horse balks, hesitates or shies stop immediately and back up or walk away until your horse relaxes. This approach is the easiest and takes patience, feel and timing on your part. This process can take weeks to months. If your horse is bat crazy like my horse was in thie first video you will need to learn how to work with that and help your horse work through his fear. This requires learning specific exercises, techniques, and approaches. I offer this level of training and education in my DVD collection on my website and under "shop". You will a wide array of DVDS to select from. I recommend choosing my first series and DVDS from my problem solving selection.
    I look forward to keeping in touch!
    Warmly, Caroline

  10. Caroline Rider (Rider Horsemanship)
    | Reply

    Beth Wilkegreat video…my horse is spooky on the trails too; jumps at a lot of things; buzzard flying up, wind blowing high grass, etc; in addition she has cowphobia. I have had her for 6 months and have done under horse bending and backing in a controlled catch pen. Any suggestions for fear of cows.19 hours ago•

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