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Cowboy Bob,

I have a four year old arab mare who I raised from a colt. We learned together. She was my first horse and I was her first cowboy.

Last weekend we had a little problem. I wanted her to walk along a hedge of juniper bushes that border my property, and she was convinced there was a boogey man in there. I steered her to the hedge, and she complied with hesitation, then exploded, turned 180 and started to run back to the barn. I hauled her around and worked through it again. I got her along the hedge and she walked with hesitation, then exploded and turned towards the barn again. Again I hauled her around, and we made the whole trip a third and fourth time with little problem.

Despite the good ending I can't help but feel I'm reacting to her explosions wrong (hauling on the bit to slow and turn her). I'm pretty comfy in the saddle and can stay on through a full run if I set my mind to it, but I'm not a big fan of having my girl run full blast where and when she wants. How do you recommend I deal with the explosion. I don't figure I can avoid all of them (though my darlin' gets more sensible as time goes on). I just don't like pulling on the bit so hard to re-exert control.

-- C. R.


Hey, why do you think we bother with all that tack we strap to a horse's head? It's not just for decoration or "because we've always done it that way"! As I point out in the Campfire Conversation titled "God's Bit and Bridle," that tack is for use on "a horse with no understandin' - not one that knows what's goin' on." The preferred approach is to use other -- gentler -- cues, but if push comes to shove, use the tools that are available.

I'd say you handled the explosion part well, but you probably missed the early warnings. As a result, you missed an opportunity to teach her a confidence-building lesson -- and perhaps put yourself in unnecessary danger.

I learned long ago that a horse rarely spooks without a reason. Sometimes it's just a silly quirk in the way a horse perceives things, such as when Willy was afraid of some wet pavement. Other times, a horse's extra-sensitive hearing or sense of smell will detect a threat that the rider is totally unaware of -- such as when Willy caught scent of a bear way off in the woods. What if there were a snake hidden in those junipers, or a coyote, or some other hazardous critter?

Remember Balaam's donkey in Numbers 22?

The Angel Appearing to Balaam - by Rembrandt

"The donkey said to Balaam, 'Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?'

"'No,' he said.

"Then the LORD opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.

"The angel of the LORD asked him, 'Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.'"

Now, I'm not sayin' that there was a pistol-packin' angel standin' by that hedge, but it seems to me you made the same mistake Balaam did. Instead of stopping when the critter first showed signs of nervousness -- and "asking" her about the problem -- you did like Balaam and tried to force her into submission. It worked in the long run, but if that angel, snake, or coyote HAD been there, you may not have lived to tell about it.

In truth, my suspicion is that the real problem was with the way a horse sees things. Remember that in the daylight a horse sees things that move as flashes of light rather than the distinct objects we see. If I forced you to approach a wall that was covered with fast-moving electric sparks, would you be nervous? Sure you'd be! So how can we fault a horse that spooks near a hedge that's covered with leaves and branches that look like similar flashes of light?

Take a look at Q&A #9 -- "Can you help me not be afraid of my horse?" -- and see how similar my situation with Willy and the wet pavement was to that of you with your mare. The main difference was that I stopped to "chat" with Willy and figure out what was so unsettling to him.

So, next time you head toward that hedge, stop at the first sign of nervousness and calmly assure her that everything is under your control. Dismount if you have to, and lead her up to the hedge, perhaps doing a sort of sacking out session by moving the branches around, etc. When she shows that she has accepted the hedge, saddle up and move on to something more enjoyable.

Oh, and I seriously doubt that you raised your horse from a colt. A filly grows up to be a mare; a colt becomes a stallion or a gelding. ;o) A foal is a young horse of either gender. [Just a slip of the keyboard on your part, I'm sure.]

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