The key to coping with a spooking horse rests in a threefold approach, says former mounted police officer Kevin Donaghy.
“You’ve got to control yourself, control the horse and control the situation,” says the man who was head training officer for the West Midlands mounted police force.
Spooking is such a common problem that Kevin, three times winner of the Police Horse of the Year title with Pascal, runs anti-spooking clinics at centres throughout the country.
His main venue is Contessa Riding Centre at Ware, Herts, where Tina Layton’s dressage mare is one of his success stories.
Pik Dame was renowned for whipping-round if anything frightened her, but today it’s a different story.
Tina says that a cardboard box blew across her path at an important competition, which would have sent most horses into orbit, but they were able to ride through the fright and carry on with the test.
Kevin always checks basic stable management in case a simple reason, such as too much food, is to blame. He then concentrates on building horse and rider into a partnership, so that the horse accepts the rider asking him to wait and then go forward, rather than obeying his natural instinct for flight.
Kevinassesses the horse by leading and long-reining him past hazards; getting him to focus on his voice rather than the problem and introducing him to unusual sights and sounds.
Riding techniques range from breathing calmly and rhythmically to whathe describes as “keeping the front end loose and riding the hindquarters”.
The emphasis is on riding forwards and straight.
Kevin uses shoulder-in, making sure that a rider is not making a crooked horse more crooked, but is thinking of putting the quarters to the hazard rather than riding the front end.
He also helps the rider learn to stay calm and positive.
“Sometimes, in a tense situation, people close their legs on the horse, draw up and feel back with their hands.”
Kevin believes that all horses should be introduced to strange sights and sounds as part of their upbringing, not suddenly thrown in at the deep end.
“You sometimes see people take a horse to a show and say it’s badly behaved or stupid. But you can’t just take him from a quiet environment into a city of tents with strange sights, sounds and smells.”
Kevin believes that it is natural for a spooky horse to react to things that worry him. What you can do, however, is build his confidence so that he will go past hazards with minimum fuss and in maximum safety.
“If a dressage horse, for instance, misbehaves in the ring, you can practice,” he says, “but you don’t get that chance on the roads, and it can be fatal.”
For information on Kevin Donaghy’s clinics at the Contessa Riding Centre, contact (tel: 01920 821792).