What should I do when my pony is afraid of something on our drives?
Updated: May 10, 2022
I see this question come up all the time on Facebook. And of course, the answers vary. But one that I see the most is,
"Push your pony past the scary thing as fast as you can because a driving pony should never be allowed to make any decisions on it's own."
While I agree that we need to be in the "drivers seat" when we are driving our ponies, I don't agree that the best answer to this question is to always push them past the scary object.
As in everything pony related, there are a few answers to this question. And the answers depend entirely on the pony itself.
All I can do is share things that happen with my own ponies, so please keep that in mind. When I share training tips here these are things that work for my ponies. This does not mean it will work for your or that you need to change anything you are doing. BUT if what you are doing is making things worse, causing your pony to be even more afraid and spooky and/or to shut down then looking for other options may be a good idea.
There are times when we are out driving, or walking, or hiking, when Zorro sees something that truly shakes him to his core. When he was younger this fear could come out in one of two ways:
either he would freeze
or he would bolt
So, it was up to me to read his body language and know which reaction was most likely. If he was going to freeze, then it was best if I let him stop all movement and just take a good look at whatever was scaring him. Typically, if I did this he would look and look, then blow out, lower his head and let down. Then, walk right on by as though the object wasn't even there. If he was going to freeze and I pushed him on, I could cause him to explode. This was more severe than bolting and would often mean he had totally lost all ability to think and was just trying to survive both ME and the scary object.
Next, if he was going to try to bolt then I knew it was best to keep his feet moving and just try to steer him past the object. If I were to try to make him stop and look then he would explode and all hell would break loose. LOL!
Even if Zorro bolts a bit when he spooks, he will typically run about 15-20 feet then stop, and want to look at what was scaring him - the typical approach and retreat we hear so much about from natural horsemanship programs. Of course, if he is hitched, turning to face the object is tricky. Usually, if we made it past the object, I simply ask him to continue on. We can take another look on the way home.
If he stops and wants a minute to look, one thing I do NOT do, is make a big deal about whatever it is that he looking at. I do NOT make him approach it and touch and step on it. I let him look and just sing to myself or look around quietly, making sure to BREATH and then I ask him to move on when he is mentally ready. This has worked so well for us and my other ponies over the years.
The sign in the photo above, is one thing that had him perplexed on our walk earlier this week. The wind has been howling here and when it does, this sign folds in half and waves all over, showing yellow, then white, then yellow, then white, kind of flickering. The first time he noticed it, he slowed his walk, his head got higher and higher, his neck got tight and he started to hold his breath. I stopped walking so he could stop and look. I kept breathing and just waited patiently. In a few seconds he blew out, lowered his head and licked and chewed, so on we walked, straight past the sign. He has not looked at it again on our other walks. He just walks straight past it no matter how hard the wind is blowing or if it's not blowing at all!
Water is one thing that people often struggle with with their ponies. It can be such a scary thing not because it's water - of course they know what water is - but, because, of the way they SEE. Everything is a bit blurry for them all the time, they don't have the awesome vision that we have always thought they had, so a puddle for instance, can be quite a bit more scary than a creek because it's not moving and looks like a deep hole. A creek, that is moving quietly, can take a moment for them to understand, but most of the time, I have found they are more willing to step into a creek than a puddle!
I never make a big deal about puddles. What I have found over the years is, if my pony is a little thirsty when we come to a puddle, it is more likely to wade straight in and get a drink. Little to no fuss. If there is a fuss then, I will walk straight through every single puddle I see myself and let them take that in. Typically, in no time, they are happy to splash through the puddles too.
Ditches are a little more tricky. Because, there is often a decline into the ditch. This is a bit more scary as they feel they may loose their footing. Often, they have to kind of hop/splash down into the ditch and it may then, be knee deep. So, this can take some time. Again, I make it fun. I get in and splash around. I pick green grass for them on the OTHER side of the ditch and feed it to them. I walk up and down the ditch with them trailing me along the edge. It doesn't usually take long for them to decide they want in too, because, the grass is always greener on the other side.
Of course, if you have one water happy pony it's often easier to get your other one in the water as well which is what happened yesterday with Oliver and Zorro! Oliver's first time in the ditch! He has splashed into creeks on our hikes but has never wanted to even walk along the edge of this ditch. So this was a big win!!
Hopefully this blog gave you a few things to think about. When you have the question, "What should I do when my pony is afraid of something on our drives?" you have a few more answers/tools now!