Among the many things that Murray is good at — and there are many! Being adorable, leveraging his adorableness to get what he wants, treating “his” herd which he is now the boss of with kindness and respect, pretending that he’s too cool for school, hating new shavings, etc. — being brave is not one of them. And this has never been more apparent to me than now: Murray is in sporadic work and seems to be afraid of just about everything right now. Newly painted fences? Terrifying. Spooky corner of the arena? Horrifying. A few items of jump paraphernalia in the middle of the arena? THE WORST. Jump standards he’s seen approximately 9461257 times? Barely acceptable.
Our first ride back together last week was not a triumphant reunion. Murray spent his time flailing left and right and proving himself to be flexible through the ribcage in ways he usually spends a lot of time convincing me that he is not. I mean seriously, have you ever felt a horse bend his body left while his neck is flexed right, all while also running right? It’s super magical. During our warm up I basically reminded Murray that his only job was to keep his head down, listen to me, flex when I told him to, and listen to me. Twenty minutes of power trotting around every single possible spooky item in the arena Murray could actually work.
For my next few rides I brought a bunch of extra lifesavers into the arena with me and made a point of walking Murray up to every scary object and playing our old game “touch” with them. It’s a super game: I say “touch!” and Murray walks up to something scary and blows the Curious Ungulate blow, and finally after he touches it he gets candy. Delicious, delicious candy.
These two solutions are basically on opposite ends of the spectrum — address the object straight on and associate it with something positive, or work and ignore the things. There’s some middle ground too, where I just ignore that he’s scared of anything and keep working on something else. I use all of these at different times. But at the moment it’s worth it for me to avoid the fight with Murray and just take the time and bribe him. It changes his association with scary objects*, and puts him in a better mood for the ride overall.
* Though it may very well create other distraction problems where Murray wants to go towards those things to retrieve the sweet, sugary reward there… but if that happens I will, frankly, consider it a huge success.
Repeated exposure to scary things with positive or (at least) non-terrifying experiences always makes Murray calmer and quieter. Now that we are backin the riding swing, I hope I’ll be seeing a braver Murray in the next few weeks. But what I really want to know is what you do to help your horse be brave. Because I need more tricks in my magic bag! Murray ain’t gonna know what hit him.
Interestingly, Murray is always way braver when he’s been jumping. And he’s much less afraid of objects he’s jumped over. Which proves that his only viable career is eventing, since otherwise his list of things he isn’t afraid of would quickly dwindle to…. basically just our barn manager.