Scared of Ropes

The question:

Hey Kate,

Quick question for you regarding my stock horse that is afraid of ropes (had a bad start in life prior to ending up at the sales as a young one and then someone did way too much ‘natural horsemanship’/rope work with him). Once caught, he’s fine and you can throw the rope all over him with about 65/100 as an emotional level estimate. However after many sessions it has never lowered from this.

Leading on the long or short lead is not a problem. However when it comes to asking him to lunge, he gets very worried. I would love to start long-lining him to assist with his under saddle work (very unconfident and rushy through walk and trot but does settle fairly quickly, although still remains somewhat stressed) and I have not done a huge amount of canter work.

I’m just feeling a little stuck with him. He’s a seriously lovely fellow, and I feel he has potential, but the ropes are a really conflicting thing for him.

I was just wondering how you might approach a horse like this?


Kate’s answer:

It’s interesting that his emotional level doesn’t lower from the 65/100 with the rope work. My guess is that he has never really been engaged with the lesson and simply puts up with it. This can happen when the release of pressure, in this case pressure is throwing the rope, does not come at the right time, here of course it should come when the horse relaxes. People often stop throwing the rope when the horse stops moving his feet. There are two problems with that:

  1. If the horse is moving his feet a lot then you are probably raising the emotional level more than you need to, and
  2. if the horse freezes and stops moving his feet rather than relaxes then you aren’t actually lowering the emotional level.

To help him through this and achieve relaxation, which is the only place to start, then you will have to be aware of the signs that indicate he is relaxing and release on those. The most obvious will be lowering his head – watch the tip of his ear and stop throwing the rope when it drops, even a millimetre and praise him. Another will be his eye – notice when his eye becomes less wide. Another still will be the general muscle tension that you can see throughout his body and the tenseness of his muzzle area. The height of his tail together with the height he lifts his legs if he is moving, complete the picture in the absence of physiological measurements such as cardiac responses and eye temperature.

If you have not done so, go into the Kandoo Club Online Training site and find the Emotional Level Course page. This will take you through assessing your horses’s emotional level and therefore readiness for training at any particular time.

All we are doing here is getting the horse into the Engagement Zone before beginning training. The Engagement Zone is that place where the horse is slightly more aroused than resting but not so much so that he is scared. I have found this to be about 15% above his normal resting rates, when measured by heart rate, heart rate variability and eye temperature. If he goes above this he may be scared, as he appears to be currently with the rope and therefore not engaged in the lesson. If he falls below this then again he is unlikely to be learning as he is not engaged in the lesson.

For me, the easiest way to get a horse in the Engagement Zone is to do a simple pressure-release exercise such as Give to the Bit (again, you will find that in the Kandoo Club area under Give to the Bit Course).

Once you have this then you can proceed with the long-reining lesson, being careful to keep him in the Engagement Zone during training.