How to Turn a Spooky Horse into a Thinking Horse; A Conversation with Josh Nichol

How to Turn a Spooky Horse into a Thinking Horse; A Conversation with Josh Nichol

Josh Nichol has helped countless riders develop healthy partnerships with their horses through his method of Relational Horsemanship™. He joins Caroline Culbertson on Equestrian Voices for a thought-provoking conversation about how meeting your horse's needs can forge deeper connections, encourage softness, and reduce spooking. Here is a transcript of their conversation – listen to the full episode here.

Caroline Culbertson: What do we need to understand about how the rider may be contributing to a horse’s frequent spooking? 

Josh Nichol: You have to recognize horses are not just worrying about ‘the thing’ that they’re spooking at. They also learn to worry about your reaction to ‘the thing’.

I don't think we put enough energy on this. We know it with people; if you’ve ever had a boss or somebody in a working environment who gets upset really fast when you make a mistake, you're not worried about the mistake, you're worried about the reaction from your boss. But when you have someone respond to a mistake like, “Hey, it's all good, let's just figure this out,” you settle and you feel good.

Caroline: Then you actually can learn from that mistake.

Josh: That’s right. Your brain clicks on. When I get scared, I get self-preserving. Horses need stimulus to feel fear, while humans do not. You and I can become scared by thought alone. A horse needs stimulation. 

There are two things we need for our horses in these moments. First, is to see where they can soften to and then proceed–but don’t keep forcing them on that thing. When it comes up again, just see what they can do. The second thing is to be the soft answer you would love to have in that same situation for yourself. What would you love to feel in another person with how they held space for you, when you were worried?

Now in competitive environments, in these situations, we're not necessarily backing away. We’ve got to stay to task and work our way through it. So I want to build our relationship around that. If we're going to do hard things–how do we do hard things together in a way that allows my horse to feel safer? 

"Sometimes as riders, we're bad listeners because we're too motivated by the thing we want."

Caroline Culbertson: When you're inviting softness from your horse in those moments, what might that look like? What might that feel like? Is that moving away from your leg? Is that giving to the bit?

Josh Nichol: This is where sometimes people struggle in the beginning, but it is more philosophical. If let's say, I connect with my reins, the essence of rebalancing is the half halt, because you're connecting with your hand, you're reengaging your seat, you apply a subtle pressure. There's a pressure inside of that, but as the horse feels that they soften back to the hand and they elongate their top line. There's a rebalancing and a re-softening. 

When I connect initially, I'm always trying to listen. Sometimes as riders, we're bad listeners because we're too motivated by the thing we want. What we don't recognize is that if you listen, you will have way more opportunity to get what you want anyway. 

As soon as any creature doesn't feel heard, they're immediately defensive. All you have to do is let someone feel heard and they become immediately open. This is the other piece, our horses can only soften to the degree that we're softening. 

A lot of times as riders, we want the horse to do the thing, but it's not happening in us. It's not happening in us, but we're pushing on something else to do it. This creates so much mud because it has a hypocritical energy to it. I'm out here spooking at everything that comes up in my life. I'm allowing the world to control me. I'm influenced entirely by the external world and I want my horse not to be. But if that frequency is coming off me all the time and horses can feel it.

Horses have drawn me to personal growth because of observing over and over the fact that the horses are primarily resonating off the energy that comes off me. They're not resonating just off the competency of my techniques. Not to underestimate that, that is very valuable, but I feel like we overestimate using techniques to compensate for internal incompetencies. 

If I desire my horse to stop spooking, then I need to do a little bit of self reflection on what's happening in me and my world. Am I allowing everything around me to control me? Am I hot because somebody says something that makes me mad, or am I able to maybe breathe through things and allow things to pass and allow myself to feel how I desire?

That is the high answer to helping our horses not spook. It's that we do enough work within ourselves that we're not attached to it. Then we can be an example of something new, which is what leads a horse to a change. 

Leadership isn't about making a horse do stuff. That's dominance. Leadership is about doing something in yourself enough that others are drawn to it. That's leadership.