Fix the Horse That Refuses to Go Forward: Tips from Heather Smith Thomas to Beat the Balk


Remember those stubborn ponies of your past whose fat bellies deflected your thumping heels like a bug guard on the front of a pickup truck? I can recall more than one incident when “Misty,” “Sweetpea,” or “Katrina” just decided they would do no more (and really, looking back, who could blame them?) Most of us are a long way from ponies now and a child’s willingness to spend an hour or two negotiating three steps forward. But still, if you ride at all, you’re likely to face a balk or two in your time in the saddle, and having the techniques to negotiate the issue quickly and peacefully is key.

Note: Many horses balk when approaching something strange or “scary.” This is a different issue and can be successfully dealt with in a layered, progressive fashion using desensitization. According to lifelong rancher, horse trainer, and author Heather Smith Thomas, horses that stop or balk for no apparent reason are the hardest challenge. Here are tips from her book GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS to help fix the horse that just plain refuses to go forward.

How to Change This Habit

1  On occasion a horse has some kind of physical problem that causes pain or discomfort when saddled and ridden. The horse may not be lame, per se: He may move out freely without a saddle or any weight on his back, yet be reluctant to move when someone is riding him. If the horse is balky and stubborn when first starting a ride and then seems to “warm out of it,” you should suspect a physical problem as the cause, such as a sore back or arthritic joints. Contact your veterinarian to discuss the possible causes of pain or discomfort.

2  When the horse refuses to move because he doesn’t want to do something—such as go through a gate—the easiest way to get him moving is to convince him that he’s not being made to do the thing he doesn’t want to do—in other words, change his focus. For example, you can turn the horse in another direction and reapproach the gate, or back him up through it. This solves the immediate problem, and then you can work on the larger issue with progressive training to teach him to go through gates over many training sessions.

3  The horse that halts for no apparent reason (there isn’t an object or obstacle that seems to be the cause) and refuses to move in spite of coercion is harder to deal with. It’s often as if he suddenly decides he’s had enough (of whatever you’ve been asking him to do while being ridden) and his mind shuts down. Kicking him or using spurs or a whip is not the answer here as he will likely still refuse to budge. Punishment is usually counterproductive in this scenario and makes the horse’s mind shut down even more. The best way to get him to move is to make him take a step to the side by getting him a little off balance.
Pull his head abruptly around toward you and use your leg strongly on the opposite side.
Lean into the turn you are asking the horse to make to encourage him to move away from the leg pressure and to rebalance himself—he will have to take a step or two with his front feet.
Using this technique, spin him around one way and then the other. This usually breaks his mindset and you can get him moving forward again.

4  Some horses that stop and refuse to go forward will still back up when asked. If this is the case, back the horse until he gets his mind off balking, and he will then be likely to go forward again when you request it. Note: This solution should only be used when you are riding in an arena free of hazards. In addition, it is important to recognize that the last thing you want is for the horse to develop a habit of rushing backward blindly whenever he doesn’t want to go forward—someday he could back right off a mountain or into a ditch. It is best to use the back-up tactic when you can back him into a safe but solid object, such as the arena wall or board fence. The “bump” from the wall or fence will make him want to go forward again.




For solutions to more than 130 common behavior and training problems, check out GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS by Heather Smith Thomas, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.


Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of horse books and DVDs, is a small, privately owned company based on a farm in rural Vermont.

TSB’s 2014 Horse Books & DVDs: A Quick Glimpse Back Before We Ride Forward


The winter sun rises over the TSB warehouse in Vermont.

The winter sun rises over the TSB warehouse in Vermont.

As we wrap another year in the Trafalgar Square Books offices here in Vermont, it feels good to pause and look back at the results of our hard work, as well as ponder the things we learned about horses and horsemanship over the last 12 months.

We take great pride in our authors and in the horse books and DVDs we have published and released over the years—now over 600 titles. Here, at a glance, are the new books and DVDs we added in 2014:


Click the image above to get a quick review of the TSB 2014 books and DVDs.

Click the image above to get a quick review of the TSB 2014 books and DVDs.


3-Minute Horsemanship

by Vanessa Bee (January)

The Riding Horse Repair Manual

by Doug Payne (March)

Games for Kids on Horseback

by Gabriele Karcher (April)

Centered Riding 2 Paperback Edition

by Sally Swift (April)

Good Horse, Bad Habits

by Heather Smith Thomas (April)

Dressage Solutions

by Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg (May)

The Riding Doctor

by Dr. Beth Glosten (June)

Building a Life Together—You and Your Horse

by Magali Delgado and Frederic Pignon (June)

Collective Remarks

by Anne Gribbons (July)

Creative Dressage Schooling

by Julia Kohl (September)

When Two Spines Align:Dressage Dynamics 

by Beth Baumert (September)

Kids Riding with Confidence

by Andrea and Markus Eschbach (October)

Success through Cavaletti-Training DVD 

by Ingrid Klimke (November)

5-Minute Fixes to Improve Your Riding DVD

by Wendy Murdoch (November)

5-Minute Jumping Fixes DVD

by Wendy Murdoch (November)

Beyond Horse Massage Wall Charts

by Jim Masterson (November)

The Art of Liberty Training for Horses

by Jonathan Field (December)


by Eckart Meyners, Hannes Muller, and Kerstin Niemann (December)


Trafalgar Square Books ( is the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs. CLICK HERE to visit our online storefront or DOWNLOAD OUR NEWEST CATALOG.


Have a wonderful, safe, joy-filled New Year!

–The TSB Staff, North Pomfret, Vermont

Writing, Riding, and Ranching at 70: 24 Hours in the Life of Heather Smith Thomas

If we are lucky, we find a way to construct our lives around the things we love most, and if we’re blessed, we get to do those things for many, many years. Heather Smith Thomas, prolific writer and author of GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS, illustrates this ideal so well–at 70, she is still at her desk typing in the wee hours before chores need to be done, and in the saddle moving cattle a large part of each day. Hers may not be an “easy” life in comparison to some, but it is one filled with the joys of family, beautiful landscapes, and of course, horses.

As part of the TSB “Horseworld by the Hour” series, Heather shares with us the details of one typically busy, but utterly satisfying, summer day.





5:00 a.m.  At this time of day I am usually at my typewriter, typing a phone interview taped the day before, or creating an article or story about horses or cattle. I write for several horse magazines and a lot of farm and livestock publications, so I am often doing phone interviews with people all over the country, on various topics.

5:30 a.m.  I have an assignment to do an article for The American Farrier’s Journal on the value of apprenticeships and mentoring programs, so I send e-mails to a few of my favorite farriers around the country, to see if I can line up interviews with them on this topic.

6:30 a.m.  If it’s winter, I am still typing at this hour. If it’s early April, I may be heading out to check on the calving cows if I see one in labor (looking out the window with spotlight and binoculars, checking the maternity pen near our house). Right now, however, it’s summer, and daylight enough for me to go out and feed my horses. We have 7 horses. Rubbie (27 year old ¾ Arab mare) and Veggie (28 year old 7/8 Arab gelding) are now retired, as of this year, after putting in many years and miles as ranch horses and then kid horses for my grandchildren. Breezy, a 23-year-old Morgan mare, has been my daughter’s best cowhorse for nearly 20 years. Ed is a 20-something grade mare (part Arab) that has been a good cowhorse and now a mount for my 9-year-old granddaughter. Sprout is an 8-year-old Quarter Horse mare that my daughter rides. Dottie is a 4-year-old Morgan mare that I’m riding and training, and Willow is a 2-year-old Morgan filly just starting in training.

7:00 a.m.  When I get in from chores I grab a roast out of the freezer to put in the slow cooker. The roast is from an old cow named Freddie that we butchered last fall, and the meat will be much more tender if it cooks all day. I also quickly make some Jello—adding a can of fruit and a couple bananas.

7:30 a.m.   A quick breakfast (mixing 3 or 4 different kinds of dry cereal, with a banana on top), then back to typing.

8:00 a.m.  If it’s winter, my husband Lynn and I are out doing morning chores by this hour, and then feeding the cows (me driving the feed truck and him feeding off the hay). Morning chores start later because it’s dark so long, and take longer in winter because we are feeding the horses, feeding the group of heifers in the field below the barn, breaking ice out of the horse’s water tubs and refilling them, breaking ice on the creek for the cows, etc.

8:30 a.m.  At this time of morning I am often hurrying back to the house to do a phone interview. Sometimes I’m doing an interview earlier than this, if I’m talking to someone back East (2 hours ahead of us). I may be talking with a researcher at a university for an article about the latest findings on a horse or cattle disease, or reasons for early pregnancy loss in mares, or ways to collect semen from injured bulls. I might be talking with a farrier (this week I’m doing an article on club foot in horses) or a rancher (I’m writing an article on the benefits of low-stress cattle handling, and another article on various weaning methods for calves). One of the most interesting things about being a freelance writer is the many topics I write about and the things I learn from all the people I talk to.

9:30 a.m.  My daughter and a couple of my grandchildren have driven down to our place from their house on the hill above our hayfield, and are now getting their horses brushed and saddled, to ride with me. Nine-year-old Dani is proud to be able to catch, brush and saddle Ed by herself, and clean out her feet.

10:00 a.m.  We are riding through our hill pasture, checking our cows and calves. We’ve found most of the cows but are missing a bunch of calves. When we get to the top of the pasture, Dani is delighted to find that her favorite cow, Maggie, is babysitting 11 calves while their mamas are on the other side of the mountain, grazing. Dani tells me the ear tag numbers of all the calves so I can mark them off on the list in my little “cow book” that I always carry in my back pocket.

10:30 a.m.  We’ve seen all the cows and calves, to make sure they are all there, and healthy, so we go out through the top gate onto the range to make a loop through that range pasture to see if we can find some stray cows.

11:00 a.m.  Our range neighbors gathered and moved their cattle a few days ago, but missed a dozen pairs. We’ve found them at “Antelope” trough, so we start moving them around the hill toward the pasture where they belong. We let 11-year-old Samantha (riding Breezy) follow the cows on the main trail, and the rest of our horses scramble through the rocks and brush to gather the outlying cattle.

Breezy has only one eye, but manages very nicely in the mountains. She developed a cancerous growth on her left eyeball last fall and we opted to have the eye surgically removed so the cancer wouldn’t spread. Our vet removed the eye in late December and we spent the next weeks changing bandages as it started to heal. We kept it covered and protected from the cold weather for several months, using a fly mask with 2 layers of denim sewn onto that side to cover that part of her face. It was fully healed by this spring, and we started riding her again. We’re hoping that by removing the cancer (a growth that would have metastasized and killed her) she will have several more good years and can continue to be a good horse for Sam.

Breezy knows all the trails in our mountains after checking and chasing cows out there for many years, and has always been an agile cowhorse. In handling Breezy this summer, Sam has become more conscientious in her horse handling and riding, and is learning how to think ahead and be careful to not get close to obstacles on Breezy’s blind side. Watching that pair, you’d never know the mare had only one eye.


Heather Smith Thomas began shoeing her own horses when she was 14--here she shoes one of her ranch horses in the seventies.

Heather Smith Thomas began shoeing her own horses when she was 14–here she shoes one of her ranch horses in the seventies.


11:30 a.m.  My daughter Andrea trots on ahead as we bring the little herd around the mountain, so she can hurry down the steep slope to open the gate into the middle range pasture. The kids and I bring the herd. This is good experience for the green mare that I’m riding; she hasn’t had much interaction with cattle yet. The grandkids are proud to be able to help hold the herd together, learning how to be good little cowgirls. Dani trots Ed through the tall sagebrush to head some wayward pairs the right direction, and the cattle funnel down the steep trail to the gate—where Andrea keeps them from going on down the canyon and heads them through the gate.

12:00 p.m.  Now we are trotting toward home. On another day we might take a lunch and make a longer loop through the middle range pasture, checking gates, fences and water troughs, but today I need to get home to do a couple more phone interview this afternoon, and the girls want their mom to take them to town to the swimming pool.

12:30 p.m.  We are putting the horses away in their pens, except for Sprout and Ed. We’ll let Sprout “mow” the backyard for a while first, and Ed is grazing the tall grass by my hay shed. Rather than mow the tall grass (that would soon be a fire hazard after it dries out), we’re letting the horses eat it. This serves a double purpose because we are running low on hay and won’t have our new crop baled and stacked until late July. I’m currently letting the two retired horses (Rubbie and Veggie) graze the pens around our calving barn. This is saving hay and is good for the old horses (with their old teeth they do better on green grass than on hay), and utilizes the tall grass around the barn and in the maternity pens. Later, I’ll move these old horses to our ditchbank “pasture” above the house, to let the grass regrow in the barnyard pens—so it will be lush and green when we put our calves in there to wean in October. We wean them there, right next to their mamas in the field below the barn, where they have fenceline contact with their mamas and are not as distressed.

1:00 p.m.  My husband and I have a quick lunch (leftovers from the pot of chili I cooked yesterday). I usually cook a big meal in the evenings so we can have enough left for an instant lunch the next day when everyone is too busy to cook. We can grab lunch whenever it’s convenient—whether it’s 11:30 a.m. (maybe after I finish a phone interview and my husband gets done irrigating, and before he drives to town–12 miles—to get the mail and groceries and tractor parts) or at 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. after I get home from a range ride. If I’m too late getting home, he can help himself to the leftovers!

1:30 p.m.  I lie down for a quick rest. At age 70, I don’t have the endurance I used to, and it’s hard to get everything done unless I take a little break after lunch. Sometimes grandma doesn’t get a nap, however, if I’m out riding range with my daughter or grandkids through most of the day.

2:00 p.m.  Another phone interview, this time talking with a veterinarian in Virginia who has done several years’ research on back problems in horses, looking at better ways to diagnose and treat them.

2:30 p.m.  My oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas, age 23) arrives to work with Willow, and I watch out my window while doing the phone interview. I bought Willow as a weaned foal 2 years ago this fall, along with her half-sister Dottie (then 2 years old), to be future horses for Dani and Sam. Andrea and I spent time that fall and winter gentling the two Morgan fillies and leading them a lot. Last summer young Heather started Dottie under saddle for me and then I rode her for 5 months–until it got too icy in December. Now young Heather is working with Willow. She’s done a lot of groundwork with this filly and has started riding her. At my age it’s nice to have a granddaughter help start these young horses!

3:00 p.m.  One more interview, with a family that has a pasture dairy in southern Idaho and sells their milk products (including fresh-made ice cream) through their own farm store.

3:30 p.m.  I talk with my granddaughter Heather about Willow’s progress.

4:00 p.m.  Typing interviews. I usually spend 6 to 10 hours a day at my writing—during whatever time I am not working with the cattle or horses. My writing has become a full-time job that I can do at odd hours. My husband and I had 180 cows for more than 30 years, but during the past dozen years or so, we’ve sold most of our cows to our son and his family to help them get started in ranching. Now my husband and I have just a small herd, and depend more on my writing income than the cattle income.

4:30 p.m.  If it were winter I’d be going out to do chores before dark, but right now I can keep typing.

6:00 p.m.  I peel some potatoes to cook while I’m doing the horse chores.

6:30 p.m.  Evening chores are simple and quick, just feeding the horses in their pens, since I watered them during morning chores.

7:00 p.m.  Supper is roast beef, gravy and potatoes, with Jello and green beans.

7:30 p.m.  My son Michael comes down here from his house on the upper place, to put new shoes on Sprout in the cool of the evening, and I hold her for him to shoe. Sprout is a horse we bought 2 years ago, and when we got her she was very resistant to having her feet handled, let alone shod. After a season of working with her (and my son shoeing her for me), she became much more at ease and better behaved, but I still prefer to have my son shoe her. If Ed or Breezy’s feet get a bit long I may reset their shoes myself because those horses are easy to shoe. I’ve been shoeing my own horses since I was 14, but now it’s kind of nice to let my son do most of the shoeing!

8:30 p.m.  We finish with Sprout and I put iodine on her soles (to toughen them up so she won’t become tenderfooted traveling through the rocks tomorrow when we ride) and put her back in her pen.

9:00 p.m.  To bed, even though it’s still daylight, since I always get up early. Once in a while my husband and I watch a movie in the evenings (we enjoy a good drama, romance, suspense or comedy if it has a good plot and good acting), but tonight it’s too late and we’re too tired.

4:00 a.m.  At my computer again. I like to do a lot of my typing in the early mornings before the day’s activities. There are no interruptions this time of day, and also my brain is MUCH fresher than it is in the late afternoon or evening!




Heather Smith Thomas’ new book GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS is available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.



And check out all the top riders, trainers, and equine experts we’ve featured in our “Horseworld by the Hour” series:







TSB Author Heather Smith Thomas Talks about Her New Book, Her Favorite Things about Ranch Life, and Loving What She Does So Much She’s Never Taken a Vacation

TSB author Heather Smith Thomas and one of her ranch horses: a mare named "Ed"! Heather says that even now in her twenties, Ed is one of her best cow horses.

TSB author Heather Smith Thomas and one of her ranch horses: a mare named “Ed.” Heather says that even now in her twenties, Ed is one of her best cow horses.


TSB author Heather Smith Thomas and her husband raise beef cattle and horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho. Heather writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications. She has sold more than 11,000 stories and articles, and published 20 books, all while keeping the family and ranch in working order. We recently had a chance to catch up with Heather following a busy calving season, and we asked her about her new book GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS and whether or not she was planning a vacation from her very busy life anytime soon. We loved her reply…read on:


TSB: You have published more than 11,000 articles and 20 books on various aspects of horse and cattle management. What makes your newest book, GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS, a worthwhile addition to that list and to every horseman’s barn or bookshelf?

Heather: There are no “perfect” horses with perfect manners and training. Every good horse can become better. Nearly every “bad” horse can be improved. Horses often develop what we call “bad habits” either through neglect (not taking time to be consistent or to insist on good habits) or mistakes in how we handle them. If we can find ways to improve their behavior we can have a much more satisfying relationship with those horses. A horseman may not encounter every “bad habit,” but if this book can help a person work through even one challenging situation to where it results in a satisfactory outcome (and a better relationship with that horse), it will be worthwhile.


TSB: GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS features over 130 common behavior and training problems. How did you choose which issues to include? What do you think is the most-asked-about issue in the horse world?

Heather: I tried to cover the most common (and some of the less common) problems encountered with horses, whether in the stable, handling on the ground, or under saddle. One of the most asked-about issues I’ve found is the case of a pushy horse that doesn’t respect his handler’s requests or personal space.


TSB: One common theme that appears in your book is that of keeping horses as best suits their nature, with plenty of grass/hay and turnout, and opportunity for socialization with other horses. You assert that many problems with which we are faced today are solved when these basic needs of the horse are met. Can you tell us a little about how your ranch horses are kept? Do you find that they are, for the most part, content in their work and less prone to vices because of their management?

Heather: Our ranch horses are kept outdoors in large paddocks or at pasture. They are never indoors, and this simplifies or resolves/avoids some of the management and health issues that arise when horses are confined too much or kept indoors. Yes, I think they are more content in their work because they have more chance to just be “horses” when they are not working. They definitely do not develop “stable vices” because they are never kept in a stall.


Click the image above to order the new book from Heather Smith Thomas.

Click the image above to order the new book from Heather Smith Thomas.


TSB: You and your husband raise beef cattle on a ranch in Idaho. What is your favorite thing about ranch life? What’s the hardest thing about it? Are you finding that your family is committed to preserving some or all of the ranching life traditions for the children/grandchildren in the years ahead?

Heather: My favorite thing about ranch life is being able to work outdoors with animals, to put their needs first in the daily routine of chores, feeding, etc. My favorite tasks are working with the cattle and being able to use our horses to check cattle, fences, water sources on the range, and move and work cattle. The teamwork we develop with a good horse is very satisfying.

The hardest thing about ranch life, as my husband and I struggled to pay for a ranch, is making a living at it (that’s one reason I’ve done a lot of writing—it’s the equivalent of my “off-farm job,” but I can do it at home in between the outdoor jobs with the cattle and horses). Ranching is a poor way to make a living, but it’s a great life, and a wonderful way to raise children. One reason we still have cows today (after selling most of our cows to our son and his wife a few years back) is because they are a great learning experience for our grandchildren. Our daughter’s children are growing up here on the ranch and enjoying the pleasures of working with cattle and riding horses. We do want to continue to preserve our way of life for our grandchildren.


TSB: If you could be sure that readers take away one lesson from GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS, what would you hope it would be?

Heather: Flexibility. Be open to new ideas; new ways to deal with a difficult challenge. Be open to the horse’s mind and emotions. Be in tune with that horse. If something isn’t working in your relationship, try something different. Find a way to draw out the best response from that horse and avoid/head off problem behavior.


TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember sitting on a horse.

Heather: Actually it was a Forest Service pack mule, when I was very young. I had accompanied my father to meet a friend of his who was coming down out of the mountains from a fire lookout, with his pack mule, and I got to ride it down to the road, sitting on the empty pack saddle, as the mule was led.


TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember falling off a horse.

Heather: I was about 14 years old and a couple friends and I were riding our horses at a friend’s ranch. We were riding bareback and switched horses. As we came galloping down across the field, the mare I was riding jumped a ditch and gave a little buck, and I went off over her head—and I was grateful that she was agile and didn’t want to step on me. She jumped over me after I landed in front of her.


TSB: What is the quality you most like in a friend?

Heather: Honesty, along with understanding.


TSB: What is the quality you most like in a horse?

Heather: Athletic ability/agility (catty enough to work cattle and sure-footed enough to do it in difficult terrain and never fall down) was always number one with me, but as I get older I also appreciate a good mind and a kind, willing attitude.


GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS was a Practical Horseman Magazine Editor's Pick for the month of May.

GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS was a Practical Horseman Magazine Editor’s Pick for the month of May.


TSB: If you could do one thing on horseback or with a horse that you haven’t yet done, what would it be?

Heather: I’ve done enough wild riding chasing cattle in rugged country that I don’t need to try being a jockey or a steeplechase rider, and I’ve had athletic horses that gave me a taste of dressage along with endurance feats, so I’m really not sure what it would be.


TSB: If you were trapped on a desert island with a horse and a book, what breed of horse would it be and which book would you choose?

Heather: The breed is not important as long as it’s a good horse, though my preference might be Anglo-Arab just because my very best cowhorse was a Thoroughbred-Arab cross. Not sure about the book—probably any really good book that I hadn’t read yet. Or maybe the Bible.


TSB: What’s in your refrigerator at all times?

Heather: Milk and leftovers.


TSB: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Heather: Riding a good horse all day in the mountains checking cattle or moving cattle.


TSB: What is your idea of the perfect meal?

Heather: Beef roast (home raised), potatoes, and gravy.


TSB: What is your idea of the perfect vacation?

Heather: I don’t have any ideas about vacations. My husband and I have never taken one. Our work is our pleasure; our vocation is our avocation. Our passion is our family, our cattle, our horses, and working on the land. We feel blessed to be able to do what we love to do, right here at home, without having to go anywhere else.


Perhaps if we lived here, we wouldn't want to leave, either. The lower part of Heather's ranch in Idaho.

Perhaps if we lived here, we wouldn’t want to leave, either. The lower part of Heather’s ranch in Idaho.


GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS by Heather Smith Thomas is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.



Defeating “Spray Bottle Monsters”: Easy Steps to Teaching Your Horse There’s No Reason to Fear a Little Spritz

Find easy-to-use solutions to common horse problems in GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS by Heather Smith Thomas.

Find easy-to-use solutions to common horse problems in GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS by Heather Smith Thomas.


As I walked to the barn this weekend I heard an unmistakeable low hum underfoot. The grass is not yet green, the snow is still melting from the shadiest nooks and crannies near the treeline, but the insects are restless. And where most horses are concerned, when the flies emerge, so must the fly spray.

So begins the skittering dance in stalls and barn aisles around the world. You point and raise the nozzle toward Old Joe and he transforms from sleepy senior into wild-eyed bronc: “There’s NO WAY I’m letting THAT THING spit on me!” he seems to say as he trods on your toes, knocks you into the wall, and spills his water bucket down the back of your pants for good measure.

Noted horsewoman, rancher, and author of over 20 books Heather Smith Thomas gives us simple steps to overcoming the very common fear of spray bottles in her new book GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS. In this remarkably easy-to-use reference, Heather provides multiple solutions to over 130 problems in the stable, on the ground, under saddle, and on the road. GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

CLICK HERE to find out more.


Here’s Heather’s advice for defeating a horse’s habitual fear of “Spray Bottle Monsters”:

Many horses are afraid of fly spray or aerosol applications because of the hissing sound they make when the product is dispensed. Some people make the mistake of trying to apply spray for the first time with the horse restrained (tied up). Unfortunately, if the horse feels trapped in the face of the unfamiliar sound and sensation of the spray, he may panic and pull back. Fear of the sound of the spray quickly becomes a phobia and resistance becomes a habit.

How to Change This Habit

Solution 1

Start over and reacquaint the horse with the spray in a totally nonconfrontational manner. Take as much time and use as many lessons as necessary to get him relaxed about the sound of spray. Work on this in a safe, open area where the horse can’t run into anything, and use a spray bottle with plain water in it.

• Stand next to his shoulder, holding on to the lead rope, and spray the bottle far away from him, at first. He may run circles around you, trying to get away from it, but just continue spraying (away from him) while talking quietly to the horse. If you are not actually trying to spray him, you will also be more relaxed and at ease, not tense and fighting with him to stand still. As soon as the horse stands quietly instead of moving around when he hears the sound, pet him and let him know he’s done the right thing.

• Gradually work the spray closer to the horse as he begins to settle down. Repeat the lesson several times a day until he starts to fuss less and relax.

• Usually within a few days the horse realizes it’s not going to hurt him—the sound no longer scares him—and you can cautiously start applying the spray to his body. The key throughout the process is to not restrain him so he doesn’t feel trapped. If he’s free to move around you in a circle, he gets over his fear more quickly. (He’s also less apt to try to kick at you when he’s moving.)

Solution 2

If the horse is really nervous and scared, take a lot of time to reacquaint him with the spray. Enlist the help of a friend so one of you can hold him (in a paddock or pen is a good place to work on this) while the other starts spraying well away from him, gradually getting closer. Bring the spray a little closer and then take it farther away again, alternating proximity (using approach and retreat) so he knows it won’t “get him.” Give him a chance to think about it, allowing him to circle around his handler if he wants to. When he does stop and stand still, rub his neck and withers to help relax him—rubbing this area tends to calm a horse because this is where his dam nuzzled him when he was a foal.

A horse always “thinks” more rationally when he is calm than when he’s scared and upset, so your job in the process is to get him calm, rather than try to force him to accept the spray.

What If Nothing Works?

When a horse continues to fear spray applications and his reactions are such that he puts you or himself in danger, use an alternate method for applying insecticide or other spray products. Spray onto a soft cloth and then wipe it on the horse. Seek alternative product choices, like roll-ons and ointments.




Find more practical solutions to common horse problems in GOOD HORSE, BAD HABITS.

“I really like this book!” says Rhonda Massingham Hart, author of Trail Riding and Among Wild Horses. “It is such a great idea for horse people because it leads them deeper into understanding the psychology behind many horse behavior and training issues. People tend to read only what they think they need to know, but here, even if they only read one problem-and-solution because it’s related to an issue they are actually dealing with, they will have learned something valuable–and hopefully, reading one will lead to reading another, and another, and…”