Using a Spookless CD
By Betsy Kelleher
A few years ago, I bought a Spookless CD on eBay. This is a despooking training aid, a CD with short bursts of sounds including big trucks, air brakes, rattling cans, motorcycles, chain saws, a jackhammer, kids yelling, crowds cheering, dogs barking, an airplane flying low, and more. I played it in the barn while the horses were in their stalls, setting my boombox on a bale of hay across the aisle with the volume on low. I had planned to play the CD several times, gradually turning up the volume.
This was mostly for Lady’s benefit, for my TWH mare with a terror of big noisy trucks and tractors. I was hoping the Spookless CD would be one step toward getting her used to these things, starting with the noise. All four horses had their heads over the stall doors, ears forward, looking, listening, probably wondering what was going on.
Later, when the barn was quiet, I led Rocky from his stall to put him in the crossties and saddle him for a ride. He came out of his stall hesitantly, body tense, ears forward, obviously looking for something, probably for whatever made all those strange sounds. Seeing his state of mind, I decided not to ride him that day. I hadn’t considered the after effects of hearing the “Scary Unknown.”
Recently, I brought out the Spookless CD again, playing it during my riding lessons on Lady. With the boombox turned on at one end of the outdoor arena, I started riding a safe distance away from the sound, gradually riding closer but using the approach and retreat philosophy. I rode in circles and figure 8’s around two barrels and asked for lengthened and shortened strides, working to keep Lady’s mind and body busy. During the lesson, Cindy moved gradually closer to the boombox, acting as a safety barrier between Lady and the sounds. We ended by walking as close to the boombox as Lady would quietly go, where she got a treat.
After the sounds had been turned off and the lesson was over, I walked Lady out of the arena and around the edge of the barn toward her stall. She looked here and there, obviously expecting to see something. I suddenly realized she was looking for the things she heard on that CD. Where was the tractor, the kids yelling, the chainsaw? She was searching for the source of all that noise, just as Rocky had been looking for something that day I had first played the CD in the barn!
Later, I found this bit of information online regarding the Spookless CD: “Although horses are more sensitive because of the focused horn-like ears, they have greater difficulty precisely locating everything they hear. They naturally react to frightening sounds, especially if they can't see the source; for instance, if the sound is from the rear.” That is something to keep in mind if you decide to use this Spookless CD in your own training. It’s a great tool, if you use it with care and wisdom. Start with the volume low at a safe distance and gradually turn it up or approach only as near as the horse accepts it without getting spooked. Approach and retreat to prevent a buildup of tension and fearfulness that could cause a bad experience. It would be great to work with an actual truck or other object so they can see the source, but I don’t always have a big truck or tractor available, so I’m doing what I can.
So far, I’ve had three lessons involving the Spookless CD. During the first two, Lady was definitely alert to the sounds and nervous. I had to really focus on each exercise in order to keep her attention. I did, however, begin to feel a growing confidence in my ability to ride her under spooky circumstances. During the third lesson, I saw an amazing improvement in Lady’s calmness. Dare I think that the increased confidence had anything to do with Lady’s calmer attitude?
I also started Lady with clicker training with treats, asking her to walk toward the boombox as it played all those scary sounds. She ended up standing within five feet of it without spooking. I was so pleased with her response that I repeated that exercise several days later, walking toward the noisy boombox with treats but no clicker. Again, she walked calmly toward it and stood within five feet of the sounds without spooking.
I had expected some nervous reaction to the CD, but I was surprised when the horses actually looked for something that made the sounds. I even talked to Lady about it, telling her this was just noise and there were no actual trucks or motorcycles. Just noise, and nothing to fear. She is now accepting those sounds without spooking, so I feel we have made one small step forward in our program. I hope to soon be able to walk with her, carrying the boombox while it plays the whole range of sounds. Then, maybe someone can carry the boombox and walk toward us, past us, and maybe even walk toward us from behind. Each little step is helping me find greater confidence. And that, my dear readers, is the goal.
After posting my experiences on Facebook, I had a couple people ask about where to get the Spookless CD. I bought mine on eBay, but if you want more information, go to the website: http://www.spookless.com/. On that site, there is a link to another page that you need to read about using the CD: http://www.spookless.com/howtouse.html. Several trainers endorse the use of this CD, including Rick Pelicano who wrote the book, Bomb-proofing Your Horse. I have that book and it is thorough and helpful. You might want to check out his website as well: http://www.rickpelicano.com/merchandise/. There now are CD’s for various situations, including trail riding or showing, even mounted shooting. My CD is an earlier version of the trail riding sounds.
Let me add here a quote from a book I reviewed in my April column. Lynn Baber, author of Amazing Grays, Amazing Grace, wrote: “The good horse trainer does not introduce their horse to new objects and surroundings in order to desensitize the horse to those specific things, but to build confidence in the horse that in any situation, and in any surrounding, the horse feels safe in the relationship.”
Those words gave me a valuable new perspective for using the Spookless CD. We can’t expose a horse to every object that might cause spooking, but we can build trust and confidence. I also found an article online about giving a horse a safe place to be, with two points that relate to this situation. One, your horse needs you to be a calm, assertive leader, to help him be a calm, submissive follower. He needs to feel safe with you in charge. Two, you need to direct your horse’s energy when it is at a high level. Trying to hold back or stop your horse only builds pressure that could lead to an explosion. Let him move and give him something to do (and this is one thing I really need to work on!). Help him focus on a specific exercise, preferably an easy one he knows. Focus is important. Focus on going forward and don’t focus on the scary object. Focus on breathing and relaxing your body. Tenseness transmits discomfort and fear.
Becoming a calm, confident leader is a great responsibility. With some horses, it is a necessity. Lady is very sensitive to my emotions. I can’t expect her to stay calm when I’m afraid, because she knows and reacts accordingly. When horses are afraid, they rely on their instincts. They should learn to rely on the rider, who must learn to stay calm. It was easy for me to stay calm while playing a CD; I had more control of the situation and my confidence level rose from the lesson experiences. The Spookless CD turned out to be an effective tool for our situation.
As Christians, we have tools to help us face any situation. We have access to the supernatural power of Almighty God, available to anyone by faith in Jesus Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Sometimes it’s difficult to trust that power—to depend on it above our own fears. If I’m honest, I know how inadequate I am and depending only upon myself just isn’t enough. It is an awesome experience, however, to comprehend the indwelling of God’s Spirit and to be aware of His guidance. When God gave Joshua command over the Israelites, He said to Joshua (Joshua 1:9): “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
That’s in effect what we must say to our horses. Yielded in spirit to our Creator, we are more able to help our horses yield in spirit to us. God alone is the true source of our courage and inner strength. To trust and obey is the key to overcoming fear.
(Originally published in the July 2010 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)