I used to ride a big mare who spooked every ride. Every single one. She always spooked in the beginning of the warm up and always to the side. She was an "ambidextrous spooker", so left and right were equally likely. Lucky for her, I cared not when she leapt sideways (i.e. I loved her.). Years of riding as a kid had left me with some sort of instinct. My body just went with the horse and this worked the best if I did not think. Once she got the spook out of her system, she was good for the rest of the ride and, interestingly, was not a fearful horse. Far from it. My trainer thought she needed to stretch or loosen some part of her back and a quick sideways jerk was just the trick.
Harley is not a spooky horse. All horses can spook and there is usually something that will surprise the calmest horse, even if it has to be elephants marching head-to-tail from the traveling circus. When Harley does think something is strange, he usually starts snaking his neck, and making the googly-eye face, so there is lots of warning that he is cautious of whatever lurks ahead. A spook is not inevitable. Usually moving closer to the offending object is enough to convince him that it is harmless. A good sniff seals the deal.
So you can imagine my surprise, when I was walking Harley past the paddocks heading for the trails and I suddenly found myself whirling around in 360-fashion. Half of my brain was looking out for solid objects like fence posts and tree trunks and the other half of my brain was trying in vain to work backwards and discover what had sent my usually reliable boy into a frenzy. His reaction was so strong and so unusual that the horses in the neighboring paddock must also have thought that there was something worth fleeing, because they spun and took off at a gallop. So did the rider's horse in the closest riding ring. I expected to find a bear walking out of the woods when I turned around.
We do have black bear in New Jersey, but there was no such animal in sight once I turned my horse around to face the direction of his fear. He was still tight as a drum and ready to flee. Harley was going to save us both, even if his rider didn't seem to understand what the problem was.
I looked into the neighbor's yard and realized that there were men working on the roof. Two men were walking around the roof and then they began nailing shingles down with an airgun. You would think that the mystery was solved, but Harley did not react at the sight of them. Despite the loud hiss and clunk of the nail gun, he started to relax and dropped his neck. The men on the roof were not the problem.
Or were they?
I waited for several minutes, watching the men work and patting my horse's neck. We could have kept going and left the problem behind us, but the trainer in me just will not do that. I needed to know what scared him for future reference and for our own safety. I hadn't ridden a spook like that in years. What on Earth sent Harley for the hills?
And then I saw it start to happen. One of the men rose from his work and picked up a large package. I do not know what was in the package, but I assume it was discarded wrapping from the shingles that were now fastened to the roof. He started walking toward the edge of the roof and my horse began to quiver. A silent vibration moved up his legs, gaining intensity as the man walked closer to the edge of the building. When I realized what he was about to do, I almost called out to stop him. The only thing that harnessed my words was my now trembling horse. I took a deep breath and tried to make my center of gravity as low as possible...
The wrapping hit the ground with a thud and the hush of plastic hitting air. Harley's trembling erupted into a full-body shudder, which shook us like a driver slamming on the brakes.
But he did not spin.
He kept facing the building and the source of his fear. I stroked his neck, consoling him. I felt a little giddy as the wasted adrenaline surged threw my muscles with no where to go. I imagine that Harley felt the same thing. After a couple deep breaths and more pats, we left the building and continued down the trail. I have never been so relieved to leave civilization behind.