I am just about to go off to do some more work with Riva, the horse that is frightened of birds. It's got me thinking (and not in relation to this particular horse or owner) why dealing with a horses spookiness seems to be one of the hardest things for people to do. I came up with a list of reasons and you may have more.
1. The horse should just get used to things over time
2. If our relationship is good enough, the horse will trust me
3. I don't know how to deal with it when my horse spooks at things
4. It frightens me when my horse spooks at things
5. I don't want to deliberately frighten my horse
6. I don't believe this IH stuff works
7. People look at me funny when I do this IH stuff and they tell me this IH stuff doesn't work
8. Underneath I haven't really got the patience to deal with this
9. I haven't got the time for this
Take the example of a horse that is frightened of black plastic bags. You might think because you always ride out on a Monday, and Monday is dustbin day, that the horse should get used to them - after all he sees them 104 times a year. But he doesn't. The refuse collectors don't come on bank holidays or at Christmas and so there are only, say, 42 Mondays a year when there are bags left on the street. Well, you might say, that's 84 times a year when the horse sees the bags - once on the way out and once on the way back. Since horses don't pass much information from one side to the other thought, that's really only 42 times for the left eye and 42 times for the right. You could, instead, introduce him to black plastic bags at home, 100 times a session, 4 days a week.
Trust will most certainly help - especially if the horse can trust that you know how to act when he is afraid and that you aren't going to join in with his fear by being afraid or punishing him for being afraid. You might think it's stupid to be frightened of a plastic bag but he certainly doesn't, because he's a horse, and his job is to be wary of things that weren't there yesterday, things that are changing shape and are about to eat him!
There are only three methods needed to help a horse with spookiness and once you've got them, you've got them and you only need to apply them to the specific thing to be able to address this fear. Knowing how to deal with his reactions means that you can be more confident and then he can trust you even more.
It isn't unethical to ask a horse to address his fears providing you are there to help and to control the situation and that everything is done systematically and incrementally. Repetition is the key rather than rapid progression - although that is usually what you get. The more you introduce your horse to in a safe environment before expanding his comfort zone and doing in other places, the less spooky the horse will be.
As for people looking at you funny - you get used to it after a while. I'm the one who introduced horses to umbrellas in Kenya where it hadn't rained for four years and, if it had we'd have danced naked in it never mind put up a brolly!
Hopefully photos of Riva later...