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How to Help a Spooky Horse

help manage a spooky horse

Anyone who has spent any reasonable amount of time around horses has probably experienced a spook or two (possibly more!). 

If your horse spooks at a particular object, his attention is on that rather than on you and your aids. Not only will this lose you marks in dressage tests, but it could also be dangerous if your horse reacts in panic. 

So, in this article, we will look at why horses spook, why spooking is a problem, what you shouldn’t do when your horse spooks, and finally, give you some tips on how to minimize spooking. 

What is “spooking”?

A spook is your horse’s instant and natural reaction to a perceived threat. 

Your horse may display a spook by: 

  • Bolting (running away at speed) 
  • Spinning 180degrees
  • Stopping suddenly and freezing on the spot 
  • Rushing backward
  • Jumping quickly to one side
  • Rearing
  • Carrying on with his work but with a sudden spike of increased tension
  • “Shying” (moving past an object but doing so tentatively while keeping full focus on it)

Horses, in general, can react much quicker than most animals of a similar size and weight, so even small spooks can unseat a rider. 

Why do horses spook? 

Horses are prey animals that are constantly on the lookout for danger. They do not have sharp teeth and claws, making it unlikely that they will be able to fight off a predator, but they do have speed and stamina. Therefore, when faced with the decision of fight or flight, their first choice is flight. 

If they cannot flee, they will resort to striking, kicking, and biting, but their first instinct is to run away from anything that appears to be a threat.

Essentially, a spooked horse is a scared and tense horse. It is not bad behavior or your horse “playing up” to get out working; horses do not have the cognitive abilities to plan a spook. 

Related Read: How the Horse Thinks and Learns

It is true that some horses are naturally more spooky than others, and certain breeds are less highly strung. That being said, all horses have different personalities, and even “bomb-proof” horses have the ability to spook. 

Alongside natural reasons, riders and handles can cause a horse to be spooky. Here are three examples to demonstrate how that happens. 

Example 1 – Negative past experiences. 

If your horse associates an object with something bad that happened to him, he may continue to be afraid of it and spook. For example, if a whip has been used to inflict pain on a horse, it’s not uncommon for the horse to spook or try to run away whenever a whip comes near him or moves suddenly. 

Example 2 – A build-up of tension

Many spooks are created due to tension building and going unnoticed. Your horse may contain his anxiety for so long, but if it goes unchecked, eventually, he will boil over and explode. 

Example 3 – Repetition 

If your horse begins to anticipate a movement/transition in a particular corner, he may start to become tense on the approach. As you approach that corner, this leads you to become tight and rigid in your body, which feeds into your horse and causes him to worry even more. 

The cycle continues until, eventually, your horse is scared of a corner in the arena when ridden but will happily go into the same corner when loose. You have now convinced yourself that your horse will spook in that corner, which ironically can cause your horse to spook. 

What can horses spook at?

Typical spook or fear-inducing objects include:

  • Foreign objects, such as dressage letters, the judge’s box, flowers, etc.
  • Flapping plastic bags or advertising banners
  • Narrow gateways and small, confined spaces
  • Clippers (the sound and/or feel of the vibration)
  • Other species, especially pigs, cows, and donkeys
  • The same species, especially the miniature kind, such as shetland ponies
  • Motor vehicles, both on the road and parked
  • Water, such as puddles
  • Unexpected noises, such as you unzipping your jacket or even sneezing while riding.
  • Bicycles
  • Anything moving quickly
  • Umbrellas
  • The wind
  • Their own flatulence (yes, you read that correctly)
  • Any changes in their environment (such as the mounting block being moved to another area) 

Also, thanks to your horse’s excellent senses, he may spook at seemingly nothing; he may be able to hear, smell, and/or see something you don’t. 

The list is endless. 

Why is spooking a problem for the domesticated horse owner?

Ultimately, a spooked horse is a scared horse, and a scared horse is a dangerous horse. 

During a spook, your horse’s top priority is to get away from a threat as quickly as possible. In doing so, he could severely injure you, others, and himself. 

In a blind panic, spooked horses have been known to: 

  • Trample over their handler
  • Rear and land on top of their handler
  • Drag their handler as they try to flee
  • Run into other people
  • Run into fences and obstacles
  • Try to jump fences and barriers but misjudge them and crash through them or land on top of them
  • Run into oncoming traffic
  • Fall over when fleeing 

The above examples are extreme, but they do frequently happen. 

Notably, your horse cannot be blamed for this behavior since he is only reacting in a way that is natural to him. 

You must also appreciate how much your horse has already overcome to live in a domestic setting. Stables of solitude, limited and fenced turnout, traveling in a horsebox or trailer, having a predator (humans) sit on his back; none of these are natural to your horse. 

Why is spooking a problem for the dressage rider?

If your horse is constantly spooking or shying during a dressage test, it will make it almost impossible for you to get a good score. 

The dressage judge will penalize any signs of tension and lack of attention, and an untimely spook at ‘B’ can ruin an otherwise promising test.

In the end, rather than trying to give your best performance, your dressage test becomes a damage limitation exercise where you seek to control your horse’s spooking to a manageable degree.

Can you permanently stop your horse from spooking? 

In short, no. 

You can reduce spooking, but it is not possible to totally eliminate a natural instinct that has enabled horses to survive millions of years. 

Combatting your horse’s spooking is also a very slow process, so you must have realistic expectations at each stage; you can’t rewire your horse’s brain overnight. There is no “push this button” or “do this exercise” to help stop your horse from spooking. 

What NOT to do when trying to minimize spooking

Many times, riders apply human logic when trying to combat their horse’s spooking. Sadly, this often makes matters worse because horses are not human! 

Your horse is a prey animal (humans are predators), so they think very differently from us. 

To help you avoid some of the common mistakes, here are eight things you must not do. 

1 – Don’t punish your horse for spooking/shying. 

Remember that shying comes from fear. If you punish your horse for shying, you convince him he was right to be afraid in the first place! Your horse will associate the scary object with a punishment, making it more likely he will spook next time. 

2 – Don’t soothe your horse by patting him while he’s shying. 

This action just rewards the behavior you don’t want.

3 – Don’t force your horse to walk straight up to something scary. 

This is the most frightening thing you can do to a flight animal. It’s effectively like asking your horse to come face to face with a tiger when every instinct tells him to run away. 

Also, if your horse is terrified of an object, you may have to use a lot of force to get him close to it, which results in a very negative experience for your horse, increasing the likeliness he will spook again. 

4 – Don’t you stare at the scary object

If you focus on it, your horse will too. Look up and ahead of the hazard instead. Your staring draws your horse’s attention to it. 

If you think your horse is going to spook at something, he probably will. 

5 – Don’t keep a tight hold on the reins. 

Although this is a safety precaution from your perspective, a tight rein contact can make your horse feel trapped and claustrophobic, thereby increasing his tension and the possibility of a spook.  

6 – Don’t rush your horse. 

It’s crucial that when working with your horse to minimize spooking, you don’t rush him, and you go at his pace. 

Your goal is to increase your horse’s confidence. If you overburden your horse or push him to a level where he can no longer cope, you can increase his fears even more. 

Always work at the edge of where relaxation and calmness can be reestablished when needed, and make sure that you have plenty of time for each training session so you won’t be tempted to rush your horse and you won’t get flustered.

7 – Don’t avoid your horse’s spooking issue

Many riders deliberately avoid anything they know will spook their horse, even avoiding certain competition venues or areas of their home arena that their horse finds scary. 

Although, to some degree, this is a sensible thing to do, your horse still needs to experience different things (in a positive way) in order to overcome them. 

Adding some variety to your horse’s life and allowing him to encounter and explore new things naturally, provided it doesn’t overwhelm him, can go a long way to combatting your horse’s spooking. 

8 – Don’t flood your horse. (Probably the most crucial point in this list)

“Flooding” involves forcing your horse to confront something he considers frightening, not allowing him to escape from it, and only removing it when he stops responding/spooking to it. 

For example, you may have seen people tie plastic bags to horses’ tails while loose in a round pen. As the horse runs around in panic, the bag makes more noise. Once the horse stops running, the bag will stop making as much noise and be removed. 

The theory is that the horse is supposed to learn not to react and not take flight, suppressing the horse’s natural instinct. 

There are many problems with this, namely:

  • It creates a dangerous situation for all involved; horse, handler, and rider (if done under saddle). 
  • The horse stops responding and freezes because he has developed ‘learned helplessness.’ 
  • The horse does not grow in confidence; he is still scared of the object. 
  • The horse does not build a trusting relationship with the human. (The human puts the horse into terrifying situations and then stands and watches while he panics.) 

How to minimize your horse’s spooking

Now that we’ve covered what spooking is and what not to do, here are some tips and helpful advice on what to do. 

Step 1 – Things to check first before trying to minimize spooking 

Before you set out on your journey to de-spook your horse, it’s sensible to check the following three areas which may be contributing to or causing your horse’s spooking behavior. 

1 – Check your horse’s general health

If your horse is experiencing pain or discomfort, he may display this by spooking. Therefore, it’s a good idea first to ensure that your horse is in good general health and fit for work. 

Common areas of concern include (but are not limited to) the following: 

  • Tack fitting (especially saddle, girth, and bit).  
  • Teeth and mouth. 
  • Back 
  • Gastric ulcers
  • Vision 
  • Hooves and shoeing

2 – Check the horse and rider/handler combination

Your horse is a herd animal; he feels safer in a herd and gets his confidence and cues from other herd members. 

You and your horse form a herd of two, with you as the leader. Therefore, your horse will be looking at you for confidence and cues. And if you are anxious, your horse will pick up on that and be anxious too. 

As a general rule, nervous riders/handlers and nervous horses do not go well together. They will be unlikely to instill confidence in each other and, more than likely, will make each other even more nervous. 

Related Read: How to Know if You are Over-Horsed

3 – Your horse’s lifestyle and management 

Horses can be spooky and highly strung due to incorrect lifestyle management. 

For example, limited turnout, too much grain feed, isolation from other horses, and a lack of routine can result in your horse having excess energy and higher levels of frustration and tension, which can lead to spooking.

Although these three things seem minor, they play a key role in keeping your horse happy and relaxed. 

Step 2 – Safety considerations for you and your horse

If you take things slowly and go at your horse’s pace, any de-spooking work that you carry out should be calm and relaxed as you allow your horse to explore new things positively. That said, horses can still be unpredictable, so having the appropriate safety equipment is wise. 

You should wear a hard hat, gloves, and sturdy boots. A body protector is also a good idea if you are working your horse under saddle. 

Your horse should wear brushing and overreach boots to protect his legs should he accidentally tread on himself. 

It’s also advised to carry out training in suitably fenced areas, such as a paddock or arena, so should the worst happen, you won’t lose your horse into acres of countryside.

Step 3 – How to minimize spooking from the ground

When working to de-spook your horse from the ground, your aim is to expose your horse to new things positively in a comfortable environment where he can investigate them at his own pace, with you helping to instill confidence in him. 

  1. Place objects in the arena for him to explore. Start with only a few items that he’s only mildly afraid of, don’t do too many or anything too scary; you don’t want to overburden him. 
  2. Lead your horse around the arena and past the objects. Don’t force him to approach any of them, but allow him time to calmly explore them if he is curious. 
  3. Within the arena, you can also do some groundwork with your horse, rewarding him for his efforts and remaining calm and focused. 
  4. Keep the session short and positive, repeating it the following day and occasionally changing the placement of the objects and introducing new ones.  

Hopefully, you’ll find that your horse will gradually learn that the objects are not scary, and he will be more likely to check out strange things in the future rather than run away from them. He will also build trust and confidence in you as a leader because you kept him safe. 

Step 4 – How to minimize spooking from the saddle 

When working your horse under saddle, here are three tips to help you minimize spooking. 

1 – Manage your horse’s tension 

Anything that creates tension can lead to spooking. In contrast, a relaxed horse is less likely to spook. 

You can keep your horse relaxed by;

  • keeping him balanced,
  • staying calm,
  • introducing work in a systematic and logical way that makes it easy for your horse,
  • providing him with plenty of stretching breaks, 
  • and ensuring your aids are clear and consistent. 

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2 – Keep your horse attentive and in front of your leg 

Often, horses spook because their attention is outward on their environment as opposed to on the rider. 

So, ensure that your horse is in front of your leg and attentive to your aids, and vary his work to keep it interesting for him: even the most obliging horses can stop concentrating if all they’re doing is endless laps around the arena. 

Your goal is to keep your horse’s focus on you, not on what’s happening around him.  

Related Read: How to Keep Your Horse Attentive to Your Aids

3 – Work with another horse

As mentioned, your horse is a natural herd animal. If, when you work him, another horse is present, one that is more confident and relaxed, this can help keep your horse feeling confident and relaxed, too. 

NOTE: This also works in reverse. So, where possible, avoid working multiple spooky and anxious horses together, as they will likely make each other worse as they feed off each other’s tension. 

Step 5 – How to deal with a scary object/area in the arena 

If your horse is scared of an object or area in the area, here’s how to deal with it. 

  1. Start by riding a circle in an area of the arena where your horse feels comfortable. For example, if the scary object is at one end of the school, circle in the center. 
  2. As your horse relaxes, gradually work your circle toward the scary end of the school.
  3. If your horse begins to get tense and nervous, move the circle away again. 
  4. While on the circle, you can ride transitions and other school movements such as shoulder-in, travers, and leg-yield to help keep your horse firmly focused on you.  
  5. Once your horse is relaxed and concentrating on his work, you can move the circle closer to the scary object again. 
  6. Eventually, you should be able to ride past the object with your horse remaining relaxed and without a spook.

NOTE: Remember, you need to look up and ahead as you pass the scary object. Don’t focus on it because then your horse will too. 

Bonus tips for managing spooking

Here are four extra tips to help you when it comes to managing and de-spooking your horse. 

Bonus tip 1 – Set small goals for each session

Setting small and achievable goals will prevent you from trying to rush your horse. 

It will also highlight the positive progress you are making, as even though it may initially seem small, it will quickly add up to a significant goal.

Related Read: How to Have Patience With Your Dressage Training

Bonus tip 2 – Be prepared to take a step back

You may find that you make a small amount of progress and then encounter a setback. Don’t panic! Just take a few steps back to return your horse to his comfort zone and begin again.

Don’t push on regardless because you could undo all of your previous work. 

Bonus tip 3 – Be consistent

For your horse to have confidence in you, you must remain consistent in your approach. Inconsistency can lead to uncertainty and tension. 

If you always adopt the same positive approach, your horse will quickly learn to trust you. 

Bonus tip 4 – Keep calm and carry on!

Your horse is highly sensitive to your emotions. If you begin to panic or become upset, your horse will mirror you, and that can be disastrous for your de-spooking training.

In contrast, if you can remain calm, your horse will sense that and quickly learn that there’s nothing to worry about.

In conclusion

While small spooks can be an inconvenience that impacts your dressage scores, big spooks can lead to dangerous and life-threatening situations. 

Unfortunately, there’s no absolute cure for horses inclined to be spooky, and every horse has the potential to spook. 

Remember that a spooked horse is a scared horse, so in order to combat it, you need to slowly build your horse’s confidence and his trust in you. 

The end result is a safer, happier, and more relaxed horse. 

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