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AskHQ: The spooky horse

Q: My horse is really spooky about anything we encounter on around the outside of the arena, but he’s absolutely fine jumping pretty much anything I put in front of him. Why is this?

A: Horses spook for lots of different reasons, but fundamentally they are flight animals so their instinct is to run from something scary. This behaviour has been life-saving for horses in the past, so it is understandable that it continues to be a large part of their behavioural repertoire, particularly in stressful situations.

In the case you describe above, it is unusual that your horse is a brave jumper but afraid of objects around the arena, and it may be worth getting your vet to have a look at him, particularly to check his vision. Some of the issue could, however, be down to the way the objects are presented to him. When a horse sees an object they see it in fewer colours than humans and it will be in or out of focus dependent on their head position. Horses also cannot generalise about objects so when they see an object they don’t think ‘this is something I have seen before’, in the same way that humans do. This means that every-time they see an object from another direction it looks like a new object to them. It also means that they pick up on tiny differences in objects as they are constantly looking at them as if for the first time.

Around the outside of the arena you will be changing rein and the objects will be to the sides of your horse. As horses have their eyes on the side of their head, their vision to the side is very good and this could be the reason for him spooking. Changing rein also means that the objects are being presented to both eyes differently all of the time, which may also cause spookiness. On the other hand when jumping you are approaching head on, where your horse has less precise vision so may find less reason to spook. As detailed above it is also thought that the focus of the horse changes according to his head position. Lots of horses hold their heads high when jumping and lower when schooling in the arena, so again it is possible that he is better able to focus in one or other situation and this is affecting his propensity to spook.

Your vet should definitely be your first port of call in this scenario, but if nothing is found to explain the situation, you should get the expert help of an experienced trainer to help you learn ways to manage the spookiness, and to build your horse’s confidence and trust so he feels less need to spook.