Spooking is the natural reaction of a startled horse. After all, it’s this capacity to detect danger and lightning-fast reflexes that have kept these prey animals out of the jaws of predators in the wild for centuries.
Even the quietest, most bombproof of horses can be frightened into a sudden change of direction or a sideways leap, but even though this behaviour is understandable, it can also be unnerving and dangerous. A spooky horse can be a real hazard when you are out on the roads where there are many perceived threats, and a violent spook might unseat you in front of a car or result in your horse bolting off into traffic.
Is it always fear?
It’s important to identify why your horse is spooking, as not all horses spook out of fear. Other reasons could be:
- An excess of energy, in which case you should check his food.
- Physical pain, for example from a badly fitting saddle or a sore tooth.
- Bad eyesight. If a horse cannot see properly, the distorted images he does see will confuse him until he gets close enough to identify the object.
- A young horse is more likely to spook as he has less experience of the world around him.
- If the rider is nervous, the horse will reflect that negative energy.
- Some horses are just more insecure than others and don’t trust their rider to keep them safe.
If your horse is spooky around the yard, try to identify what he is scared of, for example a wheelbarrow, sprinkler or a bird rustling in the bushes, and work on desensitising him to these triggers. Frequent exposure to the cause of alarm with a calm, confident rider or handler in control should gradually allay your horse’s fears. If you don’t feel confident enough to help your horse to overcome his suspicions, then enlist the help of your coach or an expert in animal behaviour.
Theoretically, a well-schooled horse will be easier to control when he spooks as he should respond to your leg aids. Hopefully this means you can prevent him from spinning 180° and bolting with you when a dog has leapt out of nowhere and is barking at a fence. However, the intensity of a horse’s fear can make him forget everything he knows and the unpredictability of it can result in a serious accident.
What to do when your horse spooks
When riding out on a spooky horse you need to stay focused, keep your leg on, and maintain a good contact with his mouth. As you approach something you know your horse might spook at, turn his head away from it and push him forward. If he is usually obedient, his desire to please may help to overcome his desire to turn and run away. The more relaxed you are and the more quietly you sit in the saddle the better. If you tense up and get flustered you will directly communicate your feelings to the horse. If he does shoot forward, try to stay balanced in the saddle without gripping with your legs and pull hard on one rein – he can’t bolt in a circle. Remember, you are supposed to be the leader and your horse should be able to depend on you when he is frightened.
What not to do
The instinctive reaction of the startled rider would be to pull back on the reins while clinging on with her legs, but this is the worst possible thing to do. Holding on to a horse who feels the need to flee will make him feel trapped and he’ll panic. If you punish your horse and shout at him he’ll think you’re a predator and be even more afraid. Don’t try to force him to go up to the cause of his alarm to show him it’s not scary until he’s calmed down. As hard as it is to do, the best thing is to sit quietly and try comfort him.
Building your horse’s confidence will go a long way toward alleviating his fears and calming his violent reaction to strange sights, sounds and smells. At the same time you should work on your own emotions and develop your riding skills so that you can react appropriately when he spooks. This takes time and patience, but the following advice should help.
Don’t completely avoid scenarios where your horse might spook. Expose him gradually to different situations in a controlled manner. Hack out together with a confident horse who can lead the way and show a young or nervous horse that there’s no need to be scared. Vary your schooling routine so that he is exposed to a variety of stimulants. Try trick or clicker training so that your horse gains confidence with you on the ground (see HQ115 for trick training tips). When competing, get to the show grounds early and lead him around the venue before you need to get on so that he has a chance to take in the new sights and sounds. As the relationship between you and your horse strengthens, his anxiety should lessen and he will trust you to take care of him in fearful situations. However, a timid horse that is prone to spooking is unlikely to get over this habit completely, so always be prepared!
Text by: Jan Tucker
The full article appears in the January issue (118) of HQ magazine > Shop now