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How to Help the Spooky Horse

By Carol Kurtz Darlington, Art2Ride Associate Trainer

You know that thing that happens when you’re minding your own business and someone sneaks up on you and shouts “Boo”? Your body surges with adrenaline and you scream before you can even send a message to your brain that you are not about to die. Then you put your hand on your chest, take a deep breath, and in about 15 seconds you are back to normal. Your brain has caught up with your body’s survival instinct. This is very similar to your horse’s involuntary reaction to a bang outside or a plastic bag menacingly showing up out of nowhere. Every horse will shy at something unexpectedly at some point, but what can we do to help our horses gain confidence and spook less?  

I like the way Erik Herbermann explains how to handle this. “It is absolutely crucial that we pay no attention to  the real or imagined object from which the horse is shying. Even if a bomb drops next to the riding school we should be so non-reactionary that, so far as the horse should be concerned, the rider can’t see or hear anything!

Shying is no big deal and lasts only a few seconds, but how we react will make all the difference in the world. It’s over for the horse, but we often make it an issue long afterward. It is our job to move on and lead our horse as if nothing even happened. Reacting, even looking at whatever caused your horse to spook will convey to your horse that “Oh, my! That really was something, wasn’t it?” You want to completely ignore it.

I’ve seen riders let their horse investigate the scary corner, thinking this will help them. Trouble is, before you know it you will be stopping every few steps to let your horse check something else out. Not to mention the horse gets a little break every time he shies away from something, a reward for an undesirable action. This does nothing to help your horse learn how to handle the next new and different stimulus. You want to teach your horse to trust you and that nothing that comes up is cause for his concern. You want to communicate that you will always keep him safe, so just keep working.

Forcing your horse to return to the scary place is not ignoring it either. Focus on the work at hand and help your horse focus on it too. Stay calm. Do not react or punish your horse, but don’t coddle your horse at this moment either. Do not react at all. Next time around you can lightly pat your horse and praise him for making it past.

One way to handle a spook is to put your horse in a shoulder-in away from the scary object and just move on to something else. If you’re not familiar with a shoulder-in, just keep the hind legs on the track and displace the shoulders toward the inside, away from the scary spot, so the horse is walking on three tracks instead of two. You don’t have to obsess about the area by coming back over and over until your horse stops spooking. That would also indirectly tell your horse that “Yes, there really is something we need to deal with over here”. You continue your work as if there is NOTHING THERE. Your riding will take you back there eventually, and you will be unwavering in your confidence. Take some deep breaths and relax your own body, because that will communicate volumes to your horse. (Believe me, I know this is easier said than done!) Try smiling or even laughing to calm yourself. Here is one of many times when your own self-control makes you a good leader for your horse. Remember that this survival instinct has served horses well as animals of prey, and it is hard-wired into them for good reason.

Your horse could already be tense because you are screaming at him with your aids or with an ill-fitting saddle. You may be squeezing your horse without even realizing it. You may have been impatient tacking up or unfair with the spurs or whip. If you are pushing your horse too hard, your horse will not feel safe in the hands of a rider who is not motivated by love and respect. Anytime your horse is nervous or uncomfortable he will be more likely to spook.

Riding your horse in a relaxed state instead of tension will help. Just by putting his body in the natural frame with his neck out and down slightly in front of him can release endorphins. The position of the body can communicate to the horse’s brain that “we are relaxed now”. A focused, happy, comfortable horse that gets in the working zone is much less likely to spook in the ring or out on the trail.

I am not talking about the horse that goes into a fit of bucking, rearing, or bolting. NEVER ignore this behavior. That is extremely dangerous and can become a bad habit once a horse knows he can throw you off. Behavior like that is a completely different topic to address another time. If your horse is shaking, get off immediately. I’m only talking about when a horse spooks in place or shies and then becomes calm again as quickly as he started. There are always exceptions, and you should always put your safety first.

Of course horses may simply spook because something surprises them. The better you are at ignoring the behavior completely, the quicker your horse will recover and the less he will shy in the future. The idea is not to get your horse used to every possible thing that could ever happen, but to help your horse learn that when he is with you—no matter what happens—he will be safe.

Illustration © Emily Cole Illustrations