Helping spooky horses

Helping spooky horses

What makes horses spooky and how can you help a spooky horse relax? Our experts explain how you can desensitise horses to things that scare them and help build a better relationship with them.

Has your horse ever spooked at something for no apparent reason? Spooking is a horse’s reaction to fear, and a way of protecting itself from potential danger.

‘In general terms, fear is an unconscious emotional response that alerts the body to avoid anything perceived to be potentially dangerous or painful,’ explains equine behaviourist Justine Harrison. ‘It is a hardwired function of the nervous system designed to help an animal survive. When horses sense something they perceive as threatening, physiological changes occur in their body to prepare them for immediate action, also known as the “fight or flight” response.’

Why do spooky horses react in the way they do?

The horse’s primary reaction to danger is flight. If startled, their immediate response is usually to escape to a safe distance from the perceived threat. This distance will vary depending on the experience of the horse and the severity of the situation, and could be as little as a few metres or as much as a kilometre.

‘If fleeing isn't a possibility, then other behavioural reactions can occur,’ says Justine. ‘The horse may freeze, a response regularly attributed to them being stubborn or lazy. Or if cornered without an escape route, a horse may choose to confront their fear and fight, but this is a last resort and unusual unless in extreme circumstances.’

When startled by something to the front or the side, a horse may spook or shy – move quickly away from the feared stimulus by a metre or more. Spooking is a natural response to something the horse may find worrying or unusual. The move away from the feared object puts distance between the horse and the feared object. It can also give them the opportunity to look at the object from a different, safer perspective. If the rider or handler kicks or whips the horse or pulls on their mouth when the spook is happening, then the horse may also associate that pain or discomfort with their fear response and be more likely to shy in future.

Spooking behaviour varies between individuals and may be a result of both heredity and their prior experience. Fear responses can be reduced by introducing novel objects gradually and rewarding the horse for approaching. This is best done at the yard in a safe, relaxed environment so the horse isn’t stressed and can approach at their own pace.

How to desensitise a spooky horse

‘Horses must be gradually introduced to new experiences and not suddenly confronted with them,’ advises Justine. ‘They would naturally learn that a novel stimulus is nothing to worry about via “habituation” – simply getting used to it over time. This is a gradual process, and as long as they are not frightened at any stage, the horse learns a stimulus is safe with repeated presentations.’

  • Introduce your horse to novel objects (one at a time) by either putting it in their field and letting them approach when they are happy to do so, or in an arena on a loose lead rope, rewarding them for each step forwards they take.
  • Research has found that environmental enrichment aids the treatment of numerous behavioural problems including excessive fear responses, whereas a lack of mental stimulation may actually increase fear behaviours and impair cognitive development. Having another relaxed, experienced horse present in a difficult situation can also calm a stressed horse significantly.
  • Brush up on your equine body language skills and recognise the early signs of anxiety so that you can alter what you are doing to ensure your horse has the time and space to look at something they are worried about.
  • Don’t rush your horse. If your horse stops when approaching something, or starts to look at something unusual, stop and let them assess it on a loose rein. Give them the freedom to raise and lower their head and turn to the side if they want so they can get a good look at it.
  • Walk around something scary such as a flapping feed bag caught in a hedge, in an arc, so your horse can walk past confidently but without putting too much pressure on them.

What might be behind the spooky behaviour?

‘With any erratic behaviour in horses, I like to try and rule out pain as a cause,’ says Petplan Equine veterinary expert Juliette Edmonds. ‘Any source of pain when ridden could cause the horse to move or react suddenly or unpredictably, which could be construed as “spooking”. In particular, I would consider dental pain, orthopaedic pain/lameness or gastric ulcers.’

Visual deficits in horses are often difficult to evaluate, but it is possible that altered vision may change a horse’s behaviour. 

‘In particular, cataracts can be easily identified on examination and, in some severe instances, seem to correlate with altered perception and a change in behaviour when approaching objects on that side,’ explains Juliette. ‘In addition, some changes to the retina, including age-related retinopathies (changes to the retina in older horses), can alter vision – especially at low light levels – and can be associated with behavioural changes.’ 

Some horses are naturally more anxious, and in these types, spooky behaviour may be seen at a lower threshold, ie, a small problem can lead to dramatic behaviour more readily. Nervous or anxious riders and handlers will also escalate anxiety in the horse and so promote spooky behaviour. 

Riding spooky horses

Six-time Badminton winner Lucinda Green’s advice for riding spooky horses is not to punish them.

‘Slow down, stop, let them look, relax and take the pressure off,’ she suggests. ‘Let the horse take it in. If you’ve got a particular place in the school where the horse spooks every time, just slow down and make no big deal of it. You will find that they will start to give it up, until you go onto the other rein when they see the object totally differently out of the other eye, and you’ll need to start the process again.’

Another good tip is to allow the horse to sniff the scary object. ‘It gives them a better understanding of what the object is, and helps them to relax,’ explains Lucinda.

It’s also important to take into account how horses see. ‘A horse has nearly got 360-degree vision, except for a blind spot immediately behind its tail and another directly under its nose,’ Lucinda says. ‘That’s why it’s important to allow a horse to look at where they are going, especially when they are jumping or going over objects on the ground, such as poles or logs. Allow horses to stick their noses out and forward so they can assess the obstacle. They need to alter the height of their head to get a decent picture of what is in front of them.’

Confidence plays a big part, too.

‘They need confidence in you and will react to your tension, so staying relaxed and not reacting to their spooking will help improve their confidence in you,’ adds Lucinda. ‘They need to believe that they can do it, which is why it’s important never to ask too much of a horse before they are ready.’

To find out more about Lucinda’s tips for riding spooky horses, watch her video.

Do you ride or care for a spooky horse? Share your experiences and find out how others have coped with their horse’s spookiness on Facebook