How to prevent your horse from spooking
When we refer to ‘spooking’, we’re describing those sudden, dramatic movements a horse makes to get away from whatever it is that’s frightened them. From a slight side-step to a frenzied bolt across the field, spooking can prove frustrating (and dangerous) for horse owners having to deal with such behaviour.
As a prey animal, the horse is a ‘flight or fight’ creature, so their instinct is to flee at the first hint of danger. However, horses living in the UK have next to no predators, which means their flight instincts are not necessarily helpful (and can even be harmful) in everyday situations like hacking or schooling.
Reasons a horse might spook
Whether your horse spooks at loud vehicles or the rustling of plastic bags, there will always be an underlying reason as to why they react that way.
1.) Pain or discomfort
If a horse is in pain, their attempts to let you know can become quite dramatic. Spooking is a way some horses choose to let you know they’re in pain.
First, it’s vital your horse is checked by a vet. It’s essential your horse is healthy and doesn’t have any signs of illness or injury that could be causing pain.
Provided your vet has confirmed your horse is healthy, the next step would be to have an experienced, qualified saddler check your horse’s tack to ensure their tack fits them correctly and isn’t causing them pain.
Once you’ve ruled out pain as a cause for your horse’s spooking, you can move on.
Horses have highly sensitive digestive systems. If there’s even a slight imbalance in their diet, your horse may end up spooking.
You can always contact your vet (or an equine nutritionist) to assess your horse’s diet in line with their workload, to give you a better idea as to whether that’s effecting their spooky behaviour.
Excess carbohydrates and sugars in your horse’s diet can make them overly energetic, for example, which can make spooking worse.
For further advice on equine nutrition, the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) offers a range of helpful Responsible Horse Owner Booklets, which are available free of charge.
3.) Health conditions
Certain health conditions can make horses more prone to spooking.
An example of a health condition that makes it difficult for horses to process their surroundings is poor eyesight. Therefore, spooking can happen when horses can’t see properly.
If you’re concerned about your horse’s eyesight, please contact your vet.
4.) New surroundings
Many horses feel anxious or become stressed when something changes about their surroundings, or they’re moved to a new environment.
A new jump wing in the corner of the arena? A terrifying tractor parked in their new stable yard? Your horse may panic at the slightest change to their familiar habitat.
Introduce your horse to ‘scary’ objects in a safe, controlled way (possibly in-hand to start) and give them lots of praise for bravely facing that frightening parked vehicle or terrifying plastic bag. The ways you choose to reward your horse may differ, though lots of vocal praise, scratching their withers, stroking their neck, and giving healthy treats can help your horse feel calmer in stressful situations.
Never be too forceful with your horse, and always aim to end your training sessions on a positive note; that way, your horse will learn to trust your judgement above their own if they feel anxious in future.
5.) Past experiences
Like us, trauma can have a profound impact on equine behaviour.
Your horse’s past experiences may be the cause of their spooking. To heal the scars of their past, it’s important to spend time slowly building a great bond with your horse. By associating you with positive experiences, your horse will eventually learn to trust you and spooking will reduce and hopefully disappear in time.
Qualified riding instructors and equine behaviourists can provide advice and guidance on bonding with your horse.
How to remedy spooking
While your horse’s spooking can damage your confidence, as much as theirs, there’s plenty you can do to help fix the problem.
Most importantly, when your horse is spooking, you need to focus on staying calm. Horses can sense our energy, so it’s essential you find whatever works for you to ease any anxieties you might have about your horse’s spooking.
Preparation is key. So, it can be helpful to know some signs of spooking in your horse:
- Tense muscles.
- Head held high.
- Ears set forward (not flickering to listen to you).
- Rapid breathing.
- Planting or refusal to move.
- Veering sideways.
- Rushing backwards.
1.) Fix the cause
Should you be concerned about your horse’s health, the solution is simple: consult your vet, or other equine health professional (e.g. dentist, chiropractor, physiotherapist, etc.), for advice and appropriate treatment.
2.) Find a good riding instructor
We all need a little extra support sometimes, especially when our horse’s spooking is having a negative impact on our quality time together.
Finding an experienced, fully qualified riding instructor to help work through your horse’s behavioural issues and rebuild some of your own confidence is an excellent option for most riders. If you need extra help to find a suitable local riding instructor, the British Horse Society (BHS) Find a coach feature is useful.
3.) Practise, practise, practise!
After learning how to handle your horse’s spooking, it’s vital you make time to work on confidence-building exercises with your horse.
Keeping rein contact light is essential, since holding tightly to the reins can make your horse feel more tense.
Think carefully about the situation before expecting your horse to approach something that’s frightened them. You know your horse best, and you’ll need to judge how comfortable they are to approach something they’ve previously found ‘spooky’.
Finally, remember to reward your horse for facing their fears! Transforming a negative experience into a positive memory can help your horse feel more confident and improve their trust in you.