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How to prevent your horse from spooking

Riding a horse can seem off-putting when they spook and take off with you in the saddle. Don’t lose confidence or be disheartened by this, almost all horses spook.

Horses are amazing creatures, but they’re not hardwired to stay and fight in what they might see as a dangerous or scary situation. As prey animals, their instinct in the wild would be to flee when they see trouble ahead. In these scenarios, you must understand your horse and exert confidence in the saddle to build a trustworthy bond between horse and rider.

Reasons why a horse might spook

If your horse spooks it could be an indication of fear, anxiety, lack of experience or some trust issues with some horses naturally more reactive than others. Here are just some other things to consider.

Pain or discomfort

Their tack could be pinching them and causing them back pain when out riding. Make sure the saddle is sitting comfortably on your horse and fits correctly.

Dietary issues

Are you giving them the correct balance of protein in accordance with their exercise routine? If your horse is hyperactive when hacking, try reducing their protein intake to combat this.

Health conditions

Certain health conditions, like poor eyesight, can cause a horse to spook. Their sight is key to help keep them safe and be able to process their surroundings so contact your vet if you have any concerns about your horse’s eyes.

Their background

Depending on their background or history, your horse may have had a bad experience in the past that is causing them to panic.

Their surroundings

Sometimes moving your horse into a new area or certain objects within their surroundings can cause your horse to feel anxious or tense.

How do I treat this behaviour?

Whilst it’s nervewracking when your horse bolts, take note of what’s causing them to spook so you can get to the root of the issue faster and help avoid it in the future. Was it a plastic bag in the wind or maybe a moving vehicle?

If you suspect your horse is spooking because of a health issue, get them checked out by a veterinary professional immediately.

Otherwise, you should treat their anxious behaviour by setting up consistent training sessions. This is also a great opportunity for you to create a special bond between you and your horse.

Try taking your horse into a pen. If, for example, your horse constantly spooks at plastic bags, get a plastic bag and slowly rub it all over their body. Remember to be gentle, patient, and calm when doing this.

The same principle applies with all other scenarios and objects, slowly introducing what might have frightened your horse and allow them to get familiar with their surroundings at their own pace.

Reward your horse for good behaviour but if you get a positive response while training, don’t push them. Leave the training session on a good note and continue with another session the next day.

Always handle your horse gently and never work by force. Adapt to your horse’s behaviour by being aware of your verbal and non-verbal communication. Don’t be closed off around your horse or raise your voice. This can undo all the hard work put in and could put you both back to square one.

Trial and error

Once you are satisfied with your horse’s training or have spoken to a vet and rectified any health issues, it’s time to test all the great work you and your horse have put in. Don’t be nervous about hacking with them again. You won’t know if your training has worked until you try.

Here are some pre-spook signs to look out for so you can help calm your horse as they become tense or anxious.

  • Pricked ears, high head or tense neck
  • Rapid breathing and excessive snorting/blowing
  • Signs of avoidance: veering off to the side, slowing down or trying to stop

If you notice any of these signs, remain calm in the saddle and stay in control by acting before your horse does.

Keep your reign contact light, assess the situation and if you feel comfortable, guide your horse to the object or situation that’s causing them anxiety.

If your horse still takes flight go back through the process of elimination and continue your training with them until they are comfortable.

How to help calm your horse

If your horse starts to spook, keep talking to help reassure them or rub their neck to see if that helps ease their tension.

Try to avoid any pressures during early work with your horse or while they are still young, doing this will help them learn as soon as possible that you can be trusted and there’s nothing to feel anxious about.

In any case, if your horse seems to spook quite often it may be best to speak to a vet to ensure your horse is comfortable in their environment and that they’re happy and healthy.

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