Almost all horses spook (that is, shy, sidepass, jump, spin, rear, and/or bolt when startled and scared). As prey animals in the wild, these evasive maneuvers often saved their lives.
However, under saddle, spooking behavior can seriously jeopardize your safety, as well as that of your horse. Stay safe by teaching your horse not to spook, and by taking the correct actions when your horse spooks on the trail.
First, evaluate your horse. Does he occasionally spook when startled, is he green and inexperienced, or is he a genuinely spooky horse? A spooky horse is one that’s naturally more sensitive and worried than others. He tends to see “monsters” around every corner.
Next, look at your own attitude. Your thoughts, fears, and anxieties will transfer to your horse, increasing the likelihood that he’ll spook. If you’re afraid your horse is going to spook, he probably will!
The good news: With enough time and confidence-building riding, even the most jumpy horse can become a solid, reliable trail mount. However, it does take dedication on your part.
“If you have a spooky horse, you need vast amounts of patience and time to improve him through miles of riding,” notes top trainer/clinician Lynn Palm. “If you don’t have what it takes to work with him correctly, you and your horse may not be suited to each other. Be realistic.”
To work on your trail horse’s jitters, be proactive, and form a plan before you hit the trail. Know the trails you’re going to take, know whether they include potentially scary places, and know what gaits the other riders expect to take.
If you have a young or genuinely spooky horse, let your riding buddies know that you’ll need to work with him and make training progress, not just get from Point A to Point B.
On the trail, keep your eyes and ears open. Be aware of things that could potentially be a problem. The farther ahead you look, the more prepared you’ll be. Listen, as well: Sounds can also provoke a spook. Traffic, dogs barking, children playing, a flapping tarp -- any of these can be frightening to your horse if he isn’t accustomed to them or if they’re sudden.
Then follow Palm’s four-step strategy for spook prevention and control:
- warm up
- recognize pre-spook signs
- face the scary object
- dismount if necessary.
Step #1: Warm Up
“Most of the time, horses are spooky because they’re too fresh,” says Palm. “Don’t just saddle your horse and go. Take time to warm him up.” (Note that this warm-up session will also warm you up, so you’ll be better prepared for your trail ride.)
At home, warm up your horse in an arena with good footing. Away from home, find a level area near the trailers or the facility’s barn area. You need enough room to longe your horse, and walk, trot, and lope/canter him in both directions.
The length of warm-up depends on your individual horse. Palm recommends at least 10 to 15 minutes of longeing or riding. This will give you enough time to see how your horse is going and judge his responses to you and the surroundings.
Consider longeing your horse before you mount up, so you can watch him from the ground. If you need longeing help, consult a reliable trainer or certified riding instructor in your area. Be sure you’re able to control both your horse and the circle size.
When longeing your horse, create a “surprise” by suddenly clapping your hands. Then gauge your horse’s reaction. Acceptable behaviors include acting playful, head-shaking, accelerating, and even bucking and kicking. As long as he’s listening and responding to your commands, he’s releasing that energy in a safe, non-spooky way.
However, if your horse responds with explosive reactions, this is a clear sign he’s not ready to be ridden on the trail. Continue to warm him up until he’s less reactive before you head out to ride.
Step #2: Recognize Pre-Spook Signs
Horses are hardwired to run from danger, not stay and fight. Because of this ingrained tendency, horses prefer to immediately get away from something they find frightening or uncertain.
You can often observe this behavior in pastured horses. When the horses detect a potential threat, they’ll initially run away from it. Then, after going a short distance, they’ll turn and look back to reevaluate. They’ll often approach the “spooky” thing for a closer look.
Unfortunately, horses may also try this tactic under saddle. Be alert to your horse’s body language for signs that he’s primed to spook. Here are a few of the most common pre-spook signs:
- Pricked ears and elevated head carriage. Ears pricked sharply forward (or moving rapidly forward and back), a high head, and tense neck are all signs your horse is focused on something other than you.
- Respiration rate. Rapid breathing is another noticeable pre-spook sign. If your horse’s breathing suddenly quickens, and/or he’s snorting or blowing, he’s likely anxious about something.
- Signs of avoidance. Pay attention to any signs of avoidance, such as hesitating, slowing down/trying to stop, veering off to the side, or trying to turn around.
If you detect any of these signs, stop, and take control before your horse spooks, bolts, or tries to run away. Read on for how to do so.
Step #3: Face the Scary Object
If you notice the signs of a potential spook, take action before your horse does.
If you wait until he reacts or spooks, he’ll be in charge instead of you, and you’ll lose control.
To stay in control, stop your horse, and keep him facing the scary object. Ask him to stand still and look at the object; you don’t want him to turn and flee. If you can keep in control at this point, your horse is on his way toward accepting the object and overcoming his fear or uncertainty without spooking.
Don’t grip with your legs or overuse the reins, as this will only stimulate your horse more. Keep your legs close to his sides without clamping down, and maintain light rein contact.
If your horse moves around, guide him back to the object, and ask him to stand and face it once again. As his concern lessens, he’ll turn his head away. As soon as he does so, straighten his head, and cue him with your legs and seat to walk forward a few steps. Then stop him. Don’t wait for him to stop on his own.
As you bring your horse to a stop closer to the object, have him stand and look once again. He’ll likely swing his head back and forth to get a better look. Let him. Stroke his neck.
When your horse relaxes a little, speak to him in a soft voice, move forward again a few steps, then ask him to stop. Always ask him to stop before he takes charge and stops on his own. You want him to trust you and respond to your cues.
You might end up doing the stop/walk forward/stand-look routine a number of times before your horse will stand close to the object of his concern. Get close enough to let him smell the obstacle if he wants to.
Then move your horse so that he’s parallel to the scary object. Walk a few steps so that the object is at his hip or behind him, and stop again. His ears will probably be flicking back and forth, or remain upright, but if he can accept the obstacle behind him without spooking, you’ve succeeded.
If you return home the on the same trail, prepare for another “object lesson” at the same place.
“You have to start all over again when approaching from the other way, because the obstacle will appear different to your horse from the other direction,” says Palm.
Step #4: Dismount
If you’re a confident, experienced rider, you’ll often be able to help your horse through a potential spook from the saddle, as just described.
But if you’re nervous or afraid your horse may spook or bolt, dismount, and perform the same routine from the ground so you feel safe and your horse won’t pick up on your anxiety. You’ll be safer on the ground, and you’ll still help your horse deal with his insecurities.
Cynthia McFarland is a full-time freelance writer who writes regularly for national horse publications and is the author of eight books. Horse-crazy since childhood, she owns a small farm in north central Florida. She enjoys trail riding on her Paint Horse gelding, Ben.
Lynn Palm has shown more than 34 Quarter Horse world and reserve champions, competing in both English and Western disciplines. She’s won a record four AQHA Superhorse titles and was the first rider to win the prestigious Superhorse title twice on the same horse, Rugged Lark. In 2000, Palm was named Horsewoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation and the AQHA. In 2003, Equine Affaire gave her its Exceptional Equestrian Educator award.