Why does my horse spook?

Most of us have been on, or at least seen, a horse spooking (some call it shying), and many of us have experience with horses that can have massive spooks, spin around and run away. Others, whose behaviour may not be as exaggerated, can seem to shy at almost anything or even nothing.

It would be unrealistic to think that we could stop the horse from ever spooking. After all, we all get surprised from time-to-time, right?

However, we can help the spooky horse (and ourselves!) by being mindful of why the horse spooks in the first place; we can learn what to do once the behaviour has become habitual, and how we can avoid this spooking behaviour from developing into a habit in the first place.

It’s about confidence

The spooky horse is not in a good place, he is not relaxed or under the stimulus control of the rider/handler.

Spooking is a sign of a horse that is lacking in confidence – ‘non-human social’ and ‘novel object confidence’ in particular.

In this article, we will discover the seven main reasons horses spook, the seven best ways of addressing this behaviour if it has already been established, and seven ways to help you prevent creating a spooky horse in the first place.

Reasons why your horse spooks

Before you think about the reasons your horse spooks, observe him or her at home, in the field.

1. Naturally high emotional level

Is your horse naturally over-vigilant, reactive and spooky when they are with their fellow herd members?
If so, your horse is likely to have a naturally higher emotional level than the horse that is, most of the time, grazing quietly with his or her friends.
Maybe your horse is usually relaxed and comfortable at home (and we aren’t talking about when a deer or kangaroo bounds through the field, he’s entitled to jump at that) but something changes when he or she is handled or ridden. In this case there are things you can do to find out why that might be.

2. Too emotional

A horse that one would describe as ‘spooky’ is usually overly emotional. This horse’s emotional level is so high that they are unable to focus on you, the rider or handler.

3. Not emotional enough

Your horse may also spook when he or she is not emotional enough when being trained, ridden or handled on the ground. Such a horse is not engaged with the rider and is likely to be suddenly surprised by things in the surroundings due to this lack of focus.

4. Confused

Horses can also spook when they become confused. Horses love predictability and a new rider, environment or new signals and cues, can be confusing for the horse, making him less confident and more likely to spook.

5. Bad experiences

A horse’s history plays a big role in how likely they are to spook. Horses that have had unpredictable and inconsistent training are more likely to be expecting the unexpected and thus, more likely to spook. While those that have gained confidence with the consistent use of well-timed combined reinforcement are less likely to do so.

6. A spooked rider

It is not always the horse that spooks! Some riders can spot the ‘scary’ thing and alert their horse to it. When we expect the horse to be afraid of something, we tend to get tense ourselves and this will be transmitted to the horse by an increase in pressure, on the rein or lead rope if we are on the ground and via our seat, leg and hands when we are riding.

7. Unfair expectations

Horses that are left to ‘work it out themselves’ in difficult situations such as a new environment will often spook more than those that have been actively engaged with the rider.

A good example of this is when you take your horse to a new arena for a ride. Do you walk your horse around the arena on the ground on a loose rein, allowing him/her to call out and jump away from each scary object? Or do you actively engage your horse with an activity on arrival and gently remind him/her to bring their attention back to you when it strays?

The former will most probably have a horse that spends the next hour making sure all the scary things are where they should be, whereas the latter, will enjoy an engaged horse and a good and productive training session.

Be sure to check out this online webinar: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/webinar-spook.

Let’s find out how you and your horse can be the latter.

How to help your horse once spooking has become habitual

1. Emotional level

Help your horse relax by being conscious of its emotional level. Head elevation will usually tell you how emotional the horse is. I like to judge it out of 100, with 50 being a relaxed horse grazing in the field and 95 being a horse spooking and bolting away.
For training, we’re aiming for a 60/100, and you can learn more about how you can manage your horse’s emotional level by reading The Engagement Zone article, and this webinar: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/webinar-ez

2. Engage the horse

Teach a simple lesson such as give to the bit (https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/webinar-gtb) or head down to engage the horse with you and give him something to think about.

3. Bubble building

You are aiming to build ‘a bubble of communication’. I like to think about it as a bubble because a bubble is fragile.

Imagine a bubble around you and your horse. Inside that bubble you can communicate, with subtle pressure-release-reward cues and your horse responds, remains engaged and relaxed. Then a car speeds past, he raises his head and bursts the bubble – you can almost see his pricked ears breaking the bubble. This is great, because you have identified the exact moment at which he left the bubble, and now you can simply re-engage him with your lesson and get back to strengthening your bubble.

Be grateful to your horse for breaking the bubble because every time he or she does, it gives you another opportunity to train and thus strengthen your bubble of communication again (See the article ‘8 Reasons to Train Your Own Horse’ in the May-June 2019 issue of the magazine or read: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/8-reasons-to-train).

4. Give to the bit

I find the most useful lesson for helping the horse relax and focus on me, is the give to the bit lesson (which can be done with a bitted or bitless bridle in precisely the same way).

You can read about this lesson in the April and May 2018 issues of the magazine or in this webinar: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/webinar-gtb.

5. Increasing emotional level

As trainers, we are always altering the horse’s emotional level. We need to increase it to engage the horse with the lesson and encourage the horse to relax during lessons. In order to engage the horse with learning, we do not need to increase the emotional level a lot but we must increase it a little, I find about ten to fifteen percent is perfect – much less than that and the horse is not focused on the exercise.

6. Patterns

Using combined reinforcement, pressure-release-reward, sets up good patterns for your horse to learn.

You can learn more by watching this webinar: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/webinar-pressure-release

Remember we need movement to train, and a spooky horse will usually want to move. Good choices of lessons would be those that require movement from the horse, such as give to the bit and shoulder control from the ground or from the saddle.

Poor choices would be attempting to teach the horse to stand still. Save this lesson for a time when your horse is relaxed because you will be much less likely to have to correct/punish your horse at that time.

Energy is your most precious commodity and if you have a horse that wants to move take advantage of that by teaching him or her a lesson that will be useful both on the ground and under saddle, give to the bit and shoulder control are my favourite for this.

7. Set up a plan

You are now being very proactive, asking your horse to engage with you, rather than react to its environment and it is time to make a plan and take this good strong bubble of communication that you have built on the ground to the saddle.

Watch this webinar: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/webinar-proactive-vs-reactive

The saddle is never the place to start! If a behaviour is not established or it is dangerous on the ground, it will be worse under saddle. Even for those of you that feel ‘safer’ in the saddle, it is considerably more difficult for the horse to learn while you are riding than it is while you are on the ground.

When I am re-training a spooky horse, I use the following plan:

How to avoid ‘creating’ a spooky horse in the first place

1. Have a lesson plan, even when you are on the trail.

This may seem like a bit of a kill-joy idea if you just wanted to go on a relaxing ride with your friends, but your spooky horse is not yet confident enough to do that. That should not necessarily prevent you from going, rather it will give you the perfect opportunity to be proactive and train your horse on the trail (plan for more training and less gossip for a few rides perhaps).

2. Start with relaxation whenever you are with your horse.

If your horse is not relaxed, address that first by engaging him or her with a simple lesson of pressure-release-reward. This could be any lesson such as head down, walk forward and back, give to the bit and so on.

3. Always break lessons down as much as you can.

A good example of this is the trailer loading lesson. Here we only focus on the left front foot and teach the horse to move that foot forwards and backwards on cue (watch: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/webinar-trailer)

4. Never make assumptions about what your horse is thinking.

We really do not know what our horses are thinking, and such assumptions often lead to aversive training methods (https://equitationscience.com/equitation/position-statement-on-the-use-misuse-of-leadership-and-dominance-concepts-in-horse-training). Imagine the difference in a riders’ response when they feel ‘oh, my poor horse is terrified, I wonder how I can make him more confident’ to ‘he just did that to get me off because he doesn’t want to go out today’.

5. Each lesson you teach adds to your horse’s confidence

And conversely, the longer the spooking behaviour is left unaddressed, the harder it will be to overcome. Even simple, easy lessons will greatly assist in this area. If you have good use of combined reinforcement (pressure-release-reward), your horse will engage with you more and more, and grow in confidence hugely because he/she will understand that they are ‘getting it right’, and being rewarded for doing so.

Check out this article: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/confident-horse

6. Your job

Our job, as riders and handlers, is to engage the horse with us and to do that we have to make it interesting, challenging and fun! If we can do this, we build a strong bubble of communication and those elements in the environment that the horse had been reacting to are no longer of importance to the horse. Once built, we can take our horse, in this safe and relaxed bubble, wherever we would like to go.

7. Always be proactive

The hardest thing for a horse to do, is to be in a new environment alone, even if you are with him, holding or riding. Have you ever seen a horse resembling a kite on the end of a string while being led? It is a terrifying place for a horse to be. This is the reactive mode for both, the handler and the horse.

The easiest way to get your horse to relax and engage with you, is with a simple lesson using combined reinforcement. This is what it means to be a proactive rider or handler.

Both situations described above can apply to the same horse, they are simply different approaches, so be proactive.

Tracking your horse’s progress

It can be sometimes hard to remember how your horse used to behave and this often makes us doubt our progress.

This is why the Equine Behavior Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ) is such a useful tool.

E-BARQ is a longitudinal study designed to investigate how training and management effect behaviour. The study is open to all horse owners and you can check it out at www.e-barq.com.

When you complete your E-BARQ you will receive your horse’s results, showing how they scored on a number of different categories, from Trainability to Confidence. (The image on the opposite page shows an example E-BARQ graph.)

If you have a spooky horse, I encourage you to fill out an E-BARQ now and get your results.

You’ll be invited back in six months’ time to retake the questionnaire and you will be able to see how your horse has improved in that time (because I am sure you will implement all of the ideas in this article). Pay particular attention to Non-Human Social Confidence and Novel Object Confidence – I think you’ll see some big changes.

This article titled “Why Does My Horse… Spook?” was published in Horses and People November-December 2019 magazine.

The article “8 Reasons to Train Your Own Horse” was published in Horses and People May-June 2019 magazine.