Horses are quite sensitive to sudden or unusual noises. Because of his size, a horse’s reaction to sounds can be dangerous to his caretaker, whether the caretaker is walking the horse in hand or riding him. It can also be inconvenient and frustrating, particularly if the horse shies repeatedly at the sound of everyday objects like sprinklers or diesel tractors.
But fear of noises is as much a part of being a horse as is having a strong back, four legs and large, wide-set eyes. Horses are prey animals, and as such, nature has provided them with specialized defense mechanisms. One is sensitivity to sudden or unexpected sound. In fact, studies have shown that horses are more sensitive to an unusual sound than they are to the sight or smell of something unusual. They are better than people at being able to tell which sounds are loudest, and they can hear things at a higher pitch than people can. That means that a horse may hear something that frightens him—like a horse fly!—even though you can’t.
Factors That Affect Reactivity
Just as some horses are faster than others and some are friendlier than others, some horses are more reactive to noises than others. Some horses will shy or spook at any unexpected sound, while others may notice the same sound but not react defensively. A horse’s general reactivity is shaped by both genetics and prior experiences.
Genetics refers to inherited traits, and there are indeed some breeds that are more reactive than others. Breeds such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds, although not purposely bred to be noise reactive, are bred to be sensitive and fast and therefore are often reactive to sounds, while other breeds such as the American Quarter Horse and the draft breeds are bred to work in various environments—doing such things as cutting cows, trail riding and working fields—and they are generally more calm and nonreactive to all sorts of things, including sounds.
There can be as much variability within a breed or breed class as among breeds. Individuals with similar breeding can have very different reactions to the same sound. Horses who have been frightened by certain noises and horses who haven’t had an opportunity to hear many unusual sounds usually react poorly to sound.
Another factor that influences a horse’s reactivity is turn-out time. Horses who are kept stalled over long periods of time can be hyper-reactive to sounds.
Pain, distress and fatigue can all increase a horse’s reactivity to things. There are also certain viruses and other infectious diseases that can affect a horse’s neurological system and cause an increase in noise sensitivity and reactive behavior. If there have been no changes in your horse’s care or routine and yet your generally nonreactive horse suddenly becomes overly reactive, have your veterinarian rule out physical causes.
How to Help Your Horse Deal with Unexpected Sounds
The best approach to handling noise fears is to prevent them through exposure training when the horse is still a foal or youngster. The benefits of early exposure are significant—not only can early exposure prevent some fears altogether, but it can make fears that surface later far easier to treat. In addition, horses who receive early exposure don’t need to be treated as often. Early exposure training also helps reduce sight and scent reactivity, so young horses should be exposed to a variety of sights and smells (especially of animals who might frighten them, like dogs) as well as sounds. Horses are particularly frightened by high-pitched, startling noises and loud rumbling or varied-pitch sounds, so these sounds should be included in a young horse’s exposure training.
One approach to early training is to expose the young horse to sounds while he is with his herd mates in a large, safe pasture. An example of this approach is given by Anna Sewell in Black Beauty, her classic work on the welfare of horses in the eighteenth century. In the second chapter she writes from the horse’s perspective about trains passing by his new pasture: “I thought it very dreadful, but the cows went on eating very quietly, and hardly raised their heads as the black frightful thing came puffing and grinding past. For the first few days I could not feed in peace; but as I found that this terrible creature never came into the field, or did me any harm, I began to disregard it, and very soon I cared as little about the passing of a train as the cows and sheep did.” What the author gives in that passage is a description of what is now called desensitization through exposure. Anna Sewell makes it clear that the horse learns to accept the sound of the train not simply because he is forced to endure it, but because he is able to stay as far away from it as needed to keep the sight and sound at an acceptable level while he learns about it and because he reacts to the calmness and acceptance of his pasture mates.
Desensitization is only practical or ethical if the horse is with pasture mates, the area is safe and secure and the sound is not too loud, abrupt or brief. Abrupt and loud sounds can create panic in horses and send them galloping away. If these sounds are also brief—if the horse runs away and the sound immediately stops—the horse may never learn that the sound would end even if he didn’t run away.
Another approach to teaching a young horse to accept strange sounds is to actively associate the strange or potentially startling or frightening sounds with things the horse knows and likes. This is known as counterconditioning. Here are some points and steps in counterconditioning:
- The sound should be presented to the horse in a familiar environment where he feels safe.
- You should have some control over your horse, such as a lead attached to his halter.
- Act calm and move slowly while handling your horse.
- Present the sounds at a volume that doesn’t frighten or even worry your horse. He should prick his ears and turn toward the sound, but make no move to try to run away.
- While the sound is being presented and before it stops, offer your horse a favorite treat. Good choices are a handful of grain, horse cookies, carrots or apple bits.
- Feed your horse treats as long as the sound is present, but stop the instant the sound ends.
- Increase the noise level as your horse accepts the sound. The impact of sounds can easily be increased in one of three ways: the sound can be made louder, the sound-producing thing can be moved closer to the horse, or the sound can be presented to the horse in a different, less familiar place. You should only do one of these things at a time, and you should work with your horse until he accepts one new sound presentation before trying another. If he acts afraid at any time, quickly back up a step. You are working to avoid a reaction, not to overcome one.
If sounds are played for your horse without frightening him, he will learn to accept them as a normal part of his day.
What to Do If Your Horse Is Already Afraid
Horses who are afraid of storms and the sounds, sights and smells associated with storms, or of fireworks or gunfire, should be kept safely in a stall until the noise ends. Horses can seriously injure themselves in their attempts to run away from frightening sounds. They’ve been known to run through fences and other sturdy enclosures when there’s enough space to gather momentum. By keeping your horse stalled you can reduce safety hazards. Also help your horse deal with the noise by playing music at a moderately loud volume in order to help distract him from the startling sounds.
Treating Your Horse’s Noise Fears
Treatment for horses who already react poorly to noises should be carried out in a slow and deliberate way. The treatment is known as systematic desensitization with counterconditioning. (DSCC). DSCC is successful because it changes the way the horse feels about the sound—it reduces or eliminates his fear.
What Is Systematic Desensitization with Counterconditioning?
Desensitize means to “make less sensitive.” Its goal is to eliminate or reduce the emotion-based reaction that a horse has—in this case to a sound. The “systematic” part of systematic desensitization refers to structured desensitization. It starts with the frightening thing at an exposure level that doesn’t worry the horse, and systematically moves toward full exposure but without ever actually frightening the horse. In the case of noise fears, this is accomplished by keeping the sound source far away, or keeping the volume low, or playing it at a low, continuous monotone. Once the horse accepts that version, the sound is made louder, brought closer or otherwise made more noticeable.
To “condition” means to teach, and to “counter” means to change. So counterconditioning means teaching the horse to have a pleasant feeling about something he once feared. We do this by associating the sounds he fears with treats, friendly pats on the withers and encouragement. The sound soon comes to predict good things for the horse.
Desensitization is combined with counterconditioning because even delicious treats can’t overcome fear while an animal is still frightened. Counterconditioning by itself can work, but care must be taken that the horse isn’t frightened or trying to escape at the time. So in DSCC we expose the horse to a weak version of the thing he fears (desensitization), while giving him delicious treats (counterconditioning). We also watch him closely and wait until he takes a step toward the noise, without our having to use pressure to get him to move, or we wait until he attends to something else in the presence of the fearsome sound. The moment we see one of these reactions, we reward it with a treat or a pat, and turn off the noise or let the horse turn away from it, and then start over. The horse learns that he can “control” the noise by calmly walking toward it. Over many exposures, the sound is very gradually brought closer or made louder, always followed immediately with treats. By working systematically and never letting your horse experience fear, over many repetitions he’ll learn that whenever he hears that noise, good things happen!
There are many sounds to which you can expose your horse in a controlled setting, including car doors shutting, metal trash can lids dropping, car horns honking, children yelling and dogs barking. But DSCC can be tricky if the noise is not a sound you can control. For instance, we don’t have control over such things as thunder or fireworks. One way to solve this problem is to record the sound. Studies show that exposing a horse to recorded sounds is as effective a treatment—sometimes more effective—as exposing him to the real sounds. In fact, there are companies that sell pre-recorded sounds to help animals overcome their fear of those sounds. Once you have a recording of the sound your horse fears, play it relatively quietly for him when he is somewhere very familiar, such as in his stall. If you see him react, you will know that the recording reminds him of the real thing, and you can begin your DSCC treatment.
Steps in DSCC
- Begin by identifying which treats to use in the counterconditioning. You want to use treats that your horse loves—treats that smell and taste wonderful to him. Keep in mind that horses don’t always like what we think they’ll like, so before you begin your DSCC treatment let your horse choose his favorite treats somewhere where he’s calm and happy. Try horse cookies, carrots, apple bits, handfuls of grain and fresh grass. Some horses like hard candies, and many like sugar cubes. If you use apples, cut them up so that your horse can eat them quickly without choking.
- Once you have the right treats, the next step is to write down a description of the sound your horse fears. List all of the things about the sound your horse may notice, like its pitch, rhythm and how long it lasts. Once you’ve made your list, identify which of these features most frighten your horse and which he can handle best. Since your horse can’t tell you how afraid he is, you’ll have to judge by his past reactions and his body language and behavior.
- Next, order your list from least to most frightening. For example:
1. Sound played softly, no bass
2. Sound played softly but with bass
3. Sound played a bit louder, no bass
4. Sound played louder with bass
5. Sound started, stopped and restarted
- Start your DSCC treatment with number 1, the least threatening example of the sound.
- With a big bunch of treats in your pocket, lead your horse into the area where you’re going to do the treatment. Choose an area that’s not frightening and is most like the area where your horse usually reacts to the sound, such as in his stall or an arena.
- Walk him into the arena and play the sound softly. He may notice it immediately. Stop walking as soon as you see him notice the sound—don’t wait until he becomes frightened. The goal is to stop while he’s alert but relatively calm. Watch the position of his body closely—if he acts like he wants to leave the arena, the noise is too loud.
- Say his name or “Good boy,” or something calming that will remind him that you are there with him, and give him a steady stream of three or four treats, one at a time. Keep the noise playing quietly. Next, repeat his name again, and take a step toward the sound. If he follows—or even if he simply leans his head out closer to the sound—say “Good boy,” give him another treat and then have your assistant immediately turn off the sound. Turn your horse toward the exit gate and lead him out of the arena. Then turn around and start over. It’s important that you don’t turn off the sound while your horse looks concerned but instead that you distract him by continually feeding him goodies. It’s very important that you “catch” the instant he acts as if he no longer hears the sound and mark that behavior with a “Good boy,” a treat, and then turn away.
- Repeat the step above. If your horse reacts the same as he did before, move on to number 2. Follow the same procedure as for number 1.
- Try to end each session on success—when your horse is relaxed and no longer pays attention to the sound.
- Start each session at the same level of exposure that you ended on in your last session. You might find that your horse is back to being alert and a little worried about the sound. That’s okay. Just keep repeating the gentle exposures with treats. Stay at that level as long as it takes for your horse to handle that noise level well—meaning he’s unworried and relaxed. This may take many sessions across several days or weeks.
- Once you’ve had success when your horse is exposed to the last item on your list, start the entire procedure over with you on his back. Follow the steps exactly as you did on the ground. Horses react differently under different circumstances, Don’t assume that counterconditioning your horse not to fear a sound when he’s being led will carry over to when he’s under saddle. You can help him by repeating all the steps you taught when you were standing next to him. If you feed him treats by first touching his neck and then reaching down toward his mouth, he’ll soon learn that a touch on his neck means treats are coming.
Here are some tips to keep in mind as you do DSCC with your horse:
- AVOID frightening your horse. Expose him to a tolerable version of the sound without evoking any fear. If your horse shows fear, quickly decrease the intensity of the sound.
- AVOID exposure to the scary sound between treatment sessions. Ideally, your horse shouldn’t hear the sound at all except during treatment, when the exposure is controlled and you’re actively counterconditioning with treats.
- Try to conduct sessions that are at least 10 minutes long.
- Once you’ve had success, vary the location of your sessions. Vary the time of day of your sessions if possible. Once your horse has overcome his fear and is comfortable with the normal version of the once-feared thing, do maintenance sessions at least twice a month to prevent the fear from returning.
Once you have counterconditioned your horse to accept unusual noises, riding should be a far less stressful time for both of you. However, your horse may still react to some sounds. If this happens, it’s important for you to remain calm and be patient with him. If you become tense or afraid, you’ll worsen the situation because not only will your horse react to your fear, but you lose effective contact with him through your aids. Therefore, instead of reacting to your horse’s fear, react to the noise. Sit with a full seat on your horse and look calmly for a moment in the direction of the noise. Allow your horse to regain his composure. Talk to him, telling him that while you’re aware that the sound worried him, it’s now time to get over it and move on. Focus on a spot in the distance not in line with the sound, and gently but firmly send him forward. By focusing ahead you can give your aids confidently. If your horse balks and refuses to move forward, remain calm and turn him on an angle or arc away from the sound. Keep him moving in the direction of your choice. If you are riding English, keep him on the bit without pulling on his mouth, so that you reduce the possibility that he will snatch the bit and start to run. The key to success is remaining calm, confident and persistent. Don’t lose patience or give up.
In general, horses who are reactive to sounds should only be ridden by experienced riders. An inexperienced rider on a “spooky” horse is a dangerous combination for both. For tips on how to handle horses who spook, please see our Spooking Under Saddle  article.
One unfortunately popular method for getting horses over their fears is a technique called “sacking out.” The term sacking out is sometimes now used to refer to DSCC procedures, but originally the term referred to a practice quite different from DSCC. Like DSCC, the sacking out procedure is intended to accustom a horse to sights and sounds and things he fears, but the technique is very different. When sacked out, the horse is restrained. The horse may be hobbled, have one of his hind legs tied to his belly or have an unbreakable halter secured with a heavy rope to a thick, sturdy post. The horse is then exposed to the things he fears—at full force. Rather than working to avoid fear as in DSCC, the goal in sacking out is actually to frighten the horse—in fact, to overwhelm him—so that he struggles madly but never is able to escape. Because he can’t escape, he eventually gets tired and stops trying to get away. The procedure is known by behavioral experts as flooding, and is against the law in the United Kingdom.
Horse trainers who advocate sacking out state that the practice teaches the horse that he isn’t in charge, the trainer is. However, there’s no scientific evidence that this is what happens. Research into similar procedures shows that although the animal may stop responding physically, he’s still very frightened and continues to respond emotionally and physiologically. Many animals who are forced to accept frightening situations get ulcers and other disorders associated with uncontrollable fear and stress. This reaction is referred to as learned helplessness.
What NOT To Do
- Do not hit your horse when he’s startled by a sound.
- Do not yell at your horse when he’s startled.
- Do not force your horse to face his fear. Require instead that he walk calmly past or around whatever scares him.
- Do not allow your horse to run from the sound.