Spooking is a term that describes a horse’s flight reaction to an unexpected sight, sound, smell or touch. This behavior is also referred to as shying. Horses can spook in a variety of ways: some horses dodge or jump to the side and recover quickly, while others take off at a run crashing through fences and trees with no apparent concern for their own safety or that of their rider. Horses who react abruptly with a short step to the side but then recover are not generally considered a problem by their riders, but abrupt lunges sideways or sudden balks can unseat a rider. A spooked horse who races blindly back toward the barn is extremely dangerous for both the rider and the horse herself.
Spooking is a natural reaction and survival mechanism in a prey animal such as the horse. A horse can spook at something she sees on her right and then startle again if she sees it on her left—as if she hadn’t just seen it. This is because, unlike people, the two sides of a horse’s brain don’t communicate easily with each other, so she won’t necessarily recognize something she already saw on one side when she sees it again on the other side.
What Causes Horses to Spook?
Change in Routine or Environment
A change in routine can lead to an increase in spooking under saddle. The increase can be due to a generally greater anxiety level as the horse adjusts to her new routine, or it can be due to a change in the way once familiar things now look to her. If she’s used to walking a trail in the late afternoon and she’s now walking it at dawn, the change in lighting can make shrubs and corn stalks appear strange and menacing to her.
Confinement can contribute to shying or spooking. In fact, problems with horses spooking are common in the spring when the horse has been confined all winter and reacts to sounds and sights with excess energy. Horses who are stalled for long periods are also more sensitive to strange shapes, shadows and even sun splashes than horses who get turned out to pasture every day, simply because they don’t see these things regularly. After a long winter break, it’s good to get your horse out for some free running in a pasture with horses she knows, or take her outside and lunge her on a long line every day for a few days before you ride her.
Of course, some horses will spook even if they’ve been ridden down the same path every day at the same time for years. Assuming that the horse involved is well fed, well exercised and reasonably trained to respond to the rider’s rein, seat and leg aids, there are a few important factors that can contribute to spooking under saddle.
Why Do Some Horses to Spook More Than Others?
Two obvious factors influence whether and how often a horse will spook. One is the horse herself, and the other is the rider. Furthermore, two things about both the horse and rider are relevant to when, how and how often the horse will spook: temperament and experience.
Temperament describes how an individual—animal or human—interprets and reacts to his or her world. Some breeds, such as the American Quarter Horse, are bred to be react calmly to things in their environment, while other breeds, such as the Arabian or the Thoroughbred, are bred to be sensitive and fast—two qualities that may increase spooking behavior.
On the human side, temperament affects a person’s reactions in the saddle, and this in turn influences the horse’s reactions. A calm person has more flexibility, which contributes to a good seat—that is, a calm person has a better, more influencing and controlling riding position. A nervous person, on the other hand, can force herself or himself out of the seat so that she or he is perched forward and has less control and security. Nervousness also increases a person’s tendency keep the reins tight, and tight reins reduce a rider’s control because the horse pushes against the bit instead of feeling and following the signals that the bit communicates to her from the rider.
The Rider The level of experience of the rider is more important than the experience of the horse. A rider’s experience influences his reactions, and an experienced and confident rider can help his horse get over her fear and reduce her reactivity. An inexperienced rider, especially one who’s experienced horses’ spooking and running away, can actually increase the likelihood that the horse he’s riding now will spook. This is because riding an out-of-control horse is frightening, and fear, as mentioned, can reduce a rider’s influence over her horse. Fear causes a rider to sit up and forward when the horse reacts to something—the same seat a jockey takes to send the horse forward quickly. In addition, horses react to nervousness with nervousness.
The Horse In general, inexperienced horses spook more often than experienced horses. However, just as different experience will have different effects on riders, experience can have a good or bad influence on the horse. A horse who has spooked and run away a number of times will have to be taught that unexpected sights and sounds are not reasons to dash back to the barn. Ironically, a horse can begin to shy in anticipation of the unpleasant feel of her rider if she’s spooked before and the rider has reacted by tightening the reins and becoming stiff and tense.
Possible Medical Causes for Spooking
A variety of medical causes can increase a horse’s inclination to spook. The most common physical cause is impaired vision. Although horses can spook at sounds, smells and sensations, most experts consider all spooking to be vision-related. This is because anything that the horse senses but then can’t see well will be cause for surprise and fear.
Vision impairment of any type, including cataracts, periodic ophthalmia (moon blindness), near sightedness and other serious disorders of the eye, can cause increased spooking in a horse. Sometimes horses will spook more at things on one side than the other because they can see better out of one eye. If you suspect a vision problem in your horse, you should have her checked by a veterinarian immediately. Some vision disorders can lead to blindness, and some may be indicators of other serious physical disorders.
Pain can increase spooking. Horses who are in pain are more reactive and pay less attention to their riders. Any horse who does not have a history or reputation for spooking and suddenly begins to shy a lot should be checked thoroughly by a veterinarian. Common causes of pain that are not life threatening but can contribute to spooking are poor saddle fit, poor or inappropriate bit style or fit, sharp edges on the horse’s teeth and stones or other matter lodged against the underside of the horse’s hoof.
How to Reduce Spooking Under Saddle in Your Horse
The first step in reducing spooking under saddle is to determine if your horse spooks more under saddle than she does when walking around without a rider. If your horse seems flighty even when she’s not under saddle, your best approach is to teach her how to accept unexpected sights and sounds when you aren’t on her back, and then progress to training when she’s under saddle.
Groundwork is the most safe and controlled way to help a horse overcome a fear of something. There are many different approaches to working with your horse when you aren’t in the saddle. When working to overcome fear, the most successful groundwork incorporates a procedure known as systematic desensitization with counterconditioning (DSCC). DSCC is successful because it changes the way the horse feels about something and therefore eliminates the underlying reason for the spooking behavior.
Systematic Desensitization with Counterconditioning: What Is It?
Desensitize means to “make less sensitive.” The goal of desensitization is to eliminate or reduce the emotion-based reaction that a horse has to a specific thing—be it a tractor, a bridge, a flag or a gypsy moth tent. The “systematic” part of systematic desensitization refers to structured plan. It starts by exposing the horse to the frightening thing at a level that doesn’t worry her, and systematically moves toward full exposure—but so gradually that it never actually becomes frightening. This is accomplished by keeping the thing far away, keeping it stationary or in some other way making it less threatening. Over time, as the animal habituates and accepts the scary thing at that low exposure, we gradually intensify the experience again by, for example, bringing the thing closer, increasing its volume or having it move. So a systematic desensitization plan starts with exposure to the least scary version of the feared thing and gradually moves to stronger versions until full or normal exposure is reached.
To “condition” means to teach, and to “counter” means to change. So counterconditioning just means to re-teach the horse to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something she once feared or disliked. We do this by associating the feared thing with horse treats, friendly pats on the withers, encouragement and stress reduction. Soon the scary thing comes to predict good things to the horse.
Counterconditioning is combined with desensitization to ensure that the horse is not too afraid to learn a more pleasant association. Even wonderful and delicious treats can’t overcome fear if an animal is too frightened. So we expose the horse to a weaker version of the thing she fears (desensitization), and give her delicious treats (counterconditioning). In addition, we watch her closely to see if she leans toward the thing or takes a step forward toward it. The moment we see either of these reactions, we reward her with a treat or a pat and we let her turn her away from the thing and start over. Over many exposures, the thing is gradually brought closer or shaken or somehow made a bit scarier, and is always followed immediately with treats. By working systematically and never letting her experience actual fear, over many repetitions she’ll learn whenever that particular thing appears, good things happen!
Steps in DSCC
- Begin by finding the right treats to use in the counterconditioning—treats that smell and taste wonderful to your horse. Keep in mind that horses don’t always like what we think they’ll like, so before you begin your DSCC treatment let her choose her favorite treats when she’s calm and happy. Try horse cookies, carrots, apple bits, handfuls of grain and fresh grass. Some horses like mints and other hard candies, and many like sugar cubes. If you use apples, cut them up so that your horse can eat them quickly without the potential for choking.
- Once you have the right treats, the next step is to write down a description of the thing your horse fears. List all of the things about it that your horse might notice, like how it looks and sounds and smells, the way it moves and how long it lasts. For example, if your horse is afraid of flags, smell probably isn’t a factor, but their size, the noise they make, the way they move and the distance they are from your horse probably are factors. Once you’ve written a list of the noticeable parts of the thing, identify which of these features most frighten your horse and which she can handle best. Using the flag again as an example, your horse may alert but not panic when she sees a flag held up at a distance when it isn’t flapping. But if the flag moves or is brought closer to her or makes a noise in the wind, she might suddenly balk and try to run away. Since your horse can’t tell you how afraid she is, judge by her past reactions and her body language and behavior.
- Now take your list of the things your horse will notice about the flag, and rank it from least to most frightening. For example:
- Flag at a distance, held to prevent flapping
- Flag at a distance, held out to show the full banner
- Flag at a distance, staff moving slowly
- Flag at a distance, flapping
- Flag flapping closer to your horse
- Start your DSCC treatment with number 1, the least-threatening version of a flag.
- With the flag held in place by an assistant and a big bunch of treats in your pocket, lead your horse into the treatment area. (An arena is ideal because if things go wrong and the horse spooks, she can’t get away). Walk her toward the flag until she notices it. She may notice it immediately. If she does, stop there–don’t wait until she becomes frightened. Stop while she’s alert but relatively calm. Watch the position of her body closely. If she’s leaning away from the flag, she’s getting worried and you’ve gone a step too close.
- While she’s watching the flag, say her name or “Good girl,” or something calm that will remind her that you are there with her, and give her a stream of three or four treats, one at a time. Next, repeat her name but take a step toward the flag when you speak to her. If she follows—or if she leans her head out closer to the flag—say “Good girl,” give her one treat and then immediately turn her away from the flag. Lead her back out of the arena, and then turn around and start over. It’s essential that you don’t let her turn away before she steps toward or reaches toward the flag and that the instant she does step toward the flag, you reward that behavior with a “Good girl,” a treat and the turn-away.
- Repeat the step above. If she reacts the same as she did before, next time go on to number 2 on your list, with your assistant holding the flag out so that the banner is spread wide. Follow the same procedure that you did in number 1.
- Try to end each session on a successful note—when you notice that your horse is relaxed and no longer pays attention to the flag.
- 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 flag. 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 level well—meaning she’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 number 5, start the entire procedure over with you on her back. Follow the steps exactly as you did on the ground. Horses react differently under different circumstances, and just because your horse learned that flags aren’t scary during groundwork, doesn’t mean she’ll also feel they’re not scary when she’s under saddle. Help her by repeating all the steps the same as you did when you were standing next to her. You can feed her treats by touching her neck and then reaching down toward her mouth. She’ll soon learn that a touch on her neck means treats are coming.
Here are some additional tips to keep in mind as you conduct DSCC with your horse:
- Avoid frightening your horse. Expose her to a tolerable version of the feared thing, without evoking any fear. If your horse shows fear, quickly increase the distance from the feared thing by moving it back or otherwise reducing its intensity (its movement or noise level, for example).
- Avoid exposure to the scary thing between your treatment sessions. Ideally, your horse shouldn’t see or be exposed to it at all except during treatment, when the exposure is controlled and you’re actively counterconditioning with treats.
- Try to conduct sessions that are 10 minutes or longer.
- 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 her fear and is comfortable with the normal version of the once-feared thing, expose your horse to the thing she once feared, followed by a few treats, at least twice a month to prevent the fear from returning.
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 the original usage of the term refers to a practice quite different from DSCC. Like DSCC, the procedure is intended to accustom a horse to sights and sounds and things she fears, but the technique is very different from DSCC. When sacked out, the horse is restrained. The horse might be hobbled, have one of her hind legs tied to her belly or have an unbreakable halter secured with a heavy rope to a thick, sturdy post. The horse is then exposed to the things she 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 her—so that she struggles madly but is never able to escape. Because she can’t escape, she will eventually get tired and stop 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 claim that the practice teaches the horse that she isn’t in charge, and that the trainer is in charge. However, there is no scientific evidence that this is the case. There is scientific research that shows that although the animal does stop responding physically, she’s still very frightened and continues to respond physiologically (internally). 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.
If Your Horse Spooks More When You Ride than When She’s Loose
If your horse seems quieter when you’re standing next to her than when you are riding her, you’ll need to help her learn to relax with you on her back. Begin by making certain that her tack fits well. Is the saddle so wide that it sits down on her spine? Or so narrow that it pinches her? Is the girth or cinch rubbing her? Does her bridle fit well? (Please see our articles, Riding Equipment: The English Bridle  or Riding Equipment: The Western Bridle , if you aren’t sure if your horse’s bridle fits.) Once you’re certain her tack isn’t causing any discomfort, work on teaching her to relax.
As mentioned earlier, a horse can’t relax if her rider isn’t relaxed. So, as you work toward getting your horse to relax, you’ll work on getting yourself to relax, too. Begin your retraining in an area where you feel safe. An indoor arena is ideal. Other good choices are outdoor corrals or empty paddocks. In general, a smaller area will make you feel more secure. Once you’ve decided where to ride, gather some of your horse’s favorite treats. Because you’ll want treats that won’t get caught under the bit, sliced pieces of apple or cubes of sugar work well. You want to use the treats as targets or goals set around the arena. Now, bring the treats with you and lead your horse into the arena. Before you mount, decide your riding route and set piles of treats along the route. Set the treats approximately 30 feet apart, on jump stanchions or the mounting block or on pails turned upside down. If you have none of these things, decide your route and your goals, but keep the treats in your pocket. When you reach your goal, you can hand your horse the treat yourself. Now, mount your horse. Even if you ride English, keep the reins relatively loose. Look toward the first goal and ask your horse to move forward. Pretend you are Roy Rogers out checking the fence line, and simply ride forward toward the goal. When you get to the goal, let your horse eat the treat. (If you have the treats in your pocket, take one out and lean forward to give it to your horse from her back. If you touch the side of her neck just before you offer the treat, she’ll soon learn that the touch means treats are coming and she’ll swing her head around.) Once she’s taken the treat, look up again toward the next goal and move off. Gradually increase the distance you both must travel to reach your targets. Ask for changes of pace. If you’re riding English, pick up the contact. However, if you feel your shoulders tightening, drop the contact and go back to a loose rein.
What NOT to Do When Riding a Horse Who Might Spook
When horses spook regularly, people have a tendency to anticipate when the spook is going to occur. It’s nearly impossible to do, so anticipating often only serves to ruin the ride. It’s also not helpful for riders to watch their horse’s head. Doing so creates multiple problems. First, because the human head is heavy, looking down at the horse’s head throws the rider’s balance off and decreases the effectiveness of her seat. Second, it creates tension in the rider. Horses move their heads a lot. If a rider reacts to every head toss or bob her horse produces, the rider will overreact, tighten her seat and possibly even tighten the reins, and worry the horse. It’s always best to focus your attention on where you’re going.