Chapter Eight: Extreme Spooking
“You can never rely on a horse that is educated by fear! There will always be something that he fears more than you. But, when he trusts you, he will ask you what to do when he is afraid.”
-Antoine de Pluvinel
Spooking can be described as when a horse reacts to an intimidating or perceived “scary” object, situation, and /or noise. Horses are by nature flight animals, meaning they will choose to try and leave a situation when they feel uncomfortable or stressed in any way. The problem arises when this natural instinctive reaction occurs while we are working or handling the animal.
Ideally, we want the horse to react reasonably in these situations, and this can certainly be a trained response. Most horses can be taught to “spook” in a reasonable way and without an overly dramatic physical reaction. We cannot realistically ask the horse to not react at all, that is an unattainable goal. What we can do is discourage “overreacting” to stressful situations. Some horses react violently enough when spooking that it interferes with their work and can result in the rider or handler being injured. Reactions such as rearing and spinning, bolting, and jumping or running sideways are just some of the reactions we want to curb into a more reasonable display.
Some horses also become habitual spookers, meaning they intentionally find things to react to or even react to nothing at all. This usually occurs in horses that are bored with their work or have found out they can redirect the work through the “spooking game.”
Whenever we have a situation where a horse spooking has become a serious concern for the owner, the first step is, as with all the other behaviors we have discussed, to find the reason for the behavior. Is it simply a case of needing to build the nervous horse’s confidence in their handler and teach them to react more reasonably? Do we have a case of extreme boredom and need to stimulate and challenge the horse more? Do we have a horse that has learned to play the “spooking game” because they find it more fun than the work at hand and that it distracts their owner enough to redirect the whole session into just getting the horse “over it”? The cause has to be determined to successfully deter the behavior.
Lexi was a 2-year-old that had come to me for routine starting under saddle. She was a curious but confident mare, progressed easily through her groundwork and was under saddle in no time. I had no issues with her except for one. Lexi was incredibly athletic and she displayed one athletic feat on a regular basis. She could drop down and then run sideways at lightning speed whenever the mood struck. She was not a nervous horse, but she took advantage of any unusual sight or sound to show off her skill.
Now I have to say, I have a pretty good seat that comes from riding all makes and models of horses daily for many years, but this little girl put my seat to the test. She would take advantage of any moment she felt I was the least bit distracted and would drop down several inches underneath me and run sideways at a speed that was more than impressive. She always picked a sight or sound to go along with this maneuver so it did present as actual spooking to the untrained eye, but it was definitely nothing more than a mischievous game – and she was good at it! However, because she was meant to be a trail horse and not a cutting horse, the behavior had to be discouraged.
To find out how Lexi’s story and many others end, read my new book “Behavioral Issues in Horses, Why Do They Do That?” now available in paperback and ebook on Amazon. Just go to the link below.