No rider likes it when their horse spooks. Whether your horse is usually pretty spooky or not, it can often take you by surprise, unblance you and is probably the cause of a lot of falls. But it is important to remember that your horse isn’t spooking doing it on purpose. You need to bare in mind why do horses spook.
What is spooking?
Spooking is when a horse reacts to seeing or sensing something scary. A spook could be as small as a flinch to as extreme as bolting in blind panic. Initial reactions could include:
- Jumping to the side or on the spot
- Stopping suddenly
But a spooked horse is a scared horse and this fear can linger even after the initial fear response. They could still be tense, snorting with an increased heart rate.
Why do horses spook?
In short, horses spook because they have spotted a potential threat and they want to get away from it. They sense something what could be a potential threat and they react to keep themselves safe. However, all horses react differently and their reactions can change over time.
Flight over Fight
All animals (and humans) have fight or flight built into them when they are presented with fear or a threat. Horses will nearly always resort to flight. When something scares them, their natural instinct is to get away from it. This is where we see a lot of our typical spooking behaviours.
Biggest fear reactor
Horses have the largest fear reactor of all the animals relative to their body size. The amygdala, the fear centre of the brain is responsible for all of their fear responses. Horses can see, hear and smell more than us, although they aren’t always very good at pinpointing what it is they are sensing. The brain is constantly analysing everything the horse is sensing and if anything is deemed a potential threat, a signal is sent to amygdala. The amygdala then alters the horse’s behaviour to keep them safe.
Why do horses spook at the same thing?
It can be really frustrating when your horse always spooks at the same thing. It could be a certain corner of the arena. Nothing bad has ever happened there but they regularly spook there and it is difficult to know why or what you can do about it. There are two good arguments for why horses regularly spook at the same thing:
- They have an irrational fear
- They have learnt to spook at it
Humans can have irrational fears so it isn’t unreasonable to think that horses can also have an irrational fear. They might be scared of a certain type of road sign. They might have passed this type of road sign hundreds of times and nothing bad has happened. But the first time they saw one, it triggered a fear response. That memory was stored away. So the next time they see it, nothing bad happens, but they have the memory of it being scary so it is still scary. Over time they keep adding scary memories of the road sign, even though nothing bad ever happens.
When a horse is scared, hormones rush around the body, getting them ready to flee. If the first time a horse sees a road sign and this triggers a fear response, they will be feeling quite stressed. If they then spook to get away from the road sign, these stress hormones stop, rewarding the horse for getting away from the scary road sign. While nothing bad happened, they felt better for spooking, and will remember that next time they see the road sign and might spook again. This is a form of negative reinforcement.
These two reasons can also go hand in hand together, an irrational fear develops into a learned behaviour.
Why do horses spook more than others?
Just like humans, some horses are more fearful than others. There are a mixture of factors from genetics to pre and post birth experiences. But some Danish researchers found that typically, how a young horse reacts to novel “spooky” objects is a good indicator of how fearful or spooky they will be throughout their life.
How to improve a spooky horse
A spooky horse will always be a spooky horse. They are just wired to be a bit more reactive than other horses. But there are things you can do to try and reduce their reactions to things they should see regularly. Here are some top tips to help improve your horse’s spooking:
- Don’t reward spooky behaviour.
It can be tempting to pat and speak softly to your horse when they are spooking and scared. But this could actually be rewarding and reinforcing the behaviour.
- Ride positively.
A spooky horse is usually best kept busy. Keeping them busy forces them to use the thinking side of the brain, whereas spooking using the reactive side of the brain. The more you have them thinking, the less brain power they have for spooking.
If your horse does spook, try and just ride them forward. Don’t tell them off but also don’t reward them by patting them or letting them stop. Trying to get them straight back into what you were doing should help reinforce how they should be behaving and re-engage the thinking side of the brain.
- Desensitise them to what you can.
Putting things in the arena they are scared of means you can try and desensitise them in a safe environment. There are two different methods here, both can work. One involves slowly encouraging your horse to approach and investigate the scary object so they hopefully learn that it isn’t scary. The other is to work your horse around the object, slowly getting closer until they are working nearby without reacting. But the idea is once they have relaxed around the scary object, you reward them for relaxing.
- Add variety to their life.
It’s not coincidence that horses who are out competing at busy show grounds every week are typically less reactive than horses who never leave the yard. The more variety you give your horse, the more stimulus you give them to process and get used to. Try and keep things interesting. Go on a few different hacking routes, try a new pole exercise, go to a different show venue. There are so many little things you can do each week to give your horse something new to think about, expanding their horizons.
Last Updated on 21/06/2022