Preventing Horse Spooking

A horse’s natural reaction to something it doesn’t understand is usually to spook or shy away. A startle is usually a startling jump to the side or a quick change of direction to flee. This may involve the horse not keeping its eyes on the object it is frightening. In nature, it is this quick reaction that allows the horse to flee very quickly from a predator. Riding a spook can sometimes be fun, but it can often be annoying and even dangerous to break away from. A horse that spooks by hand can knock you or others off, which can be very dangerous. For a beginner, a spooked horse is not the best choice, as the horse’s startle reaction and quick movements can unsettle him and cause him to lose confidence. A violent spooking can cause you to fall to the ground, and no one likes to fall.

Why horses spook

It’s nearly impossible to avoid all scares, but some horses are more reactive than others. As a beginner, you’re probably looking for a bombproof horse, one that has seen and done it all. However, this doesn’t mean your horse will never spook or be timid. Even the calmest horse can react to something that surprises him. In the wild, it was this quick reaction that saved horses from the clutches of predators. Although horses have been domesticated for several thousand years, they still retain this natural tendency. Sometimes there are situations when you encounter something that you simply cannot prepare for. 

Startling is a natural reaction to fright, but some very energetic horses also startle to let off steam. A horse that is uncomfortable with an ill-fitting saddle, a too-tight girth, or other physical pain, such as chiropractic problems, may show “spookiness” in response. Fear can also be an indication of vision problems. Some horses are more insecure than others, and if they do not respect the handler or rider as a leader, they will not trust the handler or rider to lead them away from unsafe situations.

How your horse should behave

Ideally, your horse should behave calmly when you ride or lead him. The opposite extreme is a horse that seems to startle at every shaking leaf, every change of light and shadow, a daisy, an unexpected rock, or a clump of grass. This is very distressing for novice riders and can make the fright worse. Horses are emotional sponges and when they sense that the rider or handler is nervous, they absorb this negative energy. Often, horses that are relaxed when in the arena or pasture suddenly find things frightening when ridden in the same places. This is because they sense the rider’s concern and worry about themselves. This becomes a vicious cycle in which horses and riders make each other feel insecure.

Why does your horse’s good behavior deteriorate?

If your once calm horse becomes increasingly skittish, the first thing to do is investigate possible physical problems: chiropractic, painful dental problems, saddle adjustment, or vision problems. If he is nervous, a good trainer or exerciser can help him overcome confidence issues. If your horse is afraid of certain things, such as mailboxes, flower pots, or puddles of water, your trainer can help desensitize him. A beginner should not try to desensitize a horse on his own, because if he does it wrong, the problem can get worse. 

The better trained your horse is, the better you will be able to control his reactions when he becomes frightened. By using leg aids, you can prevent a scare from turning into a 180-degree turn. First, however, your horse must learn to respond to thigh aids. Again, good training can help you learn effective seat and thigh aids. Many horses spook in one direction. Therefore, you mustn’t completely disengage while riding. The better you ride, the less likely your horse is to spook.

On the ground, your horse should always know to keep his distance. He should understand that he should never initiate contact. Again, desensitization exercises with a competent trainer can help prevent fear or shyness on the ground or in the saddle.

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