While instinct, bloodlines and breed will cause some horses to be naturally spookier than others, most of the horses that come into Halcyon Acres are jumpy and jittery due to angst. They’ve been asked for too much too soon, handled with impatience and intolerance, not encouraged to develop self-confidence or handled by a frightened person. Usually, the younger the horse is, the easier it is to reduce or eliminate spooky behavior, but horses of all ages can be calmed and encouraged to enjoy new experiences.

Try listening instead of training

There’s a whole lot of literature being put out there now (and even more DVDs –much higher profit margin) that asserts all you need to do to stop a horse from being concerned is to inundate him with objects, noises, contact and lessons, and thus, by rendering him ‘desensitized,’ you’ll have a ‘bomb-proof’ horse. It usually doesn’t work that way, but if you do manage to create a steed that is unflappable as a result, he’s probably also now devoid of spirit, having been taught to quell his mind.

Instead, if you learn to read your horse, he’ll tell you all you need to know to help him resolve his concerns. It’s not about force, repetition, one-way respect, quick tricks or formula systems – it’s about understanding. Each horse is different. You need to allow yourself the liberty of learning vicariously. Let your horse be a participant in the decisions you make about activities and limits by letting go enough to ‘get into his head’. Most spooky horses have little confidence in themselves and no confidence in their rider/handler. Give them the opportunity to shine with unwavering confidence and support from you and you might be surprised at how courageous your heartless horse becomes.

Get on the ground

Most fearful horses (and that’s really at the core of a spooky horse’s behavior) learned to distrust humans at an early age who failed to keep them out of harm’s way. While it’s not always necessary, there are distinct advantages to going back to ground work as you begin to strive to undo the damage. Body language is huge with horses (both ways) and it’s a lot tougher to ‘talk’ to your horse when on their backs if you haven’t established good communications out of the saddle.  The same holds true for what you say to the horse – if he can see your entire body, he can gather information about what you want much more easily. Just be sure you get good about picking up what he’s trying to tell you and being clear about what you’re asking.

The roundpen isn’t the best place for this long-term. It’s a good tool for early lessons (for you, mostly) if you are looking for a place to keep the horse in close proximity and note how your body movements, positions, eye contact, behavior and requests affect the horse. It’s also a decent way to get a good read on what may be troubling your horse and take small steps to alleviate his concern.  Resist the temptation, though, to use this area for drill sessions or intensive training. Keep it short, light, fun, informative and a stepping stone to really engaging in meaningful connections.

Spending time with your horse in the stall, the pasture, on long lines, exploring areas around the property and beyond with a halter and lead rope and watching your horse without bothering him are more productive ways to build rapport and gain insight than forcing him around a 20 meter circle. Get creative and listen to your horse to find ways to get him eager, excited and confident about your activities together. This is foundation that starts rebuilding the trust and security of a spooky horse.

Oh, and if you’re horse is terrified about an obstacle you face while riding, consider hopping off his back to be the first to show no fear or harm in passing. There’s no shame in providing a more comfortable experience to a new challenge.

Be the rock

If you’re nervous, tense or unnerved, you can’t help a spooky horse. Either learn to get rid of these feelings when you’re around this horse or get someone else to help (and stay out of it until the horse is progressing). Sure, it’s tough to sit aboard a horse that is a notorious wheeler without tensing up, shortening your reins, tipping forward and transmitting concern. The fact is, though, the added tension is going to create more concern for your horse and be sure to spur a spook he may not have considered; no matter how close your hands are to his ears he’s going to do it anyway; and leaning forward and tensing up will increase the likelihood you’ll be dumped. If you give the horse his head to explore; relax; sit back; and calm down, he’s less likely to react and you’re in a better position to over his center of balance (and comfortable in yours) to stay with him if he does.

The same holds true for groundwork. If you can’t be confident, calm, consistent and trustworthy when handling or working around your horse, he’s not going to learn to trust you to keep him safe.

Don’t push your horse to ‘buck up’

Spooky horses are scared. Getting rough or demanding with them is only going to increase their concern. Give them the time and encouragement to carefully approach items that are frightening. Pulling out the whip, chain, spurs or temper is only going to create more fear and less trust in you. If you think beating a horse over water the first time you encounter a stream is going to make happy about crossing it the next time, think again.

Isn't he cute? Buster stood out as special early on.
Isn't he cute? Buster stood out as special early on.

Anyone who is looking for a teacher about the importance of patience and understanding should experience a horse like Buster. He was already an ‘old soul’ when we started him under saddle as a three-year-old. His wisdom shined through from day one. He was unflappable, but careful. The funny thing about Buster was, he’d do anything you asked, so long as you respected his need to be given the time (and head freedom) to survey the situation. One day (he had only had about eight days under saddle), we faced an obstacle course in front of the trail head that would have made a seasoned horse baulk. Contractors had strewn insulation, lumber, packaging, vehicles, tools, saw benches and all kinds of debris so that we had to pick through a narrow, winding path for about 20 feet. Holding the reins at the buckle and giving him the two minutes or so he wanted to survey the situation and choose a path, proved to be a sufficient response to his needs for him to proceed on his own, without prompting or direction. The thing with Buster was, if you pushed too hard for him to tackle a new sight or obstacle before he was ready, he’d stop. Keep it up and he’d go into backing mode. That was Buster’s kind way of saying ‘too much, too fast.’ What a wonderful teacher he was! He’s moved on (his career choice, not our imagined one for him) to an unexpected home that will probably keep him out of the limelight, but with a job that’s going to be very rewarding for him and an owner who will appreciate him more than most. Keep us posted, Sarah!

Help your horse get brave with a companion

The equine buddy system seems to be a standard today for most. It’s easier early, but can create problems later when the horse learns to draw his confidence and direction from another horse instead of the rider. We stumbled on a much better approach (animals can be so intuitive). Gatsby (our 90-pound mutt) provided an ideal solution. In the thirteen years he’s served as assistant trainer at the farm, no horse has ever become herd-bound over a dog. For the young ones just starting to learn how to handle a rider aboard, he tracks at their heels until we hit a spot that alarms the horse. Then, we ask him to take the lead and he escorts the horse through areas they see as trouble. All the horses here get to know him during ground work training (he’s an artful contributor here too), so they learn to trust him before we hit the trails.

Gatsby greeting a newborn foal at Halcyon Acres
Gatsby greeting a newborn foal at Halcyon Acres

If you’re dealing with an older horse that’s spooky, you’re better off having an equine lead that’s seasoned and confident than going it alone to start. The more you can make riding experiences fun and non-threatening, the better. You can wean him off the company in time, but old habits die hard and you’ll be safer, and able to gain more confidence, if you let another horse blaze the trail as you start to work to calm your horse and yourself.

Forgo the formula equine approaches

Spooky horses are usually taught to be so. To undo the damage, you need to get personal. This can’t be done with rote lessons that are planned ahead and applied to all cases. If you’re not willing to customize an approach to meet your horse’s indicated needs, you’re not going to build a trusting, confident and mutually respectful relationship. You might be able to get him to tune out and mollify his brain into an absent state to escape the stress, but it won’t result in a happy partner you grow with. The rewards you get from being open to a communications process that includes the horse will be huge, if you have the desire and patience to go there. Here’s hoping you do!

Do you have a story to tell about a spooky horse? A problem you’re currently facing that you’d like some guidance on? Have a question about how to work with your horse? Please comment below.

70 Responses

  1. My 14 year old Dutch Warmblood is notoriously difficult to ride mostly due to his spooking and then running away with whoever is on his back. He is sensitive to both sounds and things he sees as well as escalating if other horses in neighboring fields become excited. He lives at a working peach farm and is exposed to all types of equiptment, noises, bicycles, dogs and acivities daily yet will spook at those same situations at various intervals not always but frequently enough to wonder why something that did not scare him yesterday panicked him today. This unpredictability certainly makes riding more stressful as the older I get the less I bounce Any suggestions I do lunge him and work with him on the ground at the scariest part of the ring with minimal success

    1. Hi June,

      This can be tougher to address with an older horse. Let me get back to you tomorrow when I have some time to respond in a more cogent manner.

      1. Hi June,

        Thanks for posing such an interesting question.

        Even with an older horse, I think the confidence of a rider plays a role in this one. Sometimes the breeding is at issue and you’ll always have challenges, but you can mitigate them in most cases. You haven’t given a lot of information about how this all occurs (and it would help to know a little more about how he spooks and what happens afterwards), but sometimes the rider reaction can escalate things (and/or encourage a behavior). I do get the bounce vs. break mentality :-).

        You’ve tried the groundwork (always a good fall back idea), but it doesn’t sound like it’s working for you. Have you had a vet check to see if there’s any issues with his eyesight? I’ve seen a lot of horses with partial vision loss become extremely spooky (they get better if the eye goes blind). If that’s ruled out, it rests on training. Can you tell me more about what happens when he runs away with the rider? What are you using for a bridle and bit? How far is he going before the rider is able to regain control? What does he do as he spooks and how does he render the rider ineffective? Until I can get a picture of what’s going on, it’s tough to offer ideas for a possible solution.

  2. The scenario is usually the same he either sees something ie the other week a breeze gathered up some leaves into a twisting ball and as we approached they all blew toward us. He will throw up his head and leap toward the inside of the ring then run away from the area I have usually been able to stop him although others have not and that is really how I acquired him as his last owner grew scared of him. I ride him in a thick loose ring snaffle but am considering changing it to something stronger at least for the colder months. I have him on a magnesium supplement for calmness which has helped and in general he is a joy to be around and these incidents are rare but are scary when happening. This past time with me he galloped across the ring and then changed direction at the fence to gallop across the ring to the other side and the other end from where he was spooked. Despite sitting back and pulling back there was no response after the incident of course I thought of using a pulley rein but have never needed to resort to that before. He is a warmblood and fairly stocky with a neck the size of the Mississippi as I tell him we have worked on suppling as he is stiff and this contributes to him being able to ignore the rider but again once in that flight mode all training seems to go

  3. Hi June,

    Honestly, it’s a bit tough to assess this one remotely (seeing the horse do this would give me more clues as to the possible why), but I’ll try.

    On the bit, personally I don’t like a loose ring snaffle (I know a lot of people use them), particularly with a horse that’s bolting. The problem is, if you pull on a rein and the the horse continues moving away from your cue, the bit comes clear through the other side of the mouth. While I recognize there are those that will have issues, my first choice on a horse like this is a full-cheek snaffle (invest in the keepers – they’re cheap and will help keep the bit where it’s supposed to be).

    While I recognize it’s tough to be fearless on a horse like this (particularly as you grow older), if you’re nervous about a possible spook (and understandably so), your horse is going to look for an issue. I’d start with putting a rider on him (if possible) who has the nerves to remain unflappable on his back and the strength to control him when he does react.

    Frankly, I find the running away more of a concern than the spooking (a 14 YO has had a lot of time to learn not to be confident with his rider aboard, so it will take some doing to correct this – and sometimes breeding plays a big role too – an even tougher to challenge to address). You can usually control where he goes with the leg more than the bit in such cases, and I’d start there (steering). Also, while I’m generally not a big proponent of ‘equipment’ If he’s throwing up his head and leaping, you might want to try a running or German martingale to help with control.

    After you start getting better at controlling where he goes, I’d work to stop his movement as quickly as possible after the spook. If you know he’s going to spook at a certain area of the arena, you may want to consider putting up a solid barrier close by and running him into it. If you can’t do that, you now have steering (aided by the leg) and can use the arena perimeter. Don’t stand and pull on a horse that is not responding (they’ll just ignore you longer). Release the rein and then take back (repeatedly) for a more likely response. And, instead of a pulley rein (which can be very effective in certain situations, but I’d hesitate to use it in an arena), if he’s throwing his head up, try slamming the bit down on the bars of his mouth. Very painful – but effective in an emergency. Release immediately, and if it doesn’t work, try it again.

    I like B-12 for calming a horse down. Might want to look into this.

    Of course all of this assumes the horse is misbehaving without good cause, which is rare. But, without seeing the horse in action, I can’t begin to troubleshoot the underlying issues associated with this behavior.

  4. i have a off the track thoughrobred.I purchased him at 5 yrs old from a man that goes to the auctions.From the information that i got from the jockey club he had run about 30 races.When we bought him he was pretty quiet for a couple of months.Then the people that ran the farm asked me if i had ever seen him get turned out in the morning i said no. They said come early and see .He is very athletic.I have only been with thoughrobreds off the track but this on is different.He is smart but very spooky. there is alot that you can not do with him. He had alot of bad expieriences with our local blacksmiths and has to be drugged to get shoes on and he will still fight you if he is frightened.I tried to have a cowboy work with him recently for the farrier but i think it made him worse in a way.I wonderd.. about his eyesight i had him looked at about 6 years ago and they said he was fine.we are riding dressage now which he is very talented at and he is very fit.but his spooky behavior is getting dangerous and the rides are sometimes very hard.I was thinking about bringing my dog or a dog out to help him with confidence.Everyone wants me to rid of him and they say they are worried about me but i do not want to give up on this horse.I have owned him for 9 years. I bought him for my daughter and i (even though i didnt want her on a 5 yr,old off the track but i was talked into it) she stopped riding him about 6years ago. i could go on and on but i was wondering if you had any ideas in making him trust me more we have had alot of fights which i always thought that i won but i think that only makes it worse

    1. Hi Lori,
      It seems odd that he’s getting spookier with age. Ruling out an eyesight issue was smart. It sounds like the two of you may be feeding off each other with nerves. It’s hard to be relaxed and quiet on a horse when you are expecting him to shy or bolt. If he’s feeling this tension from you, it’s going to make him look for something to be concerned about. Horses remember too and can associate seemingly unrelated things to pain or fear. With the blacksmith, getting him relaxed is probably going to take a lot of kind, patient and preparatory handling. The fights you reference under saddle are a concern. Winning as some people define it isn’t always good for the long term. Usually such behavior is a sign of pain or lack of confidence (in you or himself). It sounds like you’re going to need to peel back the layers to try and figure out where and why all this started then begin new training at a point prior to that step in his progress. This is really a situation that’s best handled with the eyes and knowledge of a competent professional on-sight. Don’t get yourself hurt as a result of blind determination. If others are concerned for your welfare, you should be too. Find someone who can help you reach this horse and keep you safe.

  5. Hi Nanette,
    I have a 6 years old horse, I’ve had him for very little time, about 4 months.
    he has very little training,and when he came to me he was very nervous with people, sounds and things, he would not let anyone to touch him. I first thought this was normal, do to the fact that he needed some time to adpat to his “new home” so to help him I would spend as much time as posible just make him to know me and he new surroundings. He has actually improved and he looks like a much more confident horse now, at least you can approach him without receiving an agressive response, and I can also ride him without problems.BUT he has I would say a “deep fear” that I really don’t know how toresolve. When I’m riding him and another horse comes in the opposite direction right in fornt of us, he gets spookie and very nervous and inmedialy runs of to one side, I feel he starts to get nervous when there is a 3 or 4 meters distance from the other horse… his ears get in a very straigh positition and I can feel he is facing something that really puts him nervous…he is like trying to find the way to runaway and passing the other horse is quite a challenge! I have already fallen a couple of times, and unfortunatly starting to feel a little frustrated… he is a big horse and he would get scare with a pony passing by in the opposite direction and recently I discovered he would also be scared of his own shadow… any advice?
    please help!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Hi Juanita. This is a fairly common issue, particular with horses that have been terrorized by another in the paddock or a bad experience involving another horse under saddle. Usually the easiest way to resolve this is to work in an enclosed area at home with a friend and a quiet, older horse. Start a good distance away and gradually bring the companion horse closer to him. Don’t push it to the point he’s afraid – keep the horse far enough away so he’s comfortable. It’s easiest to do this in large circles with your horse on the outside and the companion horse on the inside. Start at the walk and don’t increase pace until he’s comfortable with the horse passing close slowly. You can also work to get him used to horses coming by him in the same direction. Usually if they get used to a horse passing without incident over time they will lose this phobia.

  6. I have a half friesian, half morgan mare, 5 years old, and has been under saddle a little over a year. She was out to pasture for the first four years of her life, sold to someone who returned her to the owner, and put back out to pasture. I had her broke by a great “horse whisperer,” and I’ve been riding her on trails and doing dressage for a year. Over the summer, we galloped in the woods, jumped over streams, crossed bridges, and worked on dressage. I came to trust her so much, that I had no problem riding her on the buckle in the field where the dressage arena is. Last week, while on the buckle, she spooked at something no one heard or saw, I went over the pommel, and then she galloped sideways in a full blown panic because of the weight on her neck area. I ended up getting thrown for the first time and got a concussion. I rode her again for the first time today, but I will never ride her on the buckle again. I had no time to control the spook as I had in the beginning with her and throughout our trail rides (alone). I know her well enough to know that being on the buckle makes her feel insecure. I have to disagree with you on that. It’s like a baby that enjoys being wrapped snuggly in a blanket. It also allows me time to get her under control if she does spook. She’s a high headed horse, so she leave me with a handful reins in a second. I thought I’d share this with you and your readers…:)

  7. Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to comment, Polly. Horses are natural flight animals and even the most sedate will spook on occasion. Sorry to hear of your fall and resulting concussion. That’s scarey for even the most seasoned riders.

    As I noted in the article and repeat with a good deal of frequency here, every horse is different. The Buster illustration was used as an example of how one young horse best coped with the situation literally laid before him.

    Still, I think those who gain the connection and balance on a horse that enables them to stay in the saddle (or aboard bareback) when a horse goes in an unexpected direction are a lot safer riding. You should do what makes you comfortable, of course, but I think you’ll find a spiritual experience when you become so centered on a horse you lose the compulsion to hold onto the reins for control. I wrote a post trying to explain this some time ago. I’ll see if I can find it, and if so, will add the link to the comments section here.

  8. I have a very *looky* Arabx mare. While I am on the ground with her, she spends her whole life peering at this and that, snorting and staring at whatever catches her attention. She doesn’t often actually spook, she just becomes totally fixated on the object of concern. The more fuss you make about it, the more she stares and the higher her head goes and the louder her snorts become. This is a problem especially when we go to a *high stress* situation like a new place or show as she is not paying much attention to me at all. When this looking happens (and it happens allot, even whilst in the familial surrounding of her own pasture)I can still lead her, turn her, do basic groundwork but it is clear their are other things on her mind. I lead her with a rope halter and long lead.

    I don’t have any problems with her attention wandering whilst under saddle because she is trained in low level dressage, if I notice her ears start to flick to other things I just collect her up and instantly her focus returns.

    She is 8yrs old, ArabxWelsh, and has lovely light *buttons* both under saddle and on the ground. Her biggest problem is her lack of focus me.

    Do you have any suggestions as to how I could fix this?

    1. Hi Zoe,

      Some hot-blooded horses can be reactive on the ground. It’s nice to hear she is a joy to ride.

      You kind of touched on this in your question, but often the best approach is to not react. Often times if you make a big deal out of it, the horse does too. If you’re walking her and she starts looking at something, just keep walking. Her attention will have to come back to you if her head is following your motion.

      It’s natural for horses to look at things (some more than others). I’m not sure training that out of one is necessarily a good thing, particularly in what it sounds like in your case where the horse isn’t jumping, just watching. If it’s a problem where she’s ignoring your requests, let me know and I’ll offer some different suggestions.

      1. I just caught sight of this thread. I have a very looky, spooky arab/welsh cross as well. She is actually a little worse on the ground than under saddle. Any suggestions for how I can help her? She loses focus and gets pretty riled up when I just try to take her for a leisurely walk in hand.

        1. Hi Kendra,
          Arabs are an interesting breed. Some will look no matter what you do. The key is to allow discovering while working to reduce the reaction. Often, the tendency is to tighten the grip or control their head (whether on the lead or reins) which often makes the problem worse.
          Most will be more settled when they recognize they’re with a calm and confident companion (hopefully that’s you ;-)). You don’t say a lot about your mare, but perhaps less leisurely will help to start. It really depends on the horse. I’ve found with Arabs, some just need to look then are fine (if you try rush them past something they’re concerned about, they blow). Others do better if you don’t dwell on a spot and adopt more of a forward moving approach. Trial and error should help you to get a better read on your mare’s tendencies (do what gives you the calmer reaction in the end). Don’t expect miracles immediately – shifting this behavior takes time. What’s important is that you pay attention to what makes her more at ease (moving along or being given an opportunity to assess what’s of concern). Most importantly, if you’re anticipating a reaction (understandably), you’ll probably get one so if you can be relaxed and assume she’ll be good, that helps.

  9. I am currently working with a horse I want to but. He Is a 5 year old quarter horse. He Is very nervous and full of anxiety. Always looking. He Is on the farm where he was bien and has never had much work at all. I started Lessing him on a leas tope about a month ago and just put a saddle on him a week ago. I am concerned about his nervousness and wonder If its something he will ever overcome? He Is like a 3 month old dial in a 16 hand body. I need some advice. I live him to death and know he has a lot of potential, I just dont want to go wrong in traing.

      1. Hi Kat,

        I’ve generally found nervousness is best resolved before you start under saddle work. It could be a trust issue, experience, pain, memories – not knowing the horse, it’s hard to say. Regardless, if he’s tense or scared or anxious or in pain during foundation work before you ride him, that’s likely to carry though under saddle. If you’re any of these things it’s likely to transmit to him too. What does he do to make you think he’s nervous?

  10. Hi, great article! I do have a personalized question though. I recently agreeed to a “project” horse at a friends place. She is an arabian filly, almost two years old. She didn’t have a lot of human interaction as a baby and was weaned very late. I’m not sure if she had any bad experienes where she grew up. When she came to my friends place, she was very fearful, and although she has progressed a lot, (she lets me brush her, touch her legs/face, feed her) she is stillvery skittish, and spooks if anything moves too fast or is too loud. For example, I walked past her stall
    the other day andstumbled a bit, and she spooked like crazy and ran away. I’m wondering on
    how I can help her be less fearful, and help her see that these kind of things are harmless. Especially flyspray. She does’t mind the bottle, sound, or smell, but if even a tiny bit of mist touches her, she flips out. Any advice would be greatly welcomed (:

    1. Hi Tanya,

      Arabs can be spooky. I think the most important step for you to take (before putting fly spray on her or asking her to tolerate other things she doesn’t understand) is to build trust. You’re lucky to have what sounds like a relatively clean slate with this filly. Let her know (from experience) you’re not going to hurt her or put her in harm’s way. This can take some time. You have to listen to her to know what she’s ready to handle.

      As a side note, I had a young Arab filly come in for training at Halcyon Aces. She had some good early handling but then decided life was fun terrorizing everyone and and everything that came near her. I was extremely challenged getting through to her in the first few weeks, and frankly, wasn’t sure I would. Once we built that bond of trust, though, she became one of my favorite mounts on the trail (showing a lot more smarts and safe conduct than horses older and more seasoned). If you’re patient with this one and adept at reading what she’s trying to tell you, I imagine she’ll put a huge smile on your face once you connect. Let me know when you experience that wonderful moment.

  11. I have a 8 year old mare she is a quarter horse cross named Dream I’ve had her for 4 years I am only 15 but do a lot of training horses I’ve broke 3 already and they are all good but Dream I got her from Simone who rescues horses I don’t kn

  12. I have a 8 year old mare named Dream she is a quarter horse cross. I ve had her for 4 years but she is still spooky. we have bonded a lot but she still doesn’t trust me when I’m riding her and she doesn’t listen to the bit. I’m only 15 but I’ve broke 3 other horses and trained 2 other. I don’t know much about Dreams history but I now it wasn’t good. I don’t know who trained her either but the person I got her from put her in 4 week training thing and she wasn’t any different. My family can’t afford to put her through any training
    I don’t know what I can do know I love her but I might just have to sell her because I can’t handle her

    1. Hi, Alisha. I’m not sure you need to give up yet. Often going back to basic lessons can resolve some of this. I’m not sure what’s going on pertaining to your comment ‘she doesn’t listen to the bit,’ but I find most try to ratchet up the severity and pressure when the best answer is usually to lighten and soften. At least in my experience, most horses who resist or ignore the bit do so because of pain (either memory or actual). You’d be amazed at how many hard-mouthed horses I’ve seen get soft when the rider is. On the not trusting, it’s best to establish this on the ground. I imagine as a fifteen year old who feels they have a lot of horse knowledge (I’ve been there) you’re figuring it’s a waste of time to do elementary work off her back, but you’ll be amazed at how much ground you may gain under saddle with some good, smart, quality time on the ground. This can take lots of forms, but trust goes both ways so it’s best done through requests instead of demands.

  13. I have a 9 year old paint that I love to death but she has a lot of energy and concern over things she has seen on a daily basis. The even more frustrating thing is one day she will not care about anything and be almost asleep she is so relaxed and the next day she acts like she’s never seen a rope or tarp in her life! Her inconstancy is really hard to keep up with. I have done lots of ground work and approach and retreat with her on scary objects which seem to really help but she still is nervous. Another thing she does is jump side ways or back up if you approach her with anything towards the saddle horn. She spooked just when someone approached her and I to shake my hand.. She is also the type of horse that will give no warning when she is about to blow. She holds everything in emotionally and the. Looses it. I’ve recently gotten a sever concussion from riding her when I was just getting done riding her for the day and walking her back when she started bucking and she’s never bucked before. When she’s scared she goes into more of a crow hoping form like a bronc but I’ve only ever seen her do it on the ground… And out of all of this she is a great trail horse in the foothills which surprises me. Any advice?

  14. Hi Shayla,
    You might want to consider having her eyes checked. There also might be some pain or trust issues to address. This just isn’t characteristic behavior – at least from what I’ve experienced over the years. You’re right to wonder what’s going on. Good for you to be asking questions. This is one of these cases where it’s probably best to find someone locally who knows how to read a horse.

  15. Hi my daughter adopted a horse. He’s 7, not much background on the man. What we do know is his housing wasn’t wonderful and his feeding schedule wasn’t proper. He was a 100+ pound underweight when he was taken. He’s all back up to good weight now. He was at a trainers before we adopted him. He’s a spooky boy and not confident in himself. He’s scared to death if your on a stool to mount him. If you try to mount him from the ground you can get one leg up, shake the saddle, jump down tell him he’s good, scratch him do it over and over again. When you try to fling your leg over he freaks out, bolts and your on the ground. Something has happened negativly in his core and neck area. You think he was pushed by a trainer to quickly? How in this situation do you tell him he’s ok and not going to get hurt? My daughter has rode him a few times after lunging him really good before getting on. He’s really good once he’ll let you on. I think it’s better that she builds the relationship with him than to send him to a trainer, he needs to trust and have good self esteem. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Christi,

      I’d be inclined to go back to some groundwork with this one before you hop in the saddle. I know that’s tough to tell a kid, but it sounds like a lot of steps were skipped in his training. To resolve this, your daughter will have to go back to lessons before the problems were created, then work through a process that is responsive to what he is trying to tell her to reduce or eliminate his spookiness. If he doesn’t have confidence in human’s to keep him safe, it’s unlikely he’ll be brave when asked to do something by a creature he doesn’t trust. You don’t say how old your daughter is, but I suspect if she can be patient, thoughtful, safe and has some knowledgeable people to draw on for support that she could work through this.

      1. Thank you :0) my daughter is 16. She’s worked him while I stand on the side lines. She’s asked me to help with him. I was just patiently waiting. I’ve worked him
        3 days so far and he’s finally started licking his lips!! He’s just like a defiant teenager… Hum I have 3 out of the house and 2 still at the house… It seems as I have more patience and not fearful. I can see when this lesson needs to be turned to a different lesson to end productive. I never in my life thought I’d be working a horse… I find it really fun and rewarding!! Small steps are huge steps!! So I’ve been lunging him from walk, trot, lope then back to trot & walk by voice and noises, rotating sides. I’ve also been touching him with a plastic bag that’s on a end of a crop. Space, this is my space, thats yours. He’s doing remarkable and the lips are moving!! ( this is a first)

      2. Thank you :0) my daughter is 16. She’s worked him while I stand on the side lines. She’s asked me to help with him. I was just patiently waiting. I’ve worked him
        3 days so far and he’s finally started licking his lips!! He’s just like a defiant teenager… Hum I have 3 out of the house and 2 still at the house… It seems as I have more patience and not fearful. I can see when this lesson needs to be turned to a different lesson to end productive. I never in my life thought I’d be working a horse… I find it really fun and rewarding!! Small steps are huge steps!! So I’ve been lunging him from walk, trot, lope then back to trot & walk by voice and noises, rotating sides. I’ve also been touching him with a plastic bag that’s on a end of a crop. Space, this is my space, thats yours. He’s doing remarkable and the lips are moving!! ( this is a first)

  16. Hi there, my horse turned 5 in January. He is a shire/thoroughbred cross. I bought him in June and we had a great time hacking out. In October we were hacking along the same grounds where we had always been and there was a loose white/yellow dog and my horse completely lost his mind. I saw it coming, raised head, arched neck, etc… And kept him in a tight circle until he was calmer, and I had control of his nose and his legs. I have been back out only twice since then. The first time he was great, the second time he spun and bolted with no warning whatsoever, and I am still not sure what got him worked up. I stayed on, made him stand and look in the direction of the “monster”, but he was keyed up after that and we didn’t complete our hack (my choice, I want to give him confident ride and that was not going to happen). My question is, why would he be spooky now? Do you think it is location based and I just need to keep taking him out there so he can learn that it is a safe place?

  17. My guess is, Colleen, there’s either something in his past that has him terrified of dogs (although that’s not an unusual fear for horses so maybe it’s the first time he had one coming at him like this?) or, more likely, you’re tensing up causing him anxiety. I can certainly understand why you’d be nervous after this experience, but know he’s going to pick up on your concerns and, being so young, start looking for what’s scaring you. Have you tried walking him along this area off his back to get both of you confident that it’s safe? The fact that you’ve only been out twice since Oct. tells me you have some reservations. Some options are to ride with a buddy for a few times to make you feel safer, get someone else involved to ride him with frequency on the trails, spend some time doing something else with him to build a bond and trust or get some dogs running around him at home so he learns these need not be feared. Good for you for staying on. I suspect that last close call, though, broke your confidence a bit. Until you address this, your buddy is going to get worried when you do.

    1. Thank you so much for the quick reply! I should have mentioned the dog was not coming at him, it was just roaming in the area, probably 30 feet from us. It didn’t come toward him at all, he just lasered onto it which is what got my attention to be ready. He came from a home with many dogs, and we have three dogs, so he is familiar with them, although doesn’t seem fond of them. Ie, he snakes his neck at them when they get too close. We haven’t been out much due to work schedule, and it is a thirty minute trailer ride to get there, not due to desire. Regardless, I think you are right and he may need a different rider to give him a different experience. I try to not televise my emotions to him, relax in the saddle, breathe, gentle rein contact, but maybe I am just fooling myself and I am as tense as a wire. And yes, we have walked the area several times, and ride out with a pony who thinks he is crazy and doesn’t understand why he is spooking. His bit was changed and he was wearing a running martingale ….should I change his tack back for when we are hacking out? He is now in a Waterford, and was in a wonderbit with martingale.

      1. Hi Colleen – I didn’t mean to discourage you and am sorry if you took my message as one urging you to stop working with him. I can’t make that call from here, certainly.

        That said, I tend to like tack that’s kinder rather than more severe, but you need to go with what’s comfortable for you for now. If the running martingale is sized too tight (most do this – the rings should reach to his throat latch when extended – this tool is designed to stop the head when it gets way high – not constrict natural movement), that could also cause an additional panic response from him. If he tries to raise his head to see (horse’s eyes perceive what’s in the distance from the lower part of the eye) and can’t (think of the terror that ensues when a horse who hasn’t been kindly taught to tie hits the end of a rope), he’s likely to get more scared.

        Sometimes with geldings simply giving a cue to buck up works (some can be pretty heartless and a response from you that they’re being silly can help them get over it). It’s hard for me to know what you’re dealing with from written exchanges. If I could see him I could give you a better read on what’s likely going on. Is there someone close by who you trust and truly understands what a horse is trying to tell you who can do this for you? This could be a huge help in guiding you on what to do.

  18. Hi my 5yr old is a loving boy. We can do anything on the ground. But when he spooks he turns 180° and then bolts. We can go weeks with no spooks. Then out of nowhere a big spook.. The majority of the time I have fallen off and at the moment recovering from a shoulder operation. Due to me out of work 3 months my boy is being turned away. Hopefully so he can mature. He is such a nosey boy and concentration is poor. He was worked hard as a 3 n 4 yr old so no time to be a baby. Do u think this will help his anxiety. I ve had him a year now and went back to basics. So only light work ge gas been in with me. Tia x

    1. Hi Faith,

      Sometimes horses will grow out of this. Often it involves learning you will keep them safe. Occasionally this is a behavior you won’t change.

      I get it’s hard to stay with a horse that does this, but if you can (or can find someone who is able to) what I try to do is make the horse turn back the way they came (in other words, don’t let them complete the circle – or get to bolt).

      Although I hear you on this guy being unpredictable (it can be tougher to see the signs when weeks go by without incident), usually there are indications you can cue in on before the spin. Many horses will lift their heads just slightly. Some will tell you with their ears. Others may tense up just a bit.

      It is incredible how often this behavior stops fairly quickly when you are able to turn them right back the same way (in other words, if he spins left, put tension on the right rein and insist he retrace the spin back to the direction you were going).

  19. I have a coming 11 year old TB mare that I’ve owned for 3 months (yes, she did race, however I don’t know her racing record). Her previous owner was terrified of her and they did not mesh well together as a team. The mare was anxiety-ridden constantly with her previous owner and spooking was also another constant. No one at my barn liked this mare because she seemed incredibly unhappy and was difficult to be around due to her anxiety and acting “stupid”. Since buying her, I’ve had multiple people tell me that this mare is 100% different than she used to be now that I’m with her. They said her behavior is night and day and she seems incredibly happy and content with her new life with me. The only issue I’m running into is she’s VERY looky! Some days she won’t pay attention to anything and she’s brilliant, then another day she will pass something in the arena 8 or 9 times and then the 10th time she sees it, it’s absolutely terrifying to her and she spooks. The issue with her spooks is when she spooks, she scoots so quickly to one side that gravity takes over and I have no hope of staying on!!! The other issue is these “big” spooks come with absolutely NO warning! I mean, I literally have no hope of staying on because her scoot to one side is so fast and aggressive that there’s no time to try and hang on!!! When I had her vetted before I bought her, my vet did a quick vision check and she said all was fine with her eyes, but there’s a part of me thinking there could be something wrong? Or is she just one of those horses that I have to realize will have “her days” where something she’s used to seeing will all of a sudden become something that’s going to eat her and I’m going to have an unfortunate meeting with the ground. She’s also looky on the ground as well. Just looking for some advice. Thanks!
    Kelly Bean

    1. Hi Kelly,

      This may resolve itself in time. Three months is a very short time to be expecting a total transformation of an 11 year-old mare that has a history of anxiety with an anxious owner. As she grows more confident in you (ground work is great here), she’ll likely be more courageous about everything you ask her to do – trusting you’ll keep her out of harms way (provided you do).

      This is an indication to me (particularly given your statement that she’s so much better with you – and it’s only been three months) that there are holes in her training that are best revisited. Basically, this involves going back to the point before her confidence was shattered, which is best done by starting over (as though she had never been ridden before – grooming, groundwork, very slow start under saddle). Most people don’t want to take the time to do this, figuring it’s lost riding time, but few realize how much time is saved in the long run once you’re able to address the initial cause and work through it.

  20. Hello! I have a 12 year old QH mare why is such a sweetheart! I got her at the auction so I do not know her past other then she was on a feed lot/ranch. She is broke to ride but is pretty jumpy. She will jump at just about anything, neighbors starting a brush fire, dirt bikes, sudden sounds or movments. I’m kinda at lose where to start with her. Any ideas?
    Thank you!!

    1. Hello Danielle,

      She sounds like a horse that is concerned about her safety – certainly understandable given where you found her. I’d start slow and give her time to get confident with little tasks. This will also lead her to trust you to keep her safe – provided you don’t over-face her. Recognize that everything you do with her – from leading to grooming to pasture time to how you prepare her for the vet and blacksmith to your mood and attitude when around her are learning events. Take your time, be patient and give her lavish praise for the little wins and she’ll likely settle down.

  21. Help! My 8 year old idxtb is getting progressively worse with spooking. I’ve had him since he was 3. He takes offense to anything that’s moved in the arena, mounting block not where it normally is, jump wings in the school etc. I’ve tried lunging in the scary areas, not riding in the spooky areas and going back after some time. (Weeks) tried ground poles in the spooky areas to distract him. Tried stopping, patting, letting him look, ignoring the spook carrying on with shoulder in, quarters in, transitions etc. tried several calmers. He’s actually better when I take him to unfamiliar places, but still spooks. Competing at elementary unaffiliated at the moment. Had usual teeth, saddle, eyes tested, changed his bridle to micklem, riding in loose ring French link. Fed calm and condition with molasses free chaff. Help…

    1. Hi Dawn,

      I’m surprised to hear an Irish Draught cross is spooky (sad to say, though, there’s no existing registration available through the IDHS for mares and studs in the mix that offer the TB half for IDSH). Even so (TB contributor bloodlines, conformation and temperament issues aside), it sounds like something happened. Granted, your query requires a good deal of reading between the lines, but I’m gathering from your message this is a relatively new issue? Do you have any idea what might have triggered a fear reaction on the farm? Frankly, if he’s better away from home (this is unusual – and telling), I’d be inclined to start the repair work there. I’d also hold off on competing until you get some clues relative to the root of the problem. Sounds like you’ll need to backtrack a bit to help him regain his confidence (in you and himself). If you can give me some more information I may be able to provide some guesses on possible solutions.

      1. No he’s been doing it on and off for years. We were on a really quiet yard for 3 years and you could hear a pin drop so he became really spooky when ridden. I moved yards to somewhere busier with more going on just over 12 months ago he goes through phases where he is fine then reverts to spooking all the time. I’m not sure it is fear, he will happily stand by whatever he is spooking if we just stop our schooling session.

  22. Hi Dawn. I’m kind of at a loss without being able to see the horse. If this were a mare I’d have other ideas on the behavior and solutions but most geldings aren’t that complicated. Spooking is generally a result of lack of confidence (in themselves, the rider or both), rushed training (which leads to the former), breeding (sometimes you can’t do a lot about that) or a physical issue. My second inclination would be to check his eye sight, but you’ve already done that.

  23. He’s going through a better stage at the moment, managing to ride past the things that we couldn’t 4 weeks ago but it tends to last a few months then we go back to the spooky stage.

  24. I too have an Irish draught x thoroughbred who is spooky and sharp as a ballerina . He is a lovely person but does not like people on the ground especially at shows and I have never reacted just try to work him thru things . I was off him more than I was on him in the begining . I have owned him for 4 years and he is impeccably behaved to handle just is unpredictable out of his comfort zone eg shows lessons just spins , drops a shoulder and I am off !!! He is good to box /shoe/ I clip him on my own . Bombproof in any amount traffic /loud noises/ but will jump if a sparrow farts !!!!

  25. I’ve found a magical supplement that has changed my horses attitude to life! He is no longer a spooky mess at the slightest thing. I tried the suppliment for 1 month and noticed an improvement in the last week but convinced myself it was other things effecting his good behaviour, hacking more now the weather is better, jumping more, pole work etc but after 10 days off the supplement he was a nightmare again. 5 weeks back on the supplement he’s back to the chilled horse again. Can’t recommend it enough. Not sure if I can post the details of it on here? I’ve got no affiliation with the product I’m not trying to get free advertising just sharing the magic powder that’s made a massive difference to me and my horse.

    If you’re happy for me to post the details please let me know.

    1. Hello, I’ld like to know this supplement that has worked for your spooky horse if Nannette will allow it.
      Thank you.

    2. I don’t have an issue with people posting information here about (HORSE) products you’ve found effective. If it feels like spam though, it will be deleted and your e-mail address will be put to moderation.

  26. Hi thanks, no defo not spam just wanted to share what’s really worked for my horse! I’m in the UK but I do think this product is available in other countries so you may have to do some digging online.

  27. After some research today it’s seems to be massive in Poland loads of sites selling it there, I’ve actually managed to find it cheaper from Poland with delivery to uk than I can buy it for in uk. http://www.yarrowiaequinox.pl/en Has a list of retailers on there.

  28. Nanette-
    Thank you so much for this blog. If your time allows, would love some advice about a horse I am working with. Scout is a 7 y/o Mustang I adopted from a prison-trained mustang program about 2.5 months ago. The trainer probably worked with him a good 3 months, and loved him dearly, but was very inexperienced, and not a very strong rider. However, it was clear he and the horse had developed a very deep bond and mutual trust.I have Scout pastured with another Mustang (his half-brother), and two BLM burros- pasture is about five acres. He seems to be settling in nicely, and genuinely happy with his living arrangement. No issues catching or haltering him. Sweet personality, gentle but very alert. Always acutely aware of what is going on in his environment. He’s green, but no big issues under saddle EXCEPT that he is very spooky. I generally don’t mind spooks, but his reactions to spooking involve spinning, bolting, sideways jumping…you know the drill. He is very sensitive to ANYTHING that changes in his environment- a person walking in a neighboring field, a gas can by the tractor, a ground pole placed differently, dogs, cars, imperceptable threats-he can become simply agitated at these stimuli, or explode in a monster bolting/spinning spook. Never bucks, and I don’t believe this is ‘play’ spooking. He appears genuinely scared…. I’ve done (and continue to do) a lot of ground work with him, and have really only about 1.5 months training into him (weather pretty inclement his first month here). I have some concerns as I’m wanting to use him as a trail horse, and not feeling he is currently safe to bring on the trail. I bought his brother two years ago (same origin), he was much greener under saddle, but I just never had these ‘spook’ issues. I’m guessing the fact he wasn’t started until age 6 doesn’t help, and realize he may just be a sensitive horse. I also know he was very bonded to his first trainer, and he seems very slow to trust. I enjoy training, and don’t mind a bit of a challenge, but would love to have a horse I can ride with more confidence. Would be so appreciative of any advice, training tips, thoughts, etc. you might be able to share. MANY thanks for your time…

    1. From what I understand about Mustangs (honestly I haven’t worked with one but have certainly encountered horses with similar traits) they tend to be very sensitive and also careful to bond. Generally when I see big spooks the fix requires time – but it sounds like you’re on the right track. Trust is huge and anything you can do to encourage this will help. Keeping him in situations for a while where you have more control over keeping his environment consistent for a while will help (yes, I get you can’t control wildlife or the wind).

      Depending how confident (and sticky) you are and where you’re horse gains his security, you might find riding helps him feel safer than leading (Alphonse was my flighty idiot but curiously, he grew gumption when I was on his back – in fact, I negotiated with the Stewards to ride him through the tunnel to the paddock at 6 a.m. in his first introduction to the “race day realm” because I knew he’d take out the entire field if first schooling was in the afternoon on a lead). With Alphonse, he was likely born a nutcase, but I also believe he was abused (probably because he was so dangerous with his behavior he scared handlers). Riding was uncharted with him and I was able to bring him along slowly in a way that included him in the conversation so he never encountered an issue that went wrong early on so drew strength from this new comfortable and non-threatening realm. Contrary to most, I know, but sometimes you encounter one of them and your Scout sounds like a horse that may require you to find some way to reach him that he hasn’t been through with another before to set a new trust, rapport and confidence foundation. Since he’s already been ridden (maybe swimming or some other new realm he’s never encountered?), maybe there’s another way you can experience something new together in a way that builds that bond? I’d try to find something he can be great at with ease where you two can work together (with tons of praise for baby steps) to be victorious at his comfort speed. Does that make sense?

      The other things you may want to think about is what happens when he spooks? Understandably, this probably puts you off balance, whether you’re on the ground or on his back. That likely means he experiences pain on top of fear (a jab on the mouth, a jerk on the nose, etc.) to underscore his fear. If you’re not “one with the horse” (this takes tons of balance and practice), consider adding a neck strap to your rides (just don’t let hanging onto it make you stiff) or a butt strap to your walks (to contain his movement enough in flight that he doesn’t hit the end of the lead rope chain – where you’re the focus). Sounds weird, I know, but non-event spooks tend to lessen later reactions.

      I really look forward to hearing more about your progress with Scout. These hard to reach horses tend to become the most rewarding stalwarts who will do more to protect or please you than you could imagine. It requires trial and error (they’re all different) to find the key to your steed confidence (in you and himself), but you’ll know you’re there as this happens suddenly and dramatically. It’s a light bulb moment you experience together that’s too hard to put to words. Please do come back and share your connection moment miracle. It takes patience, but worth the amazing experience.

  29. I just got my horse just over a month ago. She is a 12 year old paint. She spooks at trash cans, butterflies, birds, and anything out of place. Typically the spook is a quick jump to the side. Once a bird over the pond took to flight and took to flight as well.(Just a short distance then she stopped but the quick snap hurt my back) In the pasture where I ride her, I can see her ears go up in high alert and her body tense up. She is looking for something to jump out at any moment. I encourage her to walk on and nudge her. She hates to be away from the herd and is tough to get to leave. She calls to them and flares her nostrils big enough to drive a 18 wheeler through. She does better on trails. I think because she is so dog tired after climbing a mountain. I grew up riding ponies and just got my first horse at 45. I’m a no thrills rider. I don’t need to jump or run fast. I can walk on a trail and be happy. Before I purchased her she was kept in a field with other horses for the last 5 years and not ridden. My main issue with her is spooking and being herd sour.

  30. Good morning, I have a 4 yr old Paso Fino/ quarter horse mare that had 30 days put on her by a man that was obviously handled her very roughly. Her name is Rose and she is very smart, but is ready to explode when she is nervous. She is very hard to catch, spooky and jumpy about human movements.
    If I move my arm to fast or step to quickly she bolts and grunts or snorts. She is never aggressive or pushy.
    I have had her for 2 weeks and we have made great progress thus far.
    My plan is to use her for trail riding. What do you recommend I do to help her trust me and relax?
    I am also looking for some fun games to play with her and my 16 month old Peruvian Paso who I rescued 4 months ago. Her name is Lila and she is the opposite of Rose! Laid back no spook or bolt. She just wants to be loved on and falls asleep standing once beside me!
    The 2 get along great and handle very well together. Are there any fun things I can do with them to encourage Rose to trust me and play and be relaxed, but that Lila can join in too?
    Thank you for your help!!!

    1. Hi April,

      Thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment.

      On Rose, slow down. You’ve only had her for two weeks. That’s not enough time to build trust, particularly with a horse that’s been rushed through early training. I’d begin with her as though she’s had no training. Let her tell you what she’s ready for instead of trying to “desensitize” with flurry and demands. Paso Finos have great minds and willing attitudes but can be excitable. If you relax (and calm your movements and expectations) she will too.

      On Lila, figure out what she likes to do. With a young one, getting praised for doing something right goes a lot further than correcting for wrong. That’s easier to do if the games you play are fun for her too. As far what that is, it really depends on the horse. If you discover some things that really make her want to do more with you (I had a young Irish Draught Sport Horse that wanted to jump everything – including my 5-foot fence), focus on those things. In this filly’s case, I set up some cross rails for her to follow me over as part of an obstacle course (we were scheduled to compete in such a class at a national show when she was a long yearling), to her delight. She’d pull me over to the jumps every time after she traversed another obstacle to get her reward.

      As far as the two together, horses learn a lot from each other. I’d work with Lila where Rose can watch. As she sees the two of you having fun and Lila staying safe with your kindness and responsiveness to her “comments”, Rose will likely want to be included in such games in the future too.

      Hope that helps.

  31. Pingback: Cure Barn Sour Herd Bound Horse
  32. Hi,
    I have a 12 year old QH mare. She has been trained in pleasure and is usually very sweet and quiet. However, she can be quite spooky. I have had her for 5 years now, and as my first horse, I have learned incredible amounts from her. She is generally much more alert to danger than the other horses at the barn, and gets spooked about things the others don’t pay attention to. She is big on the whole looking and snorting at things she doesn’t like. For example, she is particularly spooky and wound up at shows, spooks at the cows, dark corners in the arena, tarps, plastic bags, weed-covered machinery, white paper, gunshots ect. It was recently mentioned to me that her first trainer rushed things with her and did not desensitize her property. I am not sure if this is true, but it doesn’t matter whether it is or not because I need to work with her now. Most arena rides, she doesn’t spook, and she has gotten better in the past couple years, but trail riding she is complete basket case, sweating, prancing, on edge, about to bolt any second. We don’t do it much, which is probably part of the problem.

    I have decided that this has gone on long enough and wish to really improve our bond, getting her to truly trust me and become braver when dealing with scary objects and unfamiliar places and sounds. However, my question is, since she is older and many of these behaviors and responses are ingrained in her, can she even be ‘reprogrammed”? Do you have any tips/techniques for working through this and still giving her the desire to work with me? Any words of advise you be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  33. Hi Teeny,
    Older horses can be reached with new approaches – it just sometimes takes longer than with babies who haven’t been traumatized.
    On the trail question, I’d seek out a quiet, steady buddy (both in the equine and human participants). Let them lead. The more time she sees another traversing the landscape with calm and comfort, the more prone she will be to relax a bit.
    Also, the calmer you are, the less likely it is your gal will look for things to spook at. I realize this can be hard with a horse you are expecting to react, but if you can find ways to keep your mind quiet, this will help. Sounds funny but sometimes singing or talking to yourself (or your horse) can help.
    Curiously, I’ve found giving spooky horses big challenges on trails (steep slopes, running water, narrow trails) tends to build their confidence tremendously and reduces reactions on easier parts of the trail (and almost eliminates them on tough hills and narrow trails – no where for them to go on the latter). If you come at the challenge with a “you can do it” attitude toward your horse, you may be surprised at how much they feel and respond to your confidence.
    The other thing you might want to consider is walking in front of her through some trail rides. Sometimes just being brave ahead of a scared horse and showing them you’ll keep them safe changes how they react when you hop back aboard.
    Hope this helps. Please come back and share your progress.

  34. Hi I have a question. I have a 5 (almost 6) yr old quarter horse mare that I bought a year and a half ago. When I bought her she had previous training but not that much so I put her in training where she was getting ridden for 5 days a week. After 9 months of that she was doing great although she has been spooky since I bought her, kind of like others have said she will be fine for 5 time then on the 6th time she will spook, she isn’t a bolter but she does jump and it can cause you to come off. After 9 months I came into some personal and financial issues that I had to drop her training down to 1 ride a week then I leased her to a high school girl that was taking lessons with my trainer and within the last 6 months she has completely derailed to the point my trainer got thrown and broke some ribs. She doesn’t want to work with my horse anymore but has also tried to convince me that she is now a dangerous horse and I need to sell her. I don’t want to give up on her and I have a hard time accepting that since she was doing so great and now she is to the point that she is dangerous, it doesn’t make sense to me at all. I see why she had derailed because her leader “me” was not as active in her life as after 9 months of consent riding so I see that her confidence needs to be built back up in a leader but is my horse really dangerous or is unpredictable a better word that can be fixed? I did find out that both time my trainer and the girl that leases her got thrown when they were getting off and putting pressure on her back, I had a chrio out and she had some ribs out so she was in pain and was reacting off that pain she felt, she isn’t a mean horse nor has she ever tried to throw a rider on purpose. Any advise would be wonderful

  35. Hi there! I have an 11 year old Paint Gelding that I have had since he was 4 months old. He is BOMB proof on our property, but as soon as I take him ANYWHERE else, he acts like everything is out to get him. I know he has not had any bad experiences out on a trail since I have always had him. I thought maybe his eyesight wasn’t great.. but that wasn’t it either. When he spooks its the kind of spook that will leave you right where he previously stood. I have learned to hold my seat pretty well with him only because I know him so well and can antisipate the spook, but I really want to get him OVER all of this and I am out of ideas here. Any time he spooks he dashes to the side then takes several running steps forward. When he finishes spooking I take him back around and ask him to approach whatever it is was that spooked him. Generally I can get him over it pretty quickly and move on. but we could go on the SAME route three times in one week and he will spook EVERY TIME at the SAME THING. The THING that I am referring to is a big yellow lab that RUNS to the fence and is loud and jumping. I really cant say that I blame him for being startled by it, hell it startles me too half the time, BUT my concern is that this horse is supposed to be my husbands horse and it has really turned if “off” of riding with me. But then after he spooks at one thing the entire trail ride is full of jolting and bolting to the side. Its bound to get someone hurt and I just don’t know what else I can do to help him get over these fears. I try my best to keep my cool and stay calm, but I get so frustrated after all these years.

    1. Hi Holly,
      I understand your frustration with this, particularly given your aim to have your husband comfortable riding this horse. A dog running and barking is a tough thing for a horse to be calm about, particularly if you’re nervous, which would only be natural given what you’ve experienced in the past. Is there any way you can hop off him and walk him past this spot for a while to reassure him? Often a horse will get more confident about things if you’re in front and they see you don’t get eaten ;-).
      I’m currently working on another blog post that offers some riding tips for dealing with a horse that bolts or spins or spooks. Keep an eye out as there may be some things covered there that will work for you.

  36. I have a 3 year old Australian stock horse who I’ve only recently started. He is somewhat spooky in new situations which is fine however there has been a couple of moments where he becomes so blind with terror that he switches off and tries to bolt with no regard for his or anyone else safety. This is on the ground but obviously makes me very nervous about getting up on him. The 3 times he has done this to me so far he has spooked and then tried to run, I’ve obviously the held the lead rope I am not sure if it’s the fact he can’t escape that then triggers the blind terror or if it was already set in (it all happens so quickly and of course when no one else is watching). Held with the rope he then starts to back up terrified until I can’t hold on anymore and either fall over or let him go. I’ve tried to go with him to loosen the rope so that he doesn’t feel so trapped but that doesn’t work. The other day he was so terrified he ran into a fence although it was one with just wires so probably didnt see it as well. Thankfully he came out with a but of a scrape but it makes me wonder when he might kill himself or me with his blind terror. We need to work on it but I have no idea how to teach him to come out of it. He gets spooky plenty of times and we manage to work through those times but not when he completely switches out!

    1. Hi Kate,

      This can be an issue of breeding with some horses. It can also be the result of memory triggers from an incident that terrified him earlier. I haven’t found any quick fix for this kind of behavior. It more a process of long and slow to build trust in a way that has the horse looking to you for confidence and safety. If you can avoid the types of situations that causes this reaction for a while, that will help a lot, but I know that’s not always possible.
      Your horse is still young so I wouldn’t be in a big hurry to start him under saddle. Work through this issue on the ground first for both your safety and his. The key is to stay calm and unafraid when he has these freak out moments. I know that’s really hard to do, but he’ll escalate off your emotions. If you can work in smaller areas that are contained, this will help too as there’s only so far he can go when he bolts.
      Getting creative with different approaches can help too. I had a young horse we acquired as a yearling that had extreme reactions to the silliest little things. With the bigger things it was intense. He ran through three fence lines and back again when we first tried to introduce him to an electric wire perimeter. Oddly, over time, I found he could handle scary things much more bravely with me on his back. I’m not suggesting this for you but simply putting it out there for ideas to start fresh. I suspect with him he had been handled very roughly on the ground as a foal. He was little but very big and frightening when his brain went haywire and he likely came from an environment of men who had been trained to react to this kind of behavior by inflicting pain. He was too young to have been started under saddle when I acquired him so everything we did here was new, slow, patient and comfortable for him. It took a lot of time just to get him comfortable with someone putting slight weight across his back. Once he realized nothing would be done to him that concerned him until he was ready to handle it, he got braver under saddle than he was with a human on the ground. We got permission to ride him through challenges first that had always previously been done only on a lead rope because I convinced the authorities he’d hurt a lot of people and horses without the option to introduce him to these new experiences in this unorthodox fashion. Once I could ride him a couple of times through tunnels to the paddock and starting gates and other scary places, he handled being walked in hand without taking out every horse and human in his retreat path. Unusual, I know, but my point is sometimes finding an area to work with him that’s a blank slate where you can slowly build comfort and trust at a pace he can embrace can help to calm his nerves and help you get through those events that might normally cause an extreme reaction when handled in a traditional fashion. Hope this helps.

  37. Hi there!
    This spring i started my colt – i got him as a weanling (my first time actually training a horse from the ground up)
    Overall things are going really well.
    We have about 15-20 rides. No signs of bucking.
    But he has spooked twice. (Both times in the arena) Once at a truck and noisy trailer, and once at my other horse who spooked in the pasture.
    When he does spook he spooks for a stride or two and stops. (So not too bad)
    My question is…
    What are some exercises i can do with him that will keep him more tuned into me and build his confidence?

    1. Hi Ariel,
      You should be proud of your boy. Two spooks in 15-20 rides total is incredible, especially when he had good cause in both cases. Many horses with far more mileage under them would certainly react to the two issues you cite and probably be spooking a lot more. The fact that he’s coming right back to you is also wonderful.
      Give him some credit and a whole lot of praise for being so brave. I don’t think there’s any need to be doing exercises to reduce spookiness or “keep him more tuned into (you).” It sounds like you have a delightful boy who’s already comfortable with you and confident in his ability to handle challenges. Give yourself a pat on the back too. If he’s this level-headed with so little training, it’s likely you’re doing the right things to bring him along. Don’t forget to reward the tries. Acknowledging effort and actions that are in line with what you want him to do will go a long way toward moving him along.
      Please come back to provide an update on your progress.

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