Why is My Horse Spooky? Ultimate Guide on How to Help a Spooky Horse (In the least scary way to yourself) by Kelly Marks
Are you sitting at our laptop screen or on your phone wondering ‘Why my horse is spooky?’ and ‘What can I do to help him build confidence?’. Then you’ve come to the right place. In this detailed guide we explore a number of reasons why a horse might be spooky, how to set yourself up for success and how to safely train a spooky horse to be brave.
Some people say “failure” isn’t in their vocabulary, but honestly, there are some learning experiences we could really do without…
You know, those moments when you end up battered or broken, or even worse, when your horse gets hurt. And let’s not forget the guilt that follows. That’s why, under the main title, I’ve added a note “in the least scary way to yourself.” Because let’s face it, if you’re a seasoned rider, you might muscle your way through things (though that doesn’t always work). We’re going for a more ‘over 30’s’ approach here (or whenever that sense of self-preservation kicks in). But hey, this approach doesn’t mean you can’t be brave or brilliant – you just don’t need to prove it by getting your head kicked in.
7 Steps to Help Train a Spooky Horse
Step One: Establish Your Aims
Alright, let’s lay the groundwork for boosting the confidence of that spooky horse of yours. It’s like planning a journey – you’ve got to know your destination before you start. Imagine we’re embarking on a horsey adventure together. I can’t speak for you, but I can share my own aims with my horse Pie when I first got him.
- Curbing Violent Shying: I was determined to stop Pie from reacting like the world was ending whenever he spotted a suspicious-looking stone.
- Niece-Friendly Rides: I wanted Pie to be gentle and composed enough for my niece Daisy to ride him at horse shows.
Once goals 1 and 2 were nailed down, it was time to step it up:
- Confident Jumping: I set my sights on boosting Pie’s courage to take on challenging Working Hunter courses. Think water jumps, ditches, and hedge jumps Daisy was eager to tackle.
Keep in mind that this article is your go-to guide, tailored for both you and your spooky horse. Every step we’re about to explore is suited to the average rider – someone juggling horsey adventures with a 9-to-5. Best of luck on your journey to conquering the spooky horse challenge!
Step Two: Understanding Why Your Horse Is Spooky
Let’s tackle the enigma of the spooky horse together. Ever caught yourself saying, “He’s just spooking for no reason”? It’s a tempting thought, but not exactly helpful in our quest to better things. We’re better off being horse detectives, diving into every possible angle. This approach isn’t just about getting it right; it’s about staying focused, preventing frustration, and avoiding rash decisions.
Picture this: we’ve got a young horse, well-schooled in the arena basics – walking, trotting, cantering, and backing up. Yet, he still flips out at the sight of a peculiar object or flat-out refuses to pass certain spots on your outdoor escapades. Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit – the simple solutions. What do you think this horse is spooky?
If You’re Thinking – “Maybe We’re Asking Too Much, Too Soon”
Solution 1: Buddy up with a trusty, steady lead horse on your outings for a few months. Gradually your horse will build courage and confidence, and we can take over the lead in suitable circumstances until we are ready to go out on our own.
Solution 2: It’s no defeat to dismount and lead your horse past a spooky object. In fact this can actually work really well in gaining the horses confidence, and cause far less damage and loss of trust (as well as being safer) that trying to whip a horse past something. After a couple of times get back on and ride past until he’s completely habituated to the object and he wonders what all the fuss was about!
Solution 3: Long reining your horse is an excellent exercise for increasing your horse’s self-confidence and independence (and excellent exercise for you!). It doesn’t take long to learn how to do long reining safely and effectively although you may wish to have a friend who is experienced with horses to go out with you on your first few training walks to help, maybe just walk by his head, if you run into any problems.
If You’re Thinking – “The horse has no confidence in the rider”
Obviously the next question is going to by ‘Why?’ and possible answers include:- the rider is very inexperienced and/or nervous and/or the rider gives contradictory and confusing signals. Possible solutions include obviously a lot of work gaining that rider’s confidence and ability however, in the short term, what can really help the doubtful rider is seeing someone else ride the horse over the ditch/past the obstacle and thereby feel confident that it ‘can be done’.
Remember, solving the spooky puzzle isn’t about showing off. It’s about knowing your horse, yourself, and embracing these solutions that are tailored for the real-life rider. You’ve got this!
If You’re Thinking – “Maybe he’s getting too much Food and Not Enough Exercise”
Although it’s no fun riding a tired or lethargic horse, ‘high spirits’ have got to be kept within acceptable limits. A horse that is constantly scanning left and right may not be ‘just enjoying himself’ as is often expressed, but could be in a constant state of anxiety and stress. An experienced owner should know the difference and feed and exercise their horse appropriately. It’s so easy to get caught out though and many of us have a tendency to show our love through food. There’s something very satisfying about mixing up various bits and pieces for your horse and some of the muesli mixes certainly look good enough to eat ourselves. However, this is like giving rocket fuel to some horses and it’s something they really don’t need.
Pie being a ‘hyperactive child’ himself has taught me so much about this. One year he was going so nicely I thought a double handful of ‘quiet mix’ in his feed ‘wouldn’t hurt now’. The very next day he started the dramatic ‘rock spooking’ again.
Having the right feed balance can influence your horse’s behaviour massively, the key thing I have to watch out for now is when the Spring grass is coming through. If you find your horse gets more excitable at this time be aware that it may not just be due to added sugars in the grass but also the lack of magnesium in the grass at this time. Dairy farmers know all about this because cows can suffer from ‘staggers’ from lack of magnesium. Horse owners should be aware of this as well and be prepared to supplement magnesium as necessary to keep their horses on an ‘even keel’. Also get to know how your horse’s droppings generally look so you can note any changes that indicate stress or possible digestive upsets.
We have a wealth of knowledge on feeding including webinars with equine nutrition experts on the intelligent horsemanship members site.
The Importance of Checking Your Horse’s Eyesight
By Bonita Hall (Holder of the Monty Roberts Preliminary Certificate of Horsemanship)
I’ve had personal experience recently about the importance of checking a horse’s eyesight. The mare that I ride is a spooky sort of horse anyway, (‘alert’ I like to call her!) but this winter she got dramatically worse. Luckily her owner is caring enough to know that Crystal wasn’t just ‘playing up’ or ‘taking the pee’ and called the vet for a check up. It turned out that she had had an eye infection (with no outward symptoms) which had damaged both of her eyes so that it was like she was seeing through a milky veil – no wonder normally worrying things suddenly became terrifying for her.
For a while we thought she might need surgery, but thankfully the worst of the damage was cleared up with eyedrops, and though her eyesight may never be 100% again, it has improved enough that she is more or less back to her ‘normal’ spooky self!
Step Three: It’s As Simple As Making A Plan!
And now we come to the secret of getting your horse totally bomb proof to scarey obstacles (and you can even include smells and sounds in that) and that is you simple make his training in this area a priority. You decide it’s an area where you want to make a difference and you make a plan.
An impressive example of this was when Monty Roberts was asked to show 6 mustangs at the January 1st Rose Bowl Parade through the streets of Los Angeles. He knew this would be the ultimate test for these little horses to get used to big crowds, the noise, waving flags and worst of all kids would often throw fire crackers near the horses. Apparently the thing that would unexpectedly cause problems for some horses was if the kids got their ‘crazy string’ out and though harmless this could really upset a horse. Monty’s people worked for 2 months to gradually accustom these little horses to what they might expect and they behaved impeccably for their two hours walking along the parade.
Step Four: Set Yourself Up For Success
Start with a well schooled horse
You need to ensure your horse is responsive to your aids in general. If he doesn’t move off your leg or stop as asked before you introduce him to the scarey object, he’s not suddenly going to start to be soft and obedient as his adrenalin levels start to rise. In fact, quite the opposite and the possibility is even if he is well schooled his tendency could be to suddenly go quite wooden as he’s introduced to the new objects.
You can’t demand a horse not to be frightened but you can teach him acceptable ways to behave when he’s frightened
It’s not just a question of getting the forwards, backwards and halting right, lateral aids are really important as well. Ideally you want to be able to position your horses front end or back end where ever it suits you to accomplish this work so as well as leg yielding, turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches are excellent exercises.
If you start from the ground (recommended) use the right equipment
A well fitting Dually halter is ideal for this sort of work (incidentally also recommended in New York Police Officer, Sgt. Rick Pelicano in his book ‘Bombproof Your Horse’) and perhaps just as important a long enough rope or long rein, you need a minimum of 12 feet to keep control in the event of him jumping away sharply. The nearer to his head you are holding him the more your arm will get jerked and the likelihood of you getting pulled over, trodden on or injuring yourself
Find a safe area to work in.
A roundpen (something that’s commonplace in nearly every American or Australian yard) can be invaluable from the point of view of safety for this sort of work for obvious reason i.e. no-ones going to be going too far as all your problems are contained! Certainly if you have access to a round pen introducing your horse to tarpaulin is a great place to start the work.
Also those of you that have read ‘Perfect Manners – How You Should Behave so Your Horse Does Too’ will have seen the photo’s of me being doing Join Up with a bicycle i.e. there was a pony terrified of bicycles and so I put the pony in the round pen and gently followed him with the bicycle, when the pony looked back, at me I moved the bicycle away. This ‘advance and retreat’ gives the pony a feeling of control.
The theory is it’s because they know the object, or person, can’t be dangerous if they move away because no predator would ever move away. It certainly works well for introducing the horse to a suitable scarey object (in this case a bike) and with this pony, Saffron, it was fascinating to see him watch some bikes when he next got out in to the open because he immediately started following them! If your horse is frightened of traffic behind him it’s a good idea to turn him round to face it to go past and then turn around so he can see the traffic move away from him. Again it can give him a feeling of security.
Safety rules for working with horses on the ground
Step Five/Six: Identify and Tackle your Horses Specific Triggers
How To Train A Horse To Go Through Water
If you have gained your horse’s trust the horse ‘should’ be prepared to go through water and into unknown territory. However, if the horse is still nervous I find what works well is to find a way to make it easy for the horse to do what you want him to do. So for instance with water you may lead him through something very shallow to start with or get a lead from an older more experienced horse. Don’t make it a battle, make it very easy for you both to succeed and then make a big fuss of him and maybe give him a pick of grass or lead him home, just to let him know he’s made a good decision.
A great way to let your horse know he’s done the right thing instantly is to jump off him there and then and lead him home – just try it a few times!
If you need to lead a horse through any tricky area the worse thing you can do is pull on the reins of a snaffle bridle. As you pull forward the joint of the bit points into the roof of the horse’s mouth, causing him to open his mouth and raise his head so he can’t see down. If you were going out for training with an older horse it would be a good idea to have a Dually halter or a headcollar on underneath the bridle in case you need to lead your horse.
Before you attempt water MAKE SURE IT IS SAFE TO CROSS. People throw all sorts of things in water, some of which you can’t see. Ever since Pie getting a shoe caught in an old wire mattress laying on the bed of a river I’ve realised the importance of being cautious approaching water. He went down and I thought he was going to drown – not a good experience.
How to Train A Horse To Go Under Low Branches
The first time I encountered this was when I entered my first Trec competition with Pie. I didn’t really understand until the night before our first competition just how low you’re meant to dip under when I went to walk the course and saw the obstacle set up. I had read that the height must be a minimum of 20 cm over the horse’s withers but it hadn’t really sunk in what a tiny space that was.
To gain maximum points you are meant to canter under the gap. Yes, but how? I got home that evening and decided maybe Pie and I could do with a little practise at this. I am in no way biased but I can assure you Pie is a very intelligent horse. When I put a bamboo cane at the top of the jump wings and asked him to walk under it, he would just think ‘better be careful here’, reach up carefully with his nose and push it off before proceeding forward.
What could I say? Coupled with the fact that I felt a bit guilty because I was aware that I didn’t feel totally happy with this exercise as generally speaking I’d much rather have my horse stop than carry me under low branches…….. Even when I lead him under he’d still reach up and push the bamboo stick off to be on the safe side.
Creative thinking was needed ‘so what would encourage him to put his head down?’ not too difficult really, even though he’s been taught to lower his head to pressure a bowl with his favourite food convinced him of the wisdom of moving through swiftly with his head down low and it soon became his favourite exercise.
How To Train A Horse To Not Be Scared Of Tarpaulin
Follow the basic safety rules. One way of getting the horse to start to touch the tarpaulin in a safe, stress free way is for you to walk around the centre with the horse on the outside and your horse will gradually start to touch the edges and realise it doesn’t bite. Possibly start with the tarpaulin very narrow and lead the horse over although he may start off by jumping it. An ideal way to finish up is that your horse will just stand quietly on the tarpaulin with no fuss. You could always lay the tarpaulin somewhere appropriate in his field and place his hay or some feed on it.
Most horses soon come round to this and is a gentle way of introducing things providing this method doesn’t cause them to be deprived of food or water for any prolonged period of time or keep their anxiety levels up longer than is reasonable. Seeing other horses unconcerned is a good reassurance for your sceptical horse.
How to Train A Horse To Go Over Ditches
Make sure the ditch is safe i.e. banks are not going to give way, you horse isn’t going to run straight into a tree if he jumps too big. You can start with leading as described and then when you feel you are ready to first start to jump the ditch possibly have a neck strap or hold some mane, sit firmly, you don’t want to accidentally pull him in the mouth if he ‘leaps’ a bit the first time (some horses have been told about crocodiles living in ditches).
CASE STUDY – BLACK PLASTIC DITCHES (WITH HERONS IN)
As I said earlier, the fact the Daisy and Pie started to hit it off in 2003 meant that suddenly there was a whole new set of challenges. As they had to come out of Novice classes into the Open the fences took on a whole scarier dimension.
In one of Pie’s first Opens at the end of last year they were going really well until suddenly faced with a triple bar over a black plastic ditch. What happened reminded me of what Monty sometimes says about the bad loaders he works with “He didn’t say ‘no’ he said ‘hell no’!” Pie didn’t stop at the fence. He stopped about 15 yards away when he first caught sight of it! On the second turn he gradually edged close enough to take a look but he was clearly not going to be jumping it that day.
Daisy brought him out and said with honesty that she hadn’t felt that keen on jumping it herself. Daisy doesn’t carry a whip on Pie and I think the worse thing would have been to have hit him that day – I was further convinced of this when I saw two separate incidents of ponies falling over in the class and seeing other riders falling off when their horses jumped erratically. At the risk of being repetitive once again I want to remind you let’s try and get our results as safely as possible.
So for Christmas Daisy elected to have a Black plastic water ditch for her main present (we do worry about her sometimes) and we started to practise. Something to be aware of though is that although your horse may jump an obstacle at home, when he gets somewhere different he may well be frightened again when it’s in a different setting. Plenty of people have set off confidently to their first show and then learned that little lesson! So, in my quest to be a good Aunt during Monty’s February tour where Pie once again was making ‘guest appearances’ I was forced to take the black plastic water ditch to every single demonstration and jump it in the different locations. I’d also just walk over it ever night as part of our ‘fear busting’ demonstration.
Pie no longer has any fear of black plastic ditches and in March this year he went in his first Royal International Qualifier. He was clear to the black plastic ditch and was approaching it confidently when he suddenly noticed they’d put a stone heron in the ditch – he went on bravely but just lost his concentration and had the pole over the top down – otherwise jumping a clear round. Now why didn’t I think of a heron in the ditch?!?
A visit to the garden centre and junk yard was in order for more scarey items!
How to Train a Horse to Not be Scared of Smoke (Smoke Machine)
(One of my proudest moments with Pie). One of the police horses was giving us a lead past the smoke machine for the first time when he shied away from it and Pie stepped straight in and gave him a lead. With the smoke machine one of the key things is the noise, it’s apt to ‘hiss’ at odd intervals, the other thing is the smell. Horses can be habituated to smell just as they can with everything else. Introduce them to things slowly to start with i.e. don’t expect/force them to get to close immediately, then gradually move in closer. Although Pie didn’t have any particular issues with the smell I wouldn’t be averse to putting some food near the ‘smelly’ object to help your horse associate it with something pleasant.
How to Train a Spooky Horse To Not Be Scared Of Flags, Umbrella, Balloons, Plastic Bags…
Flags can be bought from a fancy dress/’party’ type shop and it’s usually easiest to just buy the material and then fix it on to your own desired length of bamboo cane.
First of all your horse needed to be introduced to the flags from the ground. Hold your horse on a rope about two or three feet from his head attached to a Dually or headcollar and first of all let your horse sniff the flag. Then gently start to stroke the horse’s body with the flag – if the horse moves away, stay nice and relaxed but do your best to keep the flag laying on him until he starts to settle down. You take the flag away as soon as he stands still and starts to relax. This way ‘rewards’ him for relaxing and after a few minutes of doing this and assessing how he is doing you can gradually work around his body so he is comfortable with the flag all over.
If he were to kick out with his back legs you can still keep the flag patiently there waiting for him to settle down before removing this flag. This works equally well with a plastic bag on a bamboo stick to gradually get a horse used to unusual stimuli.
When you first plan to ride with the flag you can have some one go as if to pass to you from the ground a few times to see how your horse might react. It’s ideal as well if a rider carrying a flag on a trained horse can ride besides you for a while to see how your horse is likely to react. This is one of those times when a roundpen or small enclosed area is ideal for the early work.
FLAGS – WALKING THROUGH
We had the idea to do walking through flags with Pie midway through Monty’s last tour and actually did the ‘training’ as part of the demonstration. With Monty holding one large flag out and Ian Vandenberghe standing opposite him holding out the other, the idea was that I would ride Pie between them, pushing through the material and coming out the other side. Pie was understandably dubious about this at first! We gained Pie’s confidence by initially having Monty and Ian standing far apart and so Pie was just going through a big gap with flags on either side (with lots of praise each time he came through the gap).
Ian and Monty gradually closed the gap but it’s not quite as simple as just making the gap smaller and smaller. It’s important that if the horse starts to get concerned he can’t do it, your flag handlers discreetly make the gap that bit wider so he can manage. This has the psychological effect of making him braver as well – as he comes through to lots of praise again he wonders what he’d ever had doubts about.
When Pie first came to going through the flags without the gap, he’d put his head down and push through picking up pace to start with but once he’d got confident they the flags weren’t heavy (they were silk) or harmful in any way he’s walk through easily like an old pro. When you see a horse walk through easily it’s tempting to think there’s nothing much to it anyway. However, all these little things you can teach your horse have the effect (if done correctly) of increasing the trust and understanding between the two of you as well as, very importantly, being fun!
You don’t want to mess up with introducing your horse to scarey obstacles but if it happens (and also applies to jumping and other situations of course) you have to go as many steps backwards as necessary (figuratively not literally!) to regain your horse’s confidence and gently start again.
How to Train A Horse to go Over a See-Saw / Teeter-Totter Bridge
When Monty first mentioned doing the ‘teeter totter’ bridge in a demonstration and described the height it should balance on, at first I thought I’d misheard and then I thought perhaps he didn’t understand English measurements properly. He had the measurements faxed over from American and I had a friend make the see-saw or teeter totter bridge up accurately so we show him for certain he’d got it wrong. Admittedly when I first saw it I could see it may be feasible but didn’t attempt it for some while as I was working hard on building his confidence and had to be totally sure there was going to be some mishap that would lose all the trust we built up.
At the first demonstration tour I went to with Pie we just walked over the solid board part placed directly on the arena. I remember the first time I approached this in an indoor school when we were doing some schooling. Pie was doing one of his ‘Are you kidding or what?!?’ Ian Vandenberghe was there at the time and it’s worth mentioning, that how he helped at the time was putting his attention on something else and rather wandering off. This was helpful because there’s nothing worse for a rider (or handler) than feeling they are under pressure from what someone else ‘may be thinking’, that way the rider’s adrenalin goes up, the horse’s adrenalin goes up. It’s one of Monty’s favourite sayings ‘Adrenalin up Learning down’.
There’s a lot to be said for just being able to gently sort things out on your own (and yet it’s great to have someone close at hand just in case they could be useful). In this case I just jumped off Pie and led him over a couple of times then jumped back on and rode him over. Very simple and stress free. No point in getting into battles. Once he was completely calm about walking over the board, we worked on having him comfortable just standing quietly in the middle of the board. This learning to stand quietly there was an important step towards getting him comfortable later with the teeter totter part.
When we went for the teeter totter we had it so we could start on a lower level to start with and then we went to full height. The first time I did the teeter totter with Monty was memorable because he hadn’t seen us do this exercise previously and here we were performing in front of 1000 people at Merrist Wood college.
As I approached the obstacle it was strange because I wasn’t really looking at Monty but out of the corner of my eye I could have sworn I saw him shaking his head and mouthing the words ‘wrong way’. Then I just dismissed it as my imagination playing tricks. Pie took the big step up, banged the board to the floor, teetered a few seconds and carried on over the board. Perfect! “I’ll be darned” said Monty, going all American “I’ve never in my life seen a horse doing it that way round before. Didn’t you know always start from the low side?” Oops! But then it’s nice to think my little horse can show those American horses a thing or two!
Ring Of Fire – DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!
When Monty and I were asked to talk with the police horses about training horses to jump through tissue paper (now there’s another article of itself!) I was excited to go and see the police horses work and how they are trained but did exact one favour – ‘so long as I can bring Pie along and could I see how you jump through the ring of fire?!’ I big thank you to Inspector Alan Hiscox and the lovely Metropolitan policemen at Imber Court for setting this up for me.
I, like many of you I suspect, had been brought up on ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ (Rhett Butler had to blind fold Scarlet’s horse to get it out of the burning Atlanta) and believed that horses had an innate terror of fire. I’ve since learned, and this experience reinforced it for me, that horses actually aren’t frightened of fire because they have no concept of what it is. They may well be frightened by the crackling of burning trees and obviously as soon as they feel the burns they are going to go mad with pain and fear.
However, just fire on its own isn’t a big deal. Even consciously knowing this and having a police man with a blanket and fire extinguisher right there in case of something extraordinary happening, and even with Inspector Hiscox taking his good old horse over first I must admit I felt odd as we built up to Pie and I jumping through the ring of fire. What fun!
I rang my sister afterwards to tell her and she said ‘I don’t believe it! Was he nervous about it?’ I said ‘Well his heart was pumping I could feel the fear but I just carried him on anyway’. I confessed in the next sentence – actually it was the other way round!
Step Seven: Repetition Is Key
So… You’ve achieved success in guiding your horse to confidently face their spooky triggers with a calm and relaxed demeanor. Fantastic! But, should you stop here?
The short answer is no, especially if these spooky stimuli don’t arise frequently in your daily routine. Repetition plays a pivotal role in the learning process, so be sure to seamlessly integrate these challenges into your horse’s regular regimen.
Consistency is key when it comes to desensitizing a horse to spooky triggers. It’s important to continue exposing your horse to different stimuli in a calm and controlled manner to build their confidence and trust. This could involve incorporating various objects, sounds, or situations into your training sessions on a regular basis.
Additionally, gradually increasing the level of difficulty or complexity of the spooky triggers can help your horse continue to progress. Start with less challenging stimuli and then gradually introduce more challenging ones as your horse becomes more comfortable and confident.