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Q&A: Unpredictable Spooking

horsemanship horses problem solving q&a trail riding Sep 12, 2023

Q: I feel like my horse is very unpredictable when it comes to spooking at objects out on the trail - it’s very hard to read whether he’s going to spook or not so I feel very unbalanced and taken aback every time he does. What are some smaller signs I can look for in his behavior to know whether I should just relax or if I should start redirecting his feet?

A: Thank you for the thoughtful question!  Unpredictable spooking out on the trail isn’t uncommon, and while much of it can be addressed through proper education and training before riding on the trail, other factors should be considered, such as your horse’s breed and nature.  I’ve trained some horse breeds, like Tennessee Walkers, Saddlebreds and Arabians, just to name a few, that can have the tendency to spook more often and with less warning than other breeds.  My purpose is not to call out a specific breed, as being problematic, but to point out that nature cannot be changed, so if you desire a horse that doesn’t spook easily on the trail, sometimes extensive training and experience still won’t make the issue entirely go away.  That being said, most horses will improve, no matter their breeding.  

When I get a horse that is very spooky and unpredictable out on the trail, I always go back to the fundamental ground work and riding exercises that help me assess where there may be holes in his nature and training that can be worked on.  In 100% of the cases of horses that come to me for training, there are holes in their ground work and holes in their riding that can be addressed and filled, which ultimately make them safer and more fun to ride, with less erratic and unpredictable spooking episodes.  

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That being said, most horses will benefit, when they spook, from your leadership in moving their feet to get their mind on you, their fearless leader.  Try to remain calm and work on exercises that focus on softening and bending your horse.  When spooking, a straight horse is a dangerous horse, so make sure you are using a snaffle bit and are bending your horse after a spook.  In the immediate aftermath of an unpredictable spook, make sure to employ the skill you have learned of bending your horse to a stop, or as some call a one-rein stop.  If your horse hasn’t learned this one-rein stop from the walk, trot, and canter in an arena, you shouldn’t be riding out on the trail in the first place.  Assuming your horse is good at this one-rein stop, first get your horse under control by bending him to a stop.  If he demonstrates high anxiety when stopping, don’t force him to stand still.  Allow him to move, but in circles and figure-8’s, redirecting him by bending him and allowing him to “find his calm” and slow down.  

The other very important factor to remember when your horse is nervous about an object or area, or actually spooks, is to move your horse’s feet around the object or right and left towards the object with the purpose of helping your horse to overcome his fear and build confidence.  He will not only learn to listen better to your confident leadership, but he will also learn that whatever he is afraid of is not going to harm him.  People come to me all the time and tell me their horse has passed an area hundreds of times and still is afraid of something there.  This is usually because the fear is not addressed.  Address the fear by having your horse move around and/or right and left until he begins to show confidence and curiosity by moving towards it.  Try to not force your horse to move directly forward, as this can create a claustrophobic reaction and could cause your horse to dangerously move backwards.  Having your horse approach and touch an object that is causing them fear is a great way to help him through that fear.  Your horse should be able to walk by the area or object without spooking or even swaying away from it.  If you will take the time to do this, your horse’s confidence will grow, and spooking episodes will decrease in number and intensity.  

That being said, you might ask, “What about the spooking that happens randomly when sudden movement occurs, such as the flight of a bird, a spook of another horse, or a deer or rabbit bounding out of her hiding place?”  This is what I call the random “chaos” of nature, and you can help your horse spook less and less often by ensuring he has been well desensitized with Reata Horsemanship methods!. You’d be surprised how much calmer and less reactive your horse will be once he has gone through our desensitizing training techniques.  

Most importantly, the more you learn what to do and how to do it when your horse spooks, and in the training of your horse to reduce random spooking, the more confident and relaxed you will feel when it does happen.  Always remain calm.  I know this is easier said than done, but the more you can relax through a spook, the quicker your horse will calm down and the less he will spook.  Sit deep in the saddle while pushing your heels to the ground.  Avoid the “fatal fetal position” that we all have the tendency to do, which is crouching forward, pointing our toes and squeezing the horse’s belly with our lower legs.  Never has this position been helpful in keeping a rider safe or calming the horse.    

Another way to reduce spooking is to ask your horse to do things for you on the trail before a spook occurs.  Don’t sit on your horse like a bump on a log.  The longer you sit on your horse and just go “along for the ride”, the more likely your horse will find something to spook at.  Whether you want to admit it or not, riding your horse is training your horse, so you are either making progress or getting worse.  It’s up to you.  I like to ask my horse to do things on the trail, like moving the shoulders right and left, stopping, backing, sidepassing, two-tracking, vertical flexion, diagonal flexion, and so on.  It may sound exhausting, but it keeps my horse and me busy, and really is a lot of fun to develop such a responsive partner in my horse!  By keeping my horse’s attention on me, usually I can reduce the amount and intensity of spooking episodes, and I get to continue to refine my horse’s education as we go!  Win-Win!  

Finally, making noise and movement on your horse can help reduce those sudden spooks to the chaos of nature, like a bird flying out of a tree for example.  I like to tap/rub on my legs, chest, head, hat, saddle, pet my horse on the neck and butt, wave my hat, break off a branch and wave it, etc.  Make sure that when you do this, you always have one hand on the reins while the other hand is making the noise and/or movement, with the rein shortened on the side of the noise-making hand to give you the ability to stop by bending with one hand if he should start to spook.  I also make random and creative noises with my voice.  By doing this, your horse will better learn to relax to the random chaos of noise and movement in nature, and your riding experiences will become much safer and more enjoyable! 

I hope this helps!  Thanks again for the question and Stay Safe in the Saddle!