We get it, all horses spook. Is there anything we can do to help our horses (and ourselves!) through a spook except just hanging on for dear life?
To answer that question, yes! There are a ton of things that we can do to help prevent, or at least minimize, a spook. Here are my top tips:
1. Pay Attention
The best way to deal with a spook is to know it’s coming. When your horse gets worried or tense, this is a sign he might be gearing up for a spook. You can tell by feeling your horse’s muscles tense, seeing his head and neck raise up, and watching his ears prick forward. All of these are signs that you need to do something or your horse is likely to spook. The degree to which your horse tenses will generally give you an idea of how big a spook you will get.
2. Give Your Horse a Job
Keep your horse focused and busy so he has less time to find something to spook at. I find that many horses that habitually spook are bored and tuned out of their work sessions. The more mentally challenging your horse’s work is the better he will focus and engage on you instead of potentially scary stuff.
When you feel your horse become alert or tense immediately ask him for something new. It doesn’t have to be complicated, you just need to make sure you ask for something before the horse is totally focused on something else. I like to turn, flex away from whatever is catching my horse’s attention, or perform a lateral movement. Whatever you ask for should be easy enough that it doesn’t increase the horse’s tension, but complicated enough to get his attention.
3. Be a Leader
I don’t mean this in the typical “show your horse who’s boss” way. I mean be a true leader. One who guides and protects your horse. When your horse gets scared it is your job to say “it’s fine, just do this” and give your horse guidance on what to do to keep himself safe. At first your horse might hesitate and question you, but if you always give your horse good guidance he will learn to trust you. Horses are not altruistic enough to walk through danger for someone. However, they will walk through fire if they trust you when you say they will be okay.
4. Have Confidence
If as soon as something worries your horse you throw in the towel and assume the fetal position you are telling the horse that he is right to be scared. Concern becomes panic and instead of a little jig the horse spins and bolts. Basically, assuming your horse will spook is a self fulfilling prophecy.
I have known riders whose horses spooked constantly. When they wore headphones or earplugs their horses stopped spooking. The riders not hearing the noises that were supposedly spooking their horses was enough to stop the horses from spooking.
Instead of creating the spook, sink your heels down and stretch up tall in a comforting, strong way. Tell your horse (and yourself) that you will be fine with your deep seat. Come up with a job for your horse and confidently lead him out of the panic instead of panicking yourself.
5. Unwind and Relax Your Horse
Last, but not least, work towards your horse being relaxed and comfortable in his own skin on a daily basis. There will always be unexpected movements or weird objects to stress your horse. Horses are designed to notice changes and movement and then flee. As predators they are always on high alert and convinced the next thing will kill them. If you make a diligent effort to teach your horse how to let that go, he will be much less likely to spook in the first place.
Think of it a bit like a wind up toy. Every stress the horse has winds him up a little bit more. As he gets wound up he can contain himself, but it gets harder and harder. Eventually, the toy is so wound up that it is impossible to hold the handle and the toy explodes forward as it unwinds. Similarly, your horse spooks to release all the tension. If your horse is completely unwound it takes a lot more to get him to spook than if he is almost all the way wound up. Constantly teaching your horse to relax slowly unwinds the toy, which brings your farther away from the spook.
I have had several horses come into my program that were habitual spookers. By teaching them to relax and let go they have learned to think first instead of going straight to flight. In the end, this is how you fix spookers. The other tips are useful in the moment, but they are only teaching you how to better survive a spook, not how to fix the problem.
Try these tips out and let me know in the comments down below how they worked for you. If you have anything specific that you would like help with then let me know as well. It could be the topic of my next blog post! Be sure to share this article with all your horsey friends to keep everyone safe and prepared in case their horse decides to spook.