You're out trail riding on a quiet afternoon, just listening to the birds chirp, staring at the sky and daydreaming, when all of sudden the wind blows an old newspaper in your path. Your horse immediately jumps up and takes off running, while you hold on for dear life.
Horse trainers call this behavior "spooking." Simply put, spooking is a horse's natural way of responding to something it perceives as scary or threatening.
"Horses are prey animals that rely on flight as their principal means of defense," explains Eric Clark, a horse trainer in Dundee, Ill. "Anytime they perceive a threat, their natural instinct is to run away. They're very skeptical, and prone to panic when faced with new or unfamiliar situations."
Many things can spook a horse, from seemingly innocuous objects such as a piece of trash blowing in the wind, the clanging of garbage cans, the flapping of tarps, or the mere sight of puddles, to loud noises such as thunder, trucks, motorcycles or snowmobiles. Depending on a horse's level of fear, some spooked horses simply will duck or jump a few steps, while others will gallop away.
A horse is even more likely to spook if the equestrian anticipates that the horse might spook and rides nervously as a result, according to Dr. Dean Scoggins, equine extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois. "If your horse is afraid of mailboxes and you see a mailbox as you ride down the road and tense up because you think your horse is going to spook, he probably will," Scoggins says. "If you're focusing on the mailbox, your horse will look at the mailbox, too. He's going to sense your anxiety and figure there must be something in that mailbox, so he better get ready to spook."
The real problem, however, is not so much that your horse gets spooked, but how he reacts to his anxiety, says Tracy Porter, a John Lyons select horse trainer in Milton, Wis. "You can't make a horse not be afraid," she says, "but he can learn to control his fears."
If a horse spooks, she says that's okay, as long as he doesn't move. But if a horse reacts by running off, that's unacceptable.
What To Do When Your Horse Spooks
Whether your horse bravely faces his fears or lets his anxiety get the best of him primarily is determined by your own response to your horse spooking. Typically, horse owners react in one of two extremes when their horses spook, Clark says. Neither approach solves the problem. "Either they try to force their horse to go where he is afraid to go, which just makes the horse more fearful, or they take the horse away from the scary object and therefore the horse learns that fear gets him results," he says.
Sometimes horse owners inadvertently reinforce spooky behavior in their horses, Porter says. This happens when people respond to their horse's anxiety by petting him and telling him, "It's okay, it's okay." In effect, what you are telling the horse is, "Good boy for getting spooked." This serves as a reward for spooking and motivates him to react the same way in the future.
Direct him to move his feet. Turn him to the right, walk him forward, turn him to the left, urge him to take a few steps backward. The instant your horse starts to relax, pet him and tell him what a good boy he is. This way you reward his bravery, not his spooking.
Helping Your Horse Cope
There's also a lot you can do in advance to help your horse prepare for potentially frightening situations. The idea is to gradually get your horse used to "scary" places, sounds or objects, and build up to what your horse can handle. So if a certain bridge terrifies your equine, don't try to force him to go over it until he can calmly look at it from a distance.
Clark presents his horse with something that frightens the equine and he works the horse until the animal makes a positive change in his behavior. Then he removes the scary object or leads the horse to a different area.
"If your horse is afraid of a stream, you would work him until his behavior is that he relaxes a little bit, then walk him away from it 30 or 40 feet, and then come back and try again," Clark suggests. Make each approach a little closer. "The horse knows that every time he makes a behavior change that you're going to leave him alone. Pretty soon, you usually can have him desensitized from whatever is bothering him."
Porter keeps a bag of "scary" objects such as paper boxes, wash cloths, plastic bags, bubble wrap, aluminum foil, an umbrella, a plastic milk jug, a lead rope and a tarp that she gradually introduces to her horses – first on the ground and then under saddle. "Start with something that's easy and move to scarier objects," she says.
Initially, Porter places the scary object in front of the horse. If the horse turns and faces the object, that's a step in the right direction. Once the horse has mastered looking at the object without trying to run away, Porter moves the object around or drags it over the horse's body. She repeats the lesson until the horse no longer reacts to the object, at which point she moves onto something else from her bag. (Note: before you do this, make sure you can control your horse so you can have him stop and face you when he starts to get afraid rather than run away.)
Your goal is to help your horse control his fears – something that is unnatural for a horse to do. "In the wild, running away from scary situations is what saves a horse's life," Scoggins notes. "Your objective, as a horse owner, is to teach your horse to look to you for safety when he is afraid rather than react instinctively by running away."