Callie Rae King explains why spooks happen, outlines a few common types of spooks, and shares tips on how to be prepared.
A lot of stuff scares horses. Clippers, trailers, plastic bags, umbrellas, balloons, rustling weeds, a jump that looked different yesterday, and invisible gremlins lurking everywhere. All horses spook, and some do much more than others. I wanted to take a minute to deconstruct the spook, think about why horses spook and what we can do about it, plus we will analyze the various types of spook.
We’ve all heard it before — horses spook because they are prey animals. Very true, so let’s think about it a little more. To survive in the wild, a horse must constantly be on the alert for predators. They are scanning with their eyes (and remember they can see almost 360 degrees around their body), listening to everything going on, and taking in all the scents wafting by. For a wild horse faced with the real threat of predators, how quickly they respond to a threat can be the difference between life and death. When horses are in a group and one horse gets spooked or goes on high alert, the others pick up on it instantly and are all on high alert. This is why an anxious rider can make a high strung or spooky horse worse.
So how can we help our horse’s spook less? First, the more relaxed your horse is, the less likely he will be to spook at silly things. Also, you can teach your horse to focus on you so he is less likely to be distracted by other things. I start this with lots of ground work; then when I am riding, I use my bend to keep the horse focused — usually bending the horse to the inside to avoid whatever is distracting him outside of the arena.
Here are a few more tips that I use on my horses. If my horse is spooking at one particular object, I will ignore the object and just work the horse, gradually getting closer and closer to whatever the scary thing is. This avoids the fight of trying to force a horse to go straight towards something spooky. If I have a horse that is spooking on trail rides, I will take them out with a solid leader who is not going to spook so easily, so the less experienced or jittery horse can learn to relax as well. Also, it often just takes patience and exposing your horse to more things, through going out on the trail more often, or even making a point of placing strange things around your arena so your horse learns to ignore the distractions. Get creative with it – you can even try placing treats on top of what is spooking your horse so after you gradually work him closer to the the scary thing and he becomes curious and wants to investigate, he gets an extra reward.
All mammals have three ways of dealing with a threat. Fight, flight, or freeze. Flight is the method that horses are best adapted to, but they will use the other two methods as well. The first part of a spook is often a split second freeze then the horse jumps to the side and either starts to run or spins to face whatever startled him. A horse will usually only go into fight mode if he is cornered and flight is not an option.
To ride any type of spook, you need to sit back, sit deep, and stay relaxed so you can keep your balance and get the horse back under control if he starts to take off. If you get stiff and clamp with your legs and hands, it will only make the situation worse. Think about riding a circle to get your horse back under control. This way you are using more of one rein and not hauling back on both which will only make your horse more anxious.
Now, let’s take a look at a few common variations of the spook.
- The Duck and Spin
This may be the worst spook to ride, because the horse drops his shoulder and spins to the side, a perfect maneuver for sending a rider right over that shoulder. You’ve got to think about sitting deep and staying loose so you stay with the horse as he prepares for a getaway.
- The Hit the Brakes Spook
In this variety of spook, the horse slams on the brakes, then usually spins to one direction. It is imperative to sit back and get ready for that spin!
- The Power Burst
In this type of spook, the horse notices something behind him and digs in to gallop away. Try to keep your seat in the saddle for this one because if you immediately clutch the reins you will unbalance yourself and your tightness on the horse will only escalate your horse.
- The Side Jump
This type of spook is characterized by the horse jumping suddenly to one side, and may be followed up by taking off and running for the hills, or whirling to face the lurking danger. Same as with the other, keep a deep seat and stay centered in that saddle!
What other variations of the spook have you been subjected to? Which one do you think is the worst to ride? Tell me in the comments!
About Callie: I own and operate a small boarding and training facility in Chester County, Pa., where I love working with young horses and so-called “problem horses.” I enjoy learning from every horse I get to work with and always finding better ways to train and to teach my students. Writing is another passion for me, and I write two blogs. The first is CRK Training Blog, where I feature riding and training tips and interview other trainers and horse industry experts. The second blog is Happy Horse Reviews, where I share my thoughts on a variety of equestrian products. Thanks for taking the time to read my article!
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