Why Are Horses So Spooky?

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Question:

Why are horses so spooky?

Answer:

Before we can ever hope to understand, let alone control the movement of a horse, it is important to know the various behaviors that motivate a horse to move in the first place. Being a prey animal means the horse’s first reaction to danger is to run, hell bent for leather, away from the perceived threat. React first, think later.

Everyone knows that horses are flight animals; in fact, horses are the very definition of flighty and depend on this behavior for survival. What is often misunderstood about horses is, how deep the flight response goes in a horse’s nature and that every movement a horse is capable of and every step he takes has some significance. Everything about the horse is linked to its flight response. Crazy as it sounds, even their laziness is related to the flight response. By nature horses are generally lazy, for the sole purpose of preserving energy in case it is needed in flight. In the current trend of natural horsemanship, far too much is sometimes made of the predator-prey relationship, since horses, after all, have been domesticated for thousands of years and don’t really think of humans as carnivorous predators. However, it is important to understand that the prey instinct is the origin of the horse’s behavior as we know it today and it is what motivates their movement.

Horses are herd animals, again related to prey-dom, meaning their survival is dependent on the herd. There are safety in numbers. Herd behavior is another important motivating factor for a horse and is present in our everyday dealings with horses, more so than is often recognized. Again, every movement a horse makes has meaning and when given a choice, the horse will always move toward the protection of the herd. These are fundamental and deep layers of horse behavior and the subject could fill many volumes, but the one thing we can deal with here, is to develop an understanding of how we can control the movements of a horse in our presence.

The first thing to understand is that the horse feels safer when he is moving his feet, and the more nervous or uncertain he gets, the more he wants to move his feet. Yet there is nothing a horse likes better than to feel protected enough that he can snooze, standing or prone, knowing that the herd leader is watching out for his safety. The herd leader, a/k/a boss mare, is responsible for the safety of the herd and with a second’s notice, must be able to motivate the entire herd to flight. She earns the respect, admiration, obedience and, most importantly, attentiveness of the herd by dominating every move they make and by controlling the resources of the herd (you’ll recognize the boss mare easily, she’s the one standing in front of the water trough, playing in the fresh clean water and slowly sipping until she is satiated, while the rest of the herd stands in line, thirsty but patient, awaiting their turn in the pecking order). The boss mare controls the actions of each herd member through her body language. When her head is down in the grass and she is quietly munching, her herd mates will be relaxed. When her head comes up, ears prick forward and her muscles tighten, the rest of the herd knows to prepare for flight. They will follow her anywhere on her signal.

Just to make sure the horses all pay attention to her in times of stress, the boss mare will periodically push the herd individuals around a little so that they are in the habit of responding to her. When she directs her gaze at an individual flattens her ears and takes a step toward him, the subordinate horse knows to immediately move away. If they don’t respond quickly enough, she might leave some teeth marks on his rear end. Subordinate herd mates will quickly learn to watch the body language of their leader at all times and to respond without question to her movements.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of relationship with your horse? If you have the opportunity to observe a herd, you will learn to recognize the subtle communications that constantly occur. For instance, a frightened horse will elevate his head, tense his ears, stiffen his tail and hold his breath; all of these actions communicate an outside threat to the other horses and they will instantly act the same way and look in the same direction. A relaxed and safe horse will lower his head (the lower it goes the more relaxed he is), relax his ears, lick his lips, chew, drop his tail and take a deep sigh.

Horses communicate with their body language, with the head position, ear position, facial expressions, feet, tail, mouth and nose. Horses receive communication from us in the same way, whether we know it or not. The desired relationship between horse and human is that of a herd of two. According to the laws of the herd (the only rules horses really understand) the hierarchy is linear, meaning each and every individual of the herd is either dominate over or subordinate to each and every other individual. In your herd of two, your choice is clear: you must be the dominant member, the alpha individual, the “boss mare.” You must earn this respect, admiration and obedience by controlling the space of your horse and the “resources” of your herd (if your horse is frisking you for treats, HE is controlling the resources).

The first step in controlling your horse’s movement is to control your own body language. Your horse will notice your posture, eye contact, your foot movements, the elevation of your shoulders, the tone of your voice and the rhythm of your breathing. Be aware of the actions on your part and know that you are constantly communicating with your horse through your body language.

If your horse takes a step toward you and you back away, you have just told him he is in charge. If you get scared, tense your muscles and hold your breath, your horse will mirror your actions and instantly become frightened. All horses, no matter how high in the hierarchy, will gratefully accept the leadership of another individual, as long as the leader has demonstrated their commitment to controlling and protecting the herd.

For a horse to accept a human as leader, that human must be able to control the horse’s space and must never betray his trust by causing him fear or pain. Once they have accepted the individual (horse or human) as leader, they will be relaxed, compliant, obedient and happy. In natural horsemanship, we use ground work (round pen and lead-line) to control the horse’s space so that he becomes subordinate.

Beyond just controlling his space, we learn to communicate with the horse through our body language, to develop a strong bond and trust between leader and follower. The horse must be treated firmly but with kindness and above all, your interactions with the horse must be consistent so that he can learn to trust them. This kind of relationship with the horse is the ideal, but one that many horsemen find illusive.

To have a horse that is happy, respectful and obedient, who willingly does whatever you ask and responds to your most subtle cues, you must first become his leader and earn his respect. Learn to control your horse’s space and communicate with your own body language in a way that he understands, and you will not only earn his respect, but admiration as well.

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Issues From The Saddle: Spooky Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hi Julie!

I usually ride some type of warmblooded horse (not exactly sure of the exact type) during riding classes. He’s often very nervous about a certain corner of the riding circle. He was once spooked by a bird, and since that he’s been trying to avoid that corner/short side. The horse trainer told me to avoid the corner to make him calmer, but what happened was that while trotting near that particular corner (short side of the circle), he suddenly spooked and ran off. I managed to stop him, but because of his action another girl fell off her horse. I guess he was already quite tense because of approaching the corner and when I turned him away from the corner, I must have somehow confirmed that the corner was a dangerous place? He was quite nervous during the rest of the class. Just by removing my feet from the stirrups he got very tense. I feel sorry for him because it seemed to be a true reaction of fear/shock.

I’d like to ride him again next time, but being a fresh rider, I’m not sure how I should handle his sudden spooks. The first time I noticed his nervousness was when riding outdoors. A paper sign was moving because of the wind and he suddenly jumped to the side. Do you think I should get another horse? Is it okay to pet him/reward him for settling down after an incident like that, or will he then think that I rewarded him for spooking? How long a memory does a horse have regarding reward? I don’t want to force him to go into that scary corner. Is there another way to make him overcome that fear or general nervousness?

Thanks for teaching me a lot about horses and riding,
Kaja

Answer: Kaja,

Horses can be very suspicious animals and when something has frightened them, they tend to remember it and every time they get to the place where they were scared, they will be expecting something scary to happen. Also, horses are very location-specific in the way they behave—associating a certain place with their behavior, so it is no surprise the way your horse is acting. Most every arena has a “scary” place in it and typically it is as far away from the gate or barn as you can get. This is no coincidence—the farther away from the barn (which represents the safety of the herd to him) he gets, the more unsure he becomes and the stronger the urge to run back to safety.

In some cases it may be good to avoid a trouble spot, like when you are first warming up a fresh (or volatile) horse or if you have questions about your ability to control the horse if he spooks. However, at some point, in order for you to have total control over your horse, you must be able to take him, into places where he may not want to go, maintaining his obedience. If a horse comes to believe he has a say-so in where you try to take him, your authority will gradually erode to the point that you can’t get him out of the barnyard or around the arena.

When a horse is spooky or frightened, the best thing to do is turn him toward the scary object and ask him to stand, take a deep breath and relax. You should reassure your horse by using a soothing voice and rubbing him on the neck and taking a deep breath yourself; this will show him that you think everything is okay, that you have it all under control and he need not be afraid. Try to avoid turning your horse away from a scary object while he is still frightened because that will almost certainly trigger his flight response, as you have seen.

With an emotional or volatile horse like this, I would begin working in the “safest” part of the arena, using small circles and lots of changes of direction and building confidence and obedience in the horse. The more you change directions and cause the horse to swing his neck from side to side, the calmer and more compliant he will become (“S” turns are much more productive than circles). As the horse relaxes and gets more comfortable, I will start expanding the area I am working in by venturing toward the scary place gradually and always returning back to the “safe” place to build confidence. Eventually I would be working closer and closer to the scary spot until I could ride him in that area without a reaction from him.

There is a very effective technique to use when working with spooky horses. First, keep in mind that you will always have more control over a horse when his neck is bent; when it is straight out in front of him he can get away from you easily. So as you approach the scary area, you’ll want to keep his neck slightly bent to one side or the other. An easy way to accomplish this is to ride in a serpentine pattern doing constant changes of direction. But make sure that each and every time you turn him, you turn TOWARD the scary place and not away from it. You’ve already seen what happens when you turn away from a scary object— his flight response is triggered and your horse is likely to bolt. Weaving back and forth and turning him toward the scary spot will accomplish several things—it will keep his neck bent for greater control, it will keep him in an obedient frame of mind because he is responding to your directives and going where you said and it will put him a little closer to the object every time you turn him (and prevent him from bolting like he did when you turned him away from it). There are several articles in my Training Library about this process of despooking a horse.

Asking your horse to keep his head down will cause him to relax as well, but this may require the skill of a more advanced rider (again, check out my Training Library for more info on how to do this). From the sounds of it, this is not a great horse for a beginner rider and it would probably be more productive and more fun for you to ride a less volatile horse. That way you can relax and think about improving your own riding, instead of worrying about the next time he spooks. Remember, this is all about having fun. Your riding and your confidence will advance much faster on an easier horse and you may find that you’ll progress enough that you can eventually ride this horse again and have more confidence.

When a horse is frightened or spooky, he needs the rider’s calmness and reassurance to let him know he will be okay. I would put my hands down on a horse’s neck to steady him any time he became tense or unsure—it is not really a reward, just a reassurance that I’ve got everything under control. And I would give copious praise to my horse by petting him in the withers or neck when he is obedient and brave in the face of a scary thing. The rule of thumb with horses is that you have a three second window of opportunity to reward, release or punish the horse, in order for him to make an association between his actions and your actions—and the sooner in the three seconds the better. If a horse is rewarded in a timely fashion, he will remember it for a very long time. The important part is not whether or not he remembers the reward, it’s whether he made an association between his actions and the reward. If the association is made, he will remember it for some time—horses have exceptional memories.

As you have seen already, the more you learn about horses, the more you learn how much you don’t know, which is why advanced and expert riders are sometimes more humble than novice riders. This horse is challenging and no doubt you would learn a lot from him, but it may be better to ride something a little easier and safer for now so that you can focus on developing your riding skills without having to train a horse at the same time.

Good luck!
Julie

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