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: What To Do With A Horse That Bolts, Runs Off With Rider

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

I enjoyed watching you present at Equine Affaire in MA this past November. I have been riding a good 15-20 years but most intensively the last 5-6….I have a 13 year old Thoroughbred cross that I ride in dressage. I have had him almost 5 years. He has always been on the tense, spooky side but all spooking was usually in-place or a short-lived minor scoot. I have an outdoor arena and this October he began bolting with me across the arena. Then out of arena into his “safe” paddock, then into the field where I ultimately bailed out as I felt a fall was inevitable. He does not buck while bolting but just stiffens his neck like a rock grabs the bit and goes, out of control. My trainer saw this happen during a lesson and was concerned this was obviously becoming a habit. I always dealt with it by putting him right back to work, even when I fell off, I got right back on. I did dismount a few times and back him up with the dressage whip and then got back on. He is clever and strong and I cannot find a way to stop him when he stiffens his neck when he bolts. I brought horse to a stables mid-December for indoor arena winter board. Horse did it again, twice, in the indoor, with the trainer there. I fell off twice, got back on….Sadly, I have now become afraid, anticipating the spook that will cause the bolt. I am still working him and he has improved. The bolt, I’m pretty sure is induced by a spook. I don’t believe he is bolting just because. What gets him spooking at home you ask? Roosting wild turkeys in the woods behind arena and revving engines (car) but especially the ATV. In the indoor, again revving engines and any noise from outside arena…of course snow sliding off roof is a biggie. The horse is progressing in his dressage and his musculature has changed dramatically, he is quite fit as well. My trainer describes him as a 4-5 year old mentality even though he is coming 13. I think I need some basic ground manners reestablished….1. do you think your ground manner dvd will help me on my way? 2. If I attended the Heritage Farm clinic do you think I would get enough of what I need with this specific problem? 3. Can you suggest another plan of action for me?

Michelle

Answer: Michelle,

Runaway horses are dangerous for you, for the horse and for others around you and it is a problem that should be corrected immediately; but once again, it takes an expert hand to correct such a serious problem. Regardless of what is triggering his episodes of flight, he is extremely disobedient and he has learned this trick well. Probably, the sounds he is spooking at are just a trigger mechanisms; the runaway behavior is well engrained, learned behavior that he has had success with and there is nothing you can do to unlearn that. A skilled rider can correct this behavior and prevent it from happening and eventually, with no further episodes over a long period of time, the horse’s routine behavior will not include bolting, but he will always know how to get away with it if he chooses to.

There are two keys to dealing with a runaway: prevention and cure. Keep the neck bent to prevent the horse from bolting and be able to use the ‘pulley rein,’ quickly and effectively to stop the horse in a safe and highly effective manner.

Your horse cannot grab the bit and run off without stiffening his neck first. Any time you need more control over any horse, whether he is spooking, bolting, or being otherwise disobedient or fractious, you want to keep the neck slightly bent, with the nose to one side or the other by lifting one rein. In that position, you have more control and can pick up one rein to gain leverage over the horse. When his neck is stiff and straight, you are in a pound for pound tug of war that you cannot win because his head and neck weigh more than your entire body. This is why using one rein is more effective than using two; two reins encourages your horse to stiffen his neck and brace against the pull on the reins.

As with all training, timing is everything and the rider must be able to see ‘what happens before what happens happens.’ Your horse will give signs that he is thinking about bolting, like reaching for the bit, throwing his head up or straightening and stiffening his neck. This should be met with sudden and harsh correction before he grabs the bit and bolts, with one rein to re-bend the horse’s neck and check his obedience.

The pulley rein is described in detail in the Q&A section of my website and is a means to stop a runaway horse, using one rein, but without turning the horse. It is dangerous to try and turn or circle a runaway horse because the chances of him falling are good. The pulley rein gives you a means to apply leverage with one rein, with a slight bend in the horse’s neck and if you are skilled with the pulley rein, you can stop any horse right on his nose.

Your trainer is right to be concerned that this horse’s dangerous behavior is escalating. Certainly doing ground work will help with the horse’s obedient frame of mind, but this is an engrained riding issue that will have to be addressed in the saddle, by someone who is very competent at dealing with runaways. In clinics we always deal with training issues as they arise and this problem of yours is definitely part of a bigger-picture problem that a general horsemanship would address. As long as the horse does not pose a danger to the other riders, you and he would most likely benefit from the clinic; however, I think the MA clinic is already full to riders.

Not knowing your riding and training capabilities and not being able to see the big picture, it is difficult for me to prescribe another course of action for you but hopefully this has given you some food-for-thought on which to make some decisions about what to do with this horse. You should definitely consider some professional training or finding a horse that is safer and more suitable.

JG

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