Fall means #SpookySeason, and if you’re a horse owner chances are you’ve encountered a spooky horse or two in your time. During this time of year, it almost seems to come naturally to our beloved horses: spook at the leaves, spook at the wind, spook at one’s own shadow...really, the list never ends. If you’re reading this and rolling your eyes in solidarity, read on for some advice on navigating a scary world with a spooky horse.
Understand the intention.
While it’s true that some horses are flightier than others, it’s also key to remember that horses may find “excuses” to spook to escape from pain, tension, or difficulty of work. Doing your best to understand the “why” behind the spook can help you formulate a plan to work through the tension. Let’s say that your horse seems to want to jump out of his skin as soon as you take him hacking away from the barn.
Suddenly, it seems like the whole world is out to get him, and you find you’re lucky to hang on as you make your way back to safety. This tension could be manifesting in the form of a spook because your horse feels less confident away from home, especially on his own. Try riding out with a buddy or, if your horse will allow, a pony, to help ease this tension. When reintroducing time out on his own, slowly make your way farther and farther from his comfort zone, making sure to pay attention to his nerves and body language and easing pressure as these develop.
Practice and repetition are key when working through tension and spook-inducing stimulus. One way to keep track of your horse’s anxiety levels is to put on a heart monitor for horses such as Hylofit during the ride. In real-time, you’ll be able to see your horse’s heart rate increase and decrease in response to stimulus. This can help you better understand when your horse begins to feel tension - perhaps even before it manifests as a spook - and when he begins to relax.
Do a health check.
Physical discomfort can be another contributing factor to a horse that is spooking more than usual. Ulcers, teeth discomfort, lameness, poorly-fitted tack, and other influences can all have an effect on your horse’s behavior. While it may seem like “naughty” behavior, it is useful to understand your horse’s full picture of health. Physical pain and discomfort breeds tension, which must be released in some way. Sometimes, this comes in the form of spooking.
Work on your relationship.
“What does my relationship with my horse have to do with his spookiness?” you may wonder. The truth is, it can have a lot to do with it. Let’s elaborate. First, a relationship with a horse is built on mutual respect. The horse must respect your aids and respond to them in time and correctly. He must look to you when he doubts a situation, understanding that you’ll guide him.
And for you as the rider, you must respect the horse in the way you ask him to do his job. Are you applying an aid correctly? Do you have a respectful relationship with your horse on the ground, to the point where he respects your personal space and boundaries?
These smaller, more intimate levels of respect all contribute to your in-ride experience. A horse that lacks respect (or confidence in) his rider will be less willing to take his attention away from the scary distraction.
Second, respect builds trust. It’s true that many horses do feel that the whole world is crashing down at any given moment. In these moments, they need to have someone that they can look to. That someone should be you, their rider. In moments of tension, a horse that has a large amount of trust and confidence in his rider will have an easier time navigating the spooky, scary world.
Of course, it goes without saying that horses are simply flight animals, and will typically respond to a startling stimulus with that instinct. Understanding this helps us become more empathetic horse owners. But certainly, every now and then, we just have to hang on for dear life and learn to laugh about it later.