Horses with a reputation for spooking can be unnerving to ride. In this article, you’ll learn tips and strategies you can use to:
- help your horse grow confidence,
- become less prone to startling,
- and how to approach what scares them in a safe way.
- PLUS advice from a riding coach on how to ride a spooking horse.
Exposing your horse to as many obstacles and objects as you can in an environment they are comfortable in will help to build their confidence for similar situations outside of their comfort zone.
Curiosity-Based Desensitization uses a horse’s natural curiosity to let them explore, understand, and master the world around them. It takes time, but builds confident and calm horses. Because it uses play- an activity that can bond horses and handler – it can also build trust.
Exhaustion-Based Desensitization uses a method similar to exposure therapy to force a horse to confront scary objects. Because this activates a fight-or-flight response (in which higher thinking parts of the brain are less active) skills “learned” during these training sessions are less likely to transfer to other unfamiliar situations.
Start with Basic Groundwork
When working with a horse that spooks or is frightened easily, it is recommended to start out on the ground. Groundwork is a great way to introduce horses to new things. You can either do groundwork with your horse around the object you are desensitizing to, or you can interact with the object and see if your horse is interested in checking it out. Starting with groundwork is generally safer for the person working with them, which is an added bonus.
Remain Patient and Calm
Your horse will read your body language, and take cues from you. When approaching a new obstacle or object, be sure to take a deep breath, and relax your body as you exhale. If you are tense, it will only cause your horse to tense up more because they think there is a reason you are reacting to the object as well. Keep your breathing steady, your body relaxed, and your voice calm. This will help to reassure your horse that there is nothing to be worried about. They may still be reactive, but likely to a lesser degree.
Bring a Buddy Along
Some horses need a confidence boost, particularly when encountering something that scares them. If your horse does better with another horse around, see about bringing in a friend for them during training sessions. Ideally, you will want the other horse to be very calm and unafraid of the obstacles/objects you will be working with.
If it is a horse that your horse is already bonded with, that would be an added bonus. You can have the other horse interact with the object to show your horse that they are not so scary. You can also have your horse follow the other horse over any obstacles.
Sometimes horses become braver and less likely to spook when they have a buddy to follow – although to be fair, I do too!
Not all horses are interested in following an equine friend. Some of them look to their rider to help build their confidence. For these horses, you can try leading them over obstacles, and interacting with the objects yourself to show your horse that they aren’t scary. Some horses will happily follow their person over new obstacles, but others will need more guidance.
Make sure to reward your horse for their progress each step of the way. This can be in the form of pats and praise, treats, or any form of reward that works best for you and your horse.
Praise and rewards let them know that they are doing a good job, and helps to build their confidence. It is also a good idea to take breaks to do something they love to do. This is a really good idea to do when they conquer a big fear. Perhaps there is one object they just can’t get close to. When they finally do get close enough to touch it and don’t spook, take them away from it and do their favorite activity before trying to approach it again.
Introduce Them to Different Objects
The key to building your horse’s confidence around new objects is to introduce them to as many different things as you can in a comfortable environment. Start out focusing on just one object, and build from there. Start out with the object on the ground or leaning against a wall/fence and do groundwork with your horse near the object. As they relax you can move them closer to it and see if they are interested in checking out the object. If they sniff it, touch it, or move towards it on their own, be sure to reward them.
Let Them Investigate at Their Own Pace
In the images above, yearlings engage with novel objects in self-paced, confidence-building desensitization exercises
Never force a horse to get past its fear before they are ready. It will only cause them more stress, and the fear doesn’t really go away.
Allow your horse to investigate new things at their own pace, this will prevent spooking. You can encourage them to approach an object or make progress, but be sure to read their body language and not push them past their limit. They will read your energy, so remember to stay calm and relaxed. If you become frustrated and reactive, so will they.
Rushing them will usually result in things taking even longer. It is best to go into a training session with the mindset that you have all the time in the world to focus on one thing. If they get through the step you are working on, consider it a bonus, but don’t expect things to go as quickly every time. Results can vary from day to day. Focus on consistency and overall progress.
Get Creative With Obstacles
As your horse becomes more comfortable with various objects, you can get more creative in how you and your horse interact with them.
For example, if your horse is spooked by bicycles, get them comfortable with a bike that isn’t moving, then you can move on to having someone ride the bike around your horse, and try walking the bike while leading your horse.
When they are comfortable with that, you can try leading them while riding the bike yourself. You can also create obstacle courses involving various objects, including flags, tarps, and pool noodles.
You can also make a game out of it. The sky is really the limit when it comes to desensitizing your horse to different objects and obstacles. The more you can introduce them to now, the more comfortable they will be when they encounter something strange and new in the future.
How to Not Fall Off a Horse when it Spooks
There are a few things you can do to prevent falling off a horse when they spook, shy, or bolt. Here are my best tips for staying in the saddle when your horse spooks:
Start with good posture
Sitting up straight in the saddle can help keep you from falling off a horse if they move unexpectedly. Sitting upright with your shoulders back keeps your center of gravity over the horse’s back. Good posture in the saddle also makes it easier to control the horse.
Train yourself to React by Sinking into your Heels
If you’ve ever taken a riding lesson you’ve had “heels down!” drilled into your mind. This is because keeping your heels down can prevent falling off a horse if they shy. However, many riders forget to do this or simply don’t know how important it is. Without muscle training, human bodies tend to respond to an unexpected leap by curling into a crouched position. Keeping your heels down helps you maintain a proper balance in the saddle. It also helps you to keep your seat when the horse spooks.
If you are not used to keeping your heels down, it may take some practice. If you’ve spent a lot of time in the saddle without a riding instructor expect it to take some time and muscle retraining to learn to consistently ride with your heels down. Trust me, the trouble is worth it to avoid falling off your horse!
Although still being investigated by researchers, studies clearly demonstrat that a rider’s anxiety impacts a horse’s body. When riders are anxious and have an elevated heart rate, our horse’s heart rate rises too. 1 Using mindfulness methods to keep ourselves calm may help keep our horses from shifting into fight or flight mode.
Use Specialized tack and equipment
As long as humans have been riding horses, we’ve been coming up with ways to not fall off them!
Even the humble riding saddle – in all the forms it takes around the world – is a piece of equipment designed to keep riders safe and comfortable without falling off when a horse shies, spooks, or bolts.
Here are a few modern options for equipment that can help you stay aboard a spooking horse:
Grab Straks (aka handhold, Bucking Strap, or- my favorite name- the “Oh Crap Strap”) Grab straps are a helpful piece of equipment for any rider who wants to stay safe while riding a horse known to spook. While riding with a grab strap is sometimes seen as a sign of a beginner rider, having a grip during a spook can help riders of all skill levels. Without a strap to stabilize, a rider could slip from the saddle and possibly injured. Bucking straps are not foolproof, however, and riders still need to use their own judgment and common sense when riding an anxious horse.
Full Seat Breeches
Full-seat breeches are an important piece of safety equipment for riders. They can help prevent a fall from a horse by providing extra grip and support. Full-seat breeches can also help protect the rider from the elements and from getting scraped or cut by the saddle. For some riders, full-seat breeches can also prevent saddle sores
A saddle horn is a protrusion on the front of a Western saddle that helps the rider to stay in the saddle. It also provides a place to grip the saddle when mounting and dismounting (though mounting blocks are best for helping horses stand still for mounting) If your horse spooks, and your saddle has a horn, try to grab it. This will help you stay on the horse and keep your balance through the unexpected movement.
Helping your horse overcome its fear will take time, groundwork, and patience. Exposure therapy is the best way to help your horse overcome the fears that lead to spooking. The buddy system or a reward system are excellent tools to help with this task. The more your horse is bonded to you, the more confidence they will have in you as well.
Research sources used for this article:
- Keeling, L. J., Jonare, L., & Lanneborn, L. (2009). Investigating horse–human interactions: The effect of a nervous human. The Veterinary Journal, 181(1), 70-71.