Ah, the spooky horse. Especially during the winter months, sometimes you just can’t help but be frustrated by spooks, leaps and snorting antics from your equine partner. Whether you’re riding a young horse, a chronic spooker or just a fresh horse coming off a little vacation, you’ve probably experienced a spook or two in the past months. So, how do you deal with it? Are you able to control your emotions when it happens to you? Do you understand where your horse is coming from and why he is spooking?
As prey animals, it’s only natural that their survival instincts have ingrained in them an incredible ability to jerk all their muscles in an instantaneous response to a perceived threat. Horses in general can react a lot quicker than most animals with a similar size and weight, as anybody who’s been dumped by a spooky horse could tell you.
Spooking comes from a lot of different origins. Whether it’s inexperience, natural and legitimate fear, intentionally naughty behavior or just a chronic ability to see ghosts, there is no point in pretending it’s not aggravating. However, I stand by this statement unequivocally: there is no benefit to using punishment or losing your temper with the spooky horse. This only creates a secondary reaction from the horse, and after repeated punishment, they come to expect it and it only exaggerates their behavior. It’s not about whether or not your horse spooks, it’s how well you can train him to control the spook.
I’ve owned a chronic spooker for years now (ahem, NYLS) and I’ve completely adapted my riding to cope with this annoying habit while still achieving the results that I want. He is “afraid” of the following: poles on the ground, liverpools and tarps in any shape or form, jumps that you have to go near but not over, stumps, large rocks, big shadows in weird shapes, the color blue, dressage letters (most of the time), the sound that gravel dust makes when kicked onto PVC, clumps of snow, cow patties, ditches (no matter how small), barns in the middle of a field, and pigs. That is by no means a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea of how my daily routine goes: trot, spook, transition, trot, spook, canter, spook, run sideways, trot, canter, spook, stop dead and blow at the pole on the ground. No, it does not get better with age, and nothing I do makes him realize that he’s actually irrational and insane.
So how do you go Advanced with a horse that can barely trot in a straight line without spooking? Patience, patience and some more patience. Certainly an ability to control your emotional reactions to environmental stimuli is important, as anger and frustration have no place in the saddle, especially with a spooky horse. Explaining the situation calmly and repeatedly can help some horses get a handle on themselves, and for others like Nyls, you simply move on with life and work on controlling the spook to a manageable degree. As with most things, Dom and Jimmie from Evention have a helpful video to watch, check it out if you’ve got a spooky horse that’s driving you nuts!