Horses are flight animals and in their natural environment you would find them living and grazing on open plains with fellow members of their herd. They are also a prey species, which means that they must be able to escape any threat or danger rapidly. While horses do have the ability to attack a predator by biting or kicking, this is an extremely risky strategy, so instead they are much more likely to use flight to get away from the danger as quickly as they can. When your horse spooks or shies, this is a fearful response to what he perceives to be a frightening stimulus. It’s important to remember that just because it isn’t scary to you doesn’t mean that it won’t seem very frightening through the eyes of your horse. As owners we’re constantly asking our horses to override their natural evolutionary drive to rapidly flee from danger when we ride and work with them.
It’s true that some horses appear to be much more spooky than others and this can be due to multiple reasons. While there are some breed differences in behaviour, with certain breeds considered to be more fearful, reactive or placid than others, there are also huge individual differences in personalities within breeds, too. The bottom line is that each horse is an individual and may respond differently to any other horse in the same situation. Past experiences will also have an effect on current behavioural responses and horses who have suffered negative experiences in frightening situations may be more fearful when faced with new experiences or stimuli. The handler or rider can also have a great influence on a horse’s behaviour. An anxious, nervous or highly strung rider is unlikely to be able to positively influence a nervous or anxious horse because both horse and rider will be reading and responding to each another’s nervous energy and body language. If you find that you have become tense with your horse due to a previous bad experience when he’s has spooked at something, it may be worth enlisting the help of someone else as simply trying to push through your nerves may make the situation worse rather than better. There is never any shame in asking for help and so often this is the right decision to make for both you and your horse.
As with any behavioural concern, it’s essential to always rule out pain as a possible factor if you find that your horse is very spooky. This is especially important if this is a new behaviour that your horse has not previously shown – any change in behavior should be always be taken seriously and pain always ruled out by your vet before attempting any retraining.
To find out how to de-spook your horse, get your copy of December Horse&Rider, on sale 20 October.