Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on handling spooked horses. The second installment will run on Oct. 23.
Horses shy away from what they perceive as danger. Some individuals are more nervous and flighty, but these tendencies can be minimized by a conscientious and confident rider, or made worse by a nervous rider. The first step in dealing with a spooky horse is to address your own mental state and emotions when riding that horse. A calm rider can help the horse realize there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Bonnie Beaver, DVM, Texas A&M Veterinary School, says that when a horse is afraid, he becomes highly alert and spookier. The horse evolved as a prey animal, surviving because he was able to move quickly — leaping away and running from predators.
“When a horse becomes nervous about something, all too often the rider also gets uptight. The rider’s feelings are readily transmitted to the horse and fear escalates quickly,” she said.
The horse senses the rider’s worry and is immediately more afraid.
“The rider may send confusing signals to the horse. If the rider is worried that the horse may spook, he/she starts pulling on the reins instead of trying to stay calm and relaxed. The rider needs to stay as calm as possible, talking to the horse, steering him away from the scary thing and then back again, or into the scary situation gradually instead of forcing him into it,” she says.
“Often the rider reacts to a horse’s nervousness by punishing the horse or forcing him forward instead of giving him time to think. This is the biggest problem in working with spooky horses; the rider escalates the fear level. Instead, we need to give the horse the opportunity to think about it,” she explains.
“That being said, there are some individuals who by nature are more flighty than others. They panic easier. They may have a higher degree of various senses, or perhaps a lack of certain senses. For instance, some horses can see things much farther away than what we are seeing. Or, a horse may not be seeing things very well. If all of a sudden something is there (that the horse didn’t see approaching), this may scare him,” said Beaver. Vision issues may be a factor.
“Horses tend to be spookier on windy days. Everything is in motion, and there are also odors coming from much farther away, carried on the wind. Sense of smell is very important to a horse and plays a role in how he reacts to his environment. If the wind is blowing from a certain direction, the horse is getting all these odors from a distance — and also has a harder time evaluating things from the other directions. Thus the horse is on a much higher level of alertness. As humans, we tend to forget that horses survived by running first and asking questions later. The domestic horse still has that instinctive behavior,” said Beaver.
“Horses often pick up their cues and behavior from herd-mates, especially from mama. If she is flighty, or is put into situations where she is stressed, the foal will be stressed as well. A study with mice showed that if the mother was stressed, even before pregnancy, it affected the brains of the babies she eventually carried. We don’t think about this sort of thing in horses, but if we have a mare that is easily stressed or forced into stressful situations, this may affect the foal,” Beaver said.
There may be hormonal signals and other chemical processes going on in the body that play a role in the foal’s mental/emotional make-up, and not just the vibes and feelings he picks up from herd-mates or the humans who handle him.
Foals from a flighty mare tend to be flighty themselves. We often figure this is due to genetics, or to the influence she’s had on that foal, but there may be more to it than that. “These things are multi-factored and not due to any one thing,” said Beaver.
“The sensory capabilities of the horse, and his innate need to flee, programs him to readily become fearful. He is always ready to jump and run from danger. The prairie didn’t have fences, and he could run until he was far away from danger. He didn’t have to think about what he might be running into.”