It’s been said that the most challenging horses are those who have the most to teach us, but riding a spooky horse can be unpleasant and worrisome, and can even affect your confidence. If you find yourself reluctant to leave the barn because your horse’s spooking is making rides unpleasant, learning how best to handle the situation can make rides more enjoyable for both of you.
Before you chalk up a horse’s spookiness or re-activeness to a training or behavior issue, eliminate the possibility of it being a physical issue. Is your horse in pain at all – does his saddle fit correctly, and could his bit be pinching his mouth or lips? Other physical issues which you might not be aware of, such as vision impairments, can cause your horse to spook frequently. An evaluation by a vet might be necessary to determine if the spooking could be linked to a physical cause.
Don’t think about what could happen
As hard as it might be, when you ride a spooky horse, don’t think about the fact that you’re riding a spooky horse. Yes, giving advice such as that is similar to telling you not to think about a purple elephant – but on a more serious note, if you picture the possibility of your horse spooking, you’ll probably tense up, even if it’s on a level you can’t feel yourself. Your horse is sure to feel it, and that will only add to his reasons to spook. Picture calming images, or rides that have gone well. Think about what you’re asking your horse to do, and picture him doing it successfully and calmly.
Use your voice
Many horses respond positively to the sound of their rider’s voice, but make sure that you’re calm when you do speak. If your horse tenses up, speak positive statements such as “You are okay,” or “We’re both safe and we’ll have a fun ride.” Try singing your favorite song as you ride, or reciting a favorite poem or mantra. Such techniques serve to relax both you and your horse.
Keep him busy
Give your horse something to focus on other than what could lurk in the bushes or behind a jump. As you feel him become tense, give him something to do such as asking for him to circle, bend, or leg yield. Keep him moving forward and keep him focused.
If your horse does spook, stay as calm as you can and try to ride the spook until you can get your horse back under control. If your horse spooked because he was genuinely scared, don’t yank on the reins or discipline him; doing so will cause him pain and reinforce the fact that he was right to be scared. Ride through the spook, gather yourself and your horse back together, and then approach whatever it was that he spooked at.
If your horse has spooked at an object or area, or finds something scary, then you can help him work through that. Don’t approach the object head-on; work your horse in large circles and gradually increase their size so that you approach the object or area on each rotation. Allow your horse to come up to the object gradually, then give him time to sniff at it and touch it. Once he’s satisfied that the object is harmless, turn him into the other direction and repeat the exercise by approaching from the other way. Horses have a dominant eye; they’ll see things differently from each direction, so always make sure to approach scary areas or objects from both directions.
Remember that if you keep yourself calm it will help your horse to stay calm. Don’t allow yourself to look at what is spooking your horse; he will feel your focus on the object and it will make it more difficult to calm him. Force yourself to take deep breaths; doing so slows your heart rate and is a reassurance to your horse.
Teach your horse about sighing
With a little training, a heavy, audible sigh on the rider’s part can actually signal a horse to relax. Practice this first when your horse is relaxed – at the end of a ride can be a great time. As you’re walking your horse out, bring him into the center of the arena and ask him to halt. Relax the reins and let him drop his head down. As he does so, let out a heavy, relaxed sigh. Repeat this multiple times over many rides so that your horse learns to accompany your sigh with his relaxation. Once your horse learns this, you can use the sigh when your horse gets tense to signal to him that it’s time to relax.
If your horse’s spooking becomes a consistent issue despite your attempts to remedy it, then it may be time to bring in a professional trainer to help you. Don’t sacrifice your safety – bring in help if you find that you need it.