Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why do horses react the way that they do when they spook?

Recently, I had an old client tell me that her horse has what she calls a violent reaction when he spooks. When I asked her what she meant, she said that her horse likes to take the bit and run and then he starts to buck. She then asked me what my advice would be to fix the problem.

While I hardly consider that to be a violent reaction, I do consider it a problem.

So I will address the spooking problem first.

To address the problem of spooking horses, we must first address the cause of what is making the horse spook. Most of the time, the answer to that question is rather a simple one, the horse was startled by something. For the most part, horses are very similar to us in the fact that when they are surprised they tend to be startled and jump. Not a big deal!

I am sure that a lot of you have heard of teaching a horse to spook in place. Well to be honest with you, there really is not a lot to teaching a horse to do that. The best example that I can come up with, being a relatively new dad, is that when one of my daughters falls down or bumps their heads, they always look at me to see what my reaction is going to be. If I make a big deal out of it, then they are going to let loose and start crying, if I look at them and smile and laugh, they look at me and smile, get up and move on.

The same goes for horses. How many times have you been sitting on your horse and something startled him, so he jumped? All you did was just sit there like nothing happened and all that happened was the horse only had that small little jump. It happens to me all of the time especially on the young horses. I just simply do not react to the situation so the horses reaction was minor. In in effect, I have just taught my horse to spook in place.

So what happened to my old client and her new horse?

I went to go watch her ride the horse. She would start out fine with him, but she was already afraid of him, and she would not let go of the horses face. The entire time that she was on him, she was hanging on his face, so the horse was already uncomfortable. (When a horse is uncomfortable,be it from a poorly fitting saddle or a rider hanging on them, the will look for any excuse to spook.) When the tractor went by the arena, the horse was startled and took off, because the rider clenched up. As soon as the rider clenched up, she became off balance, thus, causing the horse to buck.

Truth was, the horse was not reacting to whatever startled him, he was reacting to the rider!

At that point it became apparent, it was not the horses confidence that was the problem ,it was the riders confidence that was the problem for the horse.

Now, it is true that some horses will react in a big way to something, and there really is nothing you can do about it but ride it out. At that point you need to be a confident rider, but most of those reactions do not last long.

Just an FYI for you.........

I have lived in the desert my entire life and I have never had a horse spook from a rattle snake. Quite the opposite, horses are curious animals, most of the time they want to investigate where the sound on the rattle is coming from and are bitten on the nose.


GoLightly said...


applause, applause!

man, I'd spook at a rattler.

Horses like to look, listen and live.


fernvalley01 said...

Well put! I would spook at a rattlesnake as well. But I guess its what you are used to , my old mare was, maybe 50feet from a grizzly sow and cubs, flicked an ear and carried on. I on the other hand was running a silent dialogue in my head about "breath relax , and don't for shits sake get dumped this close to a freakin bear!"That horse just seemed to know , another time flat out refused to cross a river at one spot , I gave in and went upstream . Got back to camp and heard form the fish cops thet a bear was ransacking a camp across from where she refused !

JohnieRotten said...

I had a horse that I was riding in the woods and there was a bear.

A peculiar little bear he was, orange in color and seemed to have befriended a little piglet. They were skipping through the woods carrying a jar of honey!

(sorry, I just had to do that!)

CharlesCityCat said...


Anyway, one time I was at the State Park trail riding and decided to cross over to another trail so went through some long grass, looked down and there was a rather large black snake. It slithered in between Whinnie's legs. She knew it was there. I very calmly caught hold of a hunk of mane and waited for the explosion. All she did was stomp her hind foot, hard, warning the snake to get the hell out of Dodge. He did. I kissed on her until she was annoyed with me.

fernvalley01 said...

JR its your blog , so I can't call you an *$$, You are a bad bugger!

JohnieRotten said...

You can calle anything you like. It wouldn't be a good day unless I am called something bad.

Cut-N-Jump said...

When he hears the words- You are such an ass. It has just become a good day.

The rattlers are a non issue a lot of times. There's only a couple times of year they are out in full force and they feel the vibrations of the horse approaching which sets off their warning. Stop, locate and go around. They don't often move and if they do, they just move on to somewhere more peaceful.

I knew one woman who used to go out looking for snakes and coyotes. She kept her distance of course, but went looking for them. Allrighty then.

rosesr4evr said...

JR......You're such an ass!! S now it's a good day for JR.

BTW JR, That bear just got done eating Christopher Robbin, stole his honey pot and was luring that little piglet off into the wooods with it, something about a picnic and teddy bears is what he was telling that little piggy.

I was trail riding in Shawnee one time and had decided to go bareback, cantering up a rather rocky trail, when a HUGE black snake slithered right under us. I never came. And like you CCC, I kissed that horse until she was downright pissed. LOL!

Little Rowan is growing up fast. At his last Dr.'s appt they told us he's in the 99% percentile for height in his age group. He's getting to be such an onrey little stinker though. You tell him not to do something and he looks at you with this "The devil's gonna make me do it" look. Poor kid's just like his mother. Remind me the next time I see her to slap the shit out of her.

Rose has a really good spook in place. Although it came with time and riding miles. One time she spooked at a stump, A STUMP FCS!!! She went 4 feet, directly to the left, FAST! That was right before she smashed my right knee on a tree coming up a steep hill. It pays to have laterals.

After that little debacle, I decided it was high time to teach her some new tricks to put in her bag. I knew she'd never have a career in reining, but the movements are nice to put on a horse, even if you just trail ride. Hell, they could even save you an injury.

Amy said...

I am having the same problem with my mare... the problem being, I get scared and clench up, she takes off (probably thinking WTF is my rider scared of??!!) and then my knee jerk reaction is to try and pull her up... before I have corrected my other knee-jerk reaction of clenching with my legs... *sigh* I'm probably lucky she bucks instead of flips over...

I have been riding with my trainer lately, and it helps, because she'll see the spook coming and tell me to relax, and check her with a rein to get her attention if need be.

And about the snakes... totally agree- I saw a huge gopher snake once and got closer to investigate (I'm not from a snake-heavy area originally, so when I see them I like to check them out) and Lic was just as curious as I was... I expected her to shy, but she was fine.

kestrel said...

I've met a couple of horses that have actually trained their riders to pet and coddle them by threatening to spook. When I just ride by the spooky thing the horse looks at me with a pissed expression and you can just hear them thinking "What! Are you blind up there? I'mm gonnaaa spooook...hello!" And when they figure out that the threat isn't working they get such an annoyed look. Especially when I ruin their perfectly trained human!

horspoor said...

The rattlesnake deal. Used to ride this mare, Waltzer. She could decapitate a snake at light speed. You'd be going along and she'd just strike out...end of snake. It only happened once with me...said something to the owner. She said, "Yeah, Waltzer hates snakes." End of conversation. lol

kestrel said...

I want to own that mare! Wow!

horspoor said...

Great mare Kestrel. I'm pretty sure she is gone by now. She'd be in her 30's. Really nice looking black quarter mare.

GoLightly said...

well,somebody had to:)

cattypex said...

My first trail riding camping trip was my first year with Vandy. The first day I was a nervous wreck, and was she. Jigjigjigjigjigjig oops, what's that? jigjigjigjigjig

Someone convinced me to RE-FREAKING-LAX, and *pouf* perfect manners!

Such a simple lesson.

Simple ≠ Easy.

Dena said...

I have never had what I would call a tight seat.
All those damn equitation
I just kind of hang there.
And you know what? It works great on spooks.
Not so much on
It took me years to learn to put my feet forward and brace on a bucker.
JR you is gooood. I was reading the beginning and thinking not a spook an evader. And sure enough here you come with it.
Wish you and Cut lived closer.
We have lots of really green stuff in MN 4 months out of every year.
Canada, Alaska, Nova Scotia, and Minnesota. Surivor doesn't have shit on us.
You have to be tough and crazy to put up with this kind of cold.
Are you guys packed yet?

cattypex said...


WE have green grass from late March - October. I guess they eked out a 4th cutting in November this year. No sand - just clay.

We just have Southern-fried attitudes around here is the main disadvantage.

Southern Indiana is really pretty. That's where I learned how to trail ride in rough terrain.

OrangeElmo said...

Agreed, only horses in movies freakout at rattlesnakes.

sagecreekannie said...

Great post.

With that crazy mare of mine the desert is not safe for snakes nor Gila Monsters.

Seems Hollywood makes a bigger deal put of rattlesnkes than most horses do.

I like the way you describe teaching a horse how to spook in place.