How to Stop a Horse From Spooking

How to Stop a Horse From Spooking

Nine tips for training your horse not to spook – and how to deal with a horse when it spooks.

trail ride on the prairie (Credit: AQHA)

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By Tom Moates with Tara Matsler 

Maybe you want to focus on groundwork for your spooky horse to develop better communication or maybe you want tools to help you when you’re astride your horse. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re at home, on the trail or in the show pen. From many years of studying with horsemanship clinician Harry Whitney and writing about those lessons in books and articles, I’ve learned this: If your horse is not in the habit of letting go of his thoughts to willingly go with what you present, and you get into adverse conditions where your horse has a pretty strong thought, you are going to be in trouble. 

The best way to deal with them is to do so before you ever leave home. 

  1. Spend plenty of time in ideal conditions working with your horse. This is the best way to avoid having a wreck when something spooks your horse on the trail. Experiment at home to see how tenaciously your horse stays with a wayward thought when you ask for his attention.
  2. Check in with your horse. Ask in various ways, like presenting a little feel on a lead rope or rein to see if the horse can soften and acknowledge you, to know if he is available for you to ask him to do a task.
  3. Do something “big” to get your horse’s attention. Slap your chaps, kick the ground, scratch your jacket – whatever works to dislodge the horse’s wayward thought. When the horse gives you his attention, stop what you were doing and present a sweet spot to him so that coming to you mentally becomes rewarding and comforting to the horse.
  4. Do not do anything to the horse or direct anything at him to intentionally drive him. Remember: You are trying to draw the horse’s attention to you. You just need to be more interesting than whatever is in the bushes. 
  5. Keep your horse pointed at the spook trigger when spooking does happen. Make sure he doesn’t turn his tail to it. This is because horses are hardwired to flee from fear. If the thing that’s spooking him is behind him, his concern typically escalates. 
  6. It’s OK to stop and look. Once the horse realizes he’s safe, give him time to look. This allows the horse’s mind to be more engaged to think about what is happening. He may be frightened by the spooky thing, but he will be forced to face it and see what it is and if it really is a horse-eating monster or not. 
  7. Pull with one rein rather than both. Grabbing the horse with both reins escalates the horse’s tension and causes him to brace against you. Ease that resistance by only pulling on one rein. Just be careful not to haul the horse’s head around, throwing the horse unstably off balance.
  8. Spiral a bolting horse to a stop. If the horse bolts, use one rein to get him to think about bending around to one side, spiraling him down slower and slower until ideally he stops.
  9. Avoid herd mentality. When trail riding with other horses, it’s especially crucial to keep “checking in” with your horse so he recognizes you as the leader, not the other horses.