angle-left Despook Your Horse

Despook Your Horse

Prevent a blow-up the next time your horse gets scared at home or on the road.

Jim Anderson desensitizes Lasting Speed with a tarp at the 2015 Road to the Horse colt-starting competition (Credit: AQHA/America's Horse/Holly Clanahan)

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To help prevent a blow-up the next time your horse gets scared at home or on the road, The American Quarter Horse Journal asked AQHA Professional Horsewoman Sallie Jo Reid to offer some helpful tips on how to spook-proof your horse.

You can’t be too prepared when it comes to despooking your horse. Once you desensitize him to everyday things you see around the arena, find some unusual props to work with.

Despooking Tools:

  • Tarps – Tarps make great spook-proofing tools because they make a lot of noise, and they are easy to move around. Start slowly by showing the tarp to your horse and slowly work up to walking him over it or throwing it on his back.
  • Pompoms – Pompoms are great to work with because they are small and easy to handle.
  • Umbrellas – You can twirl them in your hand or pop them open to get your horse used to things moving around him.

Realistically, no one has time to expose a horse to every possible object that might frighten him, so it’s smart to have an emergency plan for when everything goes wrong. A good trick of the trade is the “safety pull” technique. 

For example, if you go into a show arena and your horse is afraid of a banner, tip his nose away from it so he doesn’t have to see it. Force him to look across the arena at the buddy he rode in with or anything that gives him good vibes. Ride away from the spooky obstacle, and bit by bit, work your way back.

Typical Rider Responses:

  • Trying to force a horse to go where he is afraid to go, which only makes him more fearful.
  • Taking the horse away from what he is scared of; teaching him that if he doesn’t want to do something, he should act afraid.

Neither of these responses will help in the despooking process.

Don’t Panic

As the rider, your response determines whether your horse will be brave or whether he will let his anxiety get the best of him.

  • Monitor your own body language.
  • Stay calm when your horse spooks. The more confident you are, the more confident your horse will be.
  • Redirect your horse’s attention by changing his focus. If you can get your horse to think about something else, he will be less inclined to react to what spooked him.
  • Get him to move his feet. Turn him to the right, walk forward, back him up, walk to the left.
  • When you feel him start to relax, reward him.

Remember, de-spooking a horse takes time. Horses are creatures of habit and learn from repetition. Stay focused, and your horse will gradually learn to trust you more and be prepared for whatever comes his way.