How Horses Show Fear
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on May 10, 2023
Horses are prey animals, so instinctively, they flee from something they perceive as dangerous or life-threatening. This also means they are constantly watching for threatening things. Most horse owners associate bolting or shying with fear, but there are several other ways horses show fear physically, including widened eyes, flaring nostrils, shaking, and stomping. As a horse owner, it is important to recognize scared horse behavior and the horse's fear response so you can handle the situation and fear. It also makes you a more compassionate trainer and decisive leader when you understand what your horse is feeling in a scary situation.
Is it Normal For a Horse to Be Scared?
It is entirely normal for horses to experience fear. The natural instinct is to protect themselves from predators. This can be difficult for people, who are natural predators, to understand. Think of it this way; a horse only survives in the wild if it can identify danger and escape quickly. A horse without this fear reaction often didn't survive.
Breeding plays a small role in the fear reactions of some horses. You may have noticed Thoroughbreds and Arabians can be more "spooky." This makes sense, as these breeds were bred generation after generation to run. On the other hand, draft horses or horses bred for war are often braver in new situations. These horses were bred to confront the enemy on the battlefield and couldn't turn and run away.
How Do You Know If Your Horse is Afraid?
If you pay attention, most horses will give clear body language indicating they are afraid. Some horses may be more subtle than others, but here are some common signs of fear in horses:
Horses communicate many emotions with their eyes. When your horse rolls its eyes, or you can see the whites of its eyes, it is often a sign of fear. This can also be a sign of pain, so consider the situation. Take the time to learn your horse's normal expression before entering a new or scary situation. Being able to read your horse's eyes will let you retreat and reapproach at the appropriate time.
You will remember if you have seen a horse flare their nostrils. Many horses will flare their nostrils due to the new scent of unknown objects. The smell can help them determine the threat level. This is often one of the first signs that your horse is concerned about an object and is often accompanied by a change in the rhythm and depth of breathing as well.
Dogs exhibit tail tucking when scared, and a scared horse will demonstrate the same behavior. If your horse clamps its tail down, it is a fear response. On the other hand, a very high tail carriage (unless its genetic and part of your horse’s confirmation) means your horse is anxious and alert.
Shying or Bolting
Most riders have experienced shying or bolting at some point in their horseback riding career. As flight animals, it is the instinctive response to move away from a scary object, and the faster they can move away, the better. Building confidence in your horse around new objects using game #1 in the Parelli Program, the Friendly Game, and specifically the technique of retreat and reapproach, helps them diminish their fear threshold and understand the object won't harm them.
A frightened horse may shake to express their fear. You will often see this behavior if the horse cannot move away from the scary object and feels trapped. This is also a strong indicator of stress.
Snorting is one way horses communicate with their herd mates. In the herd, when a horse snorts, it's a warning to the other horses to pay attention to the perceived danger. Whether it is mountain lions or strange sounds, the herd is immediately alerted to the threat. Pat often notes (jokingly but it is quite true) that this is the last sound you hear before a spook or bolt.
Stomping or Pawing
Think of stomping as a warning. While most horses flee from a scary thing, more dominant or aggressive horses may stay and challenge the threat. Mares protecting their foals will often stomp to warn dogs or people not to approach her foal. Stomping can quickly lead to pawing and striking.
Why Is My Horse Afraid?
Aside from natural instinct, horses can have several reasons for demonstrating fearful behavior.
Some horses have learned to fear particular objects, tasks, or situations because of a bad experience. This response is really common with negative horse trailer experiences. Whether it was backing off too fast and falling, another horse biting them in the trailer, simply the claustrophobia of being in a confined space, or a big storm while in the trailer, this made the horse afraid to be in or around the trailer.
Abused and neglected horses have learned not to trust people because of negative experiences. This makes it very easy for them to be afraid of all people, even when rescued.
Lack of Trust
Horses are herd animals and need you to be a strong leader. If your horse does not look to you for leadership, they likely don't trust you or your decisions. In the wild, the herd's survival depended on strength and trust in the herd. If one horse is afraid of something, the herd would be frightened. Being the leader your horse needs you to be not only builds a bond based on respect, but your horse will also trust you to handle scary situations. How do you become the leader your horse is looking for? It all starts in Level 1 of the Parelli Program.
Teaching Your Horse Not to Be Afraid
Teaching your horse not to react instinctively takes time and understanding horse psychology. As predators, it is natural for humans to push their horses and encourage them to move closer and closer to scary objects. This can create more fear in your horse because you ignore the subtle signs of fear.
Building trust is one of the most critical elements of eliminating the fear threshold. This takes time, patience, and some effort to lean into your horse's needs rather than yours. If you are first starting to build trust and a bond with your horse, start with the Friendly Game. This game builds trust with your horse and is excellent for nervous or fearful horses. You can also revisit this game to relax your horse in new situations or with scary objects.
Start building trust and confidence on the ground with your horse in Level 1 of the Parelli Program.
Building Confidence – a step beyond Desensitizing Your Horse
Exposing your horse to new situations and objects can help build your horse's confidence. Use the retreat and reapproach method to discover their fear threshold and get them more comfortable. Retreat, then re-approach, then retreat as needed until your horse is calm again. When you repeat this process, you slowly reduce the size of their fear threshold. This helps your horse learn to accept the object and become more confident and brave.
Essential Oils for Fear
Essential oils have been shown to help calm nervous and fearful horses. A combination of lavender, frankincense, and cedarwood can relax your horse in new, scary situations (head here to shop our favorite oils for horses). Simply place a few drops on your palm, rub your hands together to warm the oil, and put both hands about six inches away from your horse’s nose. Make sure to purchase good quality essential oils. Unfortunately, many of the ones sold at larger stores contain harmful ingredients.