Spooking is a common occurrence among horses because they are prey animals wired to flee from danger. But the mere thought of being on or around your horse when it happens can be scary for us, too. Find out how you can help your horse manage a spook using equine psychology and leadership, as well as how to handle your own emotions through the things that often trigger your horse.
Why Horses Spook
For horses, spooking is a natural response to being startled or afraid of something. In the wild, spooking is an innate mechanism that helps them flee from danger very quickly. Other factors, such as excess energy, pain, or vision issues can increase a horse’s propensity to spook.
How to Help Your Horse Through a Spook
If you follow the Parelli Method, you already have many tools in your belt to help your horse through a spook. The following are a few that you can use next time your horse finds himself afraid.
- Focus: Spookiness is often a lack of focus. Your horse doesn’t feel safe if his focus is external. So, when you find that your horse is spooking, try to get his focus on you. When he gets distracted, offer him something to do. By providing focus and an opportunity to do right by human terms, you take his attention off whatever he’s afraid of.
- Play a Game: If you know a game that gets your horse’s attention and puts him in a good state of mind, start playing! You can even intentionally spend time playing the Seven Games around stimuli that you know might be new for your horse to get used to new things within the context of familiarity with the Seven Games. The opposite of a spook is a yield, so work on moving him towards a yield when he’s in an afraid state of mind. This will get easier as your partnership develops.
- Encourage Your Horse’s Curiosity: If, after the spook, your horse wants to check out what scared him, allow it, but not until he has reconnected. Keep him moving his feet or a game to play until you have his focus back, then let him explore what spooked him. By letting him explore whatever spooked him, you’re allowing him to have agency over his own fear instead of just tending to his reaction. And likewise, by regaining his attention before letting him explore it, you’re not rewarding his spook with rest.
Prevent Spooks Before They Happen
Here at Parelli Natural Horsemanship, we don’t believe in desensitizing horses or in training their natural curiosity out of them—their sensitivity and curiosity are among their many gifts as a species! However, much conventional horse training advice will tell you to extinguish these things in your horse through desensitization.
As a much more natural alternative, we use the Retreat and Reapproach. The Retreat and Reapproach will give you the desired outcome of a more confident horse, while also satisfying their curiosity. Furthermore, this exercise will reinforce your leadership and enhance your partnership with your horse.
If your horse is spooking at something that is mobile (like a trailer or tractor), you can employ “Retreat and Reapproach” game by causing the spooky thing to retreat. That could help switch your horse’s fear into curiosity. Doing this in a safe environment will help prepare your horse against having a fear reaction in a new environment. To learn more about the Retreat and Reapproach method, join the Savvy Club today.
How to Handle Your Emotions Through a Spook
Here’s the thing: our horses interpret our emotions through a predator lens by default. If we are afraid of them spooking, they will most likely interpret that as predatory energy, causing them to be more nervous. Simply knowing this can help you keep your emotions in check. If you know your horse tends towards spooks in particular situations, be mindful of your own thoughts and emotions that might arise and focus on the solution—working out the fear as a partner with your horse—instead of fearing the worst yourself. By putting the focus on a solution, you introduce comfort into the dynamic, which is one of your horse’s core needs.
Bring it Back to Love, Language, and Leadership
As with any issues that arise with your horse, the greatest contributor to their success is your leadership. When you prove to your horse that you care for his needs for safety, comfort, and play—especially in stressful situations—he will trust you increasingly as time goes on. You’ll be surprised at just how much his fear will fade to the background.
See It in Action
The Parelli Natural Horsemanship Channel, ParelliTube, has hundreds of helpful videos on horsemanship from Pat and other Parelli Professionals. Check out this video below of Pat walking a student and his horse through spooky behavior. Be sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss any new videos!