Every rider knows a ‘spooky’ horse. The one who has decided that a bear lives in a particular corner of the arena, and nothing will persuade him otherwise. And the one who is walking apparently perfectly calmly down the trail, so that your reins are loose and your guard is down, when suddenly he is going in the opposite direction, and you aren’t.

Obviously, any horse??or human??can be frightened by a totally unexpected loud noise or the sudden appearance of a really strange object, but some horses seem to be afraid of a particular place or thing for no discernable reason, no matter how carefully they are shown it.

Sometimes a horse will only be spooky on cold days, or when he first comes out. Free-longeing beforehand, or other thorough warm-up before he is asked to approach his ‘fearsome objects’, will frequently solve the problem.

The conventional method of dealing with the horse that shies at something is to make him approach it, so that he finds that it won’t hurt him. With an essentially secure horse, who has a good relationship with his rider, this method often succeeds. But supposing it doesn’t? (and it usually won’t with the horse who is a chronic shyer.) Our tendency then is to try to force the horse to submit to our will. The idea of submission is good; the idea of forcing it is not. Use of force arises from the belief that the horse WANTS to be ‘bad.’

Were you ever scared of being in a dark place, so you ran, and the running made you even more scared? Being frightened is a frightening experience??the more often you get scared, the easier it becomes to scare you. Did you like the feeling of being frightened? Of course not. Neither does the horse!

So why does he do it, if he doesn’t like it? Spooking begins as a reflex, like jerking your hand back when you touch the electric fence. Even if you know the fence is turned off, it’s very hard not to pull away at first, and it takes a few seconds to make yourself grab the wire. Your internal awareness that there is danger sets your reflex going, without your control.

There is nothing wrong with having good reflexes; they can save your life. You certainly wouldn’t want to remove all your horse’s reflexes even if you could. But the horse’s spinning and running reflex is a threat to your safety. And that of course makes you frightened, which makes him still more frightened.

The initial reflex of jumping at a loud noise or sudden movement can never be completely eliminated, any more than you can help jumping if some one sets off a firecracker behind you. What the horse can learn to control is the turn?and?run reflex which follows, just as you can make yourself grab the fence wire without jerking back.

The worst thing you can do to him is to punish him for that initial reflex. Since he can’t control it the knowledge that he will be punished if it occurs will make him far more tense in any even remotely threatening situation. Then, depending on his personality he will either spook worse or become aggressive in anticipation of the punishment. In either case you will have an out-of-control horse. Neither do you want to pat and encourage too much, which might make him think that spooking is desirable. The best way is to ‘treat the symptoms’; that is, be ready for a spin and try to prevent it; if he runs stop him as promptly as possible, but don’t make a federal case out of it.

Observe horses in the field when something startles them. If it is close, their first reaction is to wheel and bolt away. They run about fifty yards, then they stop and turn and look. If nothing more happens to surprise them, they slowly work their way towards the source until they make a decision about whether it’s all right or not.

However, if  the thing that startles them is not nearby, their first response is to freeze, that is, not bolt away, but stand still, look and listen. So there exists a reflex to the startling occurrence which is not threatening to the rider, and that’s the one we want to encourage.

Among those horses in a field, one is the leader or Alpha horse, whose example the others follow. If he runs, they run. He is also the one who makes the first approaches toward the scary place. If he decides it is okay, the others soon relax. So we know that a horse can control his fear more easily if there is someone in authority nearby whom he can trust to look after him.

That ‘someone’ should be the rider. In a world where most of the problems a horse meets are created by humans, most of the time it needs a human to solve them. If the horse can learn to turn to his human for help, he becomes much more comfortable in situations he doesn’t understand.

Now let’s get down to specific training techniques. The first problem that needs to be addressed with the spooky horse (which should have been the first thing he learned in his training, but often isn’t) is to teach him that “If I (the rider) say it’s okay, then you can be sure that it is,” a concept which he understands from dealing with Alpha horses.

Teaching the horse that he can benefit from giving up control to you can best be taught on the ground. The key lies in the position of his head and neck. A relaxed, confident horse, willing to listen because he feels secure, has a relaxed head and neck, which results in a fairly low head carriage (conformation should be taken into account.) If you can get the horse to lower his head and relax his neck, he immediately feels more confident, just as smiling makes you feel happier.

There are a couple of basic principles to keep in mind. One is that, whatever method you use to ask him to lower his head must not cause him pain. You can use a Parelli-type training halter if you have one. If you use a flat halter and chain, the chain should press primarily on the halter rather than his nose, (see sidebar). Neither training halter or chain should ever be jerked on. By keeping a steady flexible hold you can let the horse feel that pressure is relieved when he drops his head, and increases when he raises it. However, you must not try to pull his head down, because you then trigger his fear of restraint (like a horse pulling back on cross?ties.)

Direction for putting the chain on correctly. Use a 30″ chain if possible. Directions are for a flat leather or nylon halter. If a rope halter is used the chain is not necessary. Starting on the left side, run the chain through the left side nose ring from outside to inside and up. Then bring it down outside the nose of the halter  and through the right side nose ring from inside to outside . If the chain is short, snap it to the ring instead of passing it through. If it is long, take it up to the right side ear ring and snap it there. When you pull on it, 90% of the pressure is on the halter where the chain passes over the nose.

The second principle, both more important and more difficult to follow, concerns your attitude. If you approach the horse with the idea of showing him who’s boss, or proving to yourself or some one else what a good and successful trainer you are, you will fail. You must keep clearly in your mind that the horse has a problem that he needs help with, not that he is a dirty rotten !@#$* and you’re going to teach him a lesson. Therefore you should not begin a training session right after he has just given you a really hard time. You will probably also find that you do better without an audience, especially one that you feel you have to prove something to. The horse must feel that his welfare is more important to you than your ego.

Leading to Submission and Confidence

Begin by standing almost directly in front of the horse, who is not tied, but is wearing a chain shank on his halter. Take the sides of the nose of the halter in both hands and very gently work his head back and forth and down. If he jerks his head out of your hands, put the chain on and hold it just firmly enough to discourage him. Keep your hands, arms and shoulders relaxed and stay balanced on your feet. Bend your knees so that you are a little below him, but don’t tip your head back to look at him; instead look up with your eyes only. Don’t pull and don’t force, and most horses will yield a little in a few seconds or a minute.

Be prepared for several sessions before the horse begins to drop his head easily. At first, end the session as soon as the horse stops arguing and yields a little. At each session thereafter, he should yield a little more and more willingly. You can give him a treat after you’re finished, but as a general rule don’t use food to get him to drop his head; it just makes him think about the food instead of the work. The exception would be if you use clicker training.

Once he will drop his head easily on command the next step is to teach him to stay behind your shoulder when you lead him. Just as the horse whose head is higher is dominant, so the horse who is in front is dominant. The one in back gets eaten by whatever is chasing them. The horse needs to learn that it feels better to give up his dominance and let you look after him.

Find a fairly small, quiet confined space to work in at first. The aisle of the stable can be a good place to start. Ask him to walk beside you about an arm’s length away, his head almost out of sight behind your shoulder. Use a long whip which you can raise above the level of his head if he raises it. He should respect the whip but not be afraid of it. If he tries to pass you, swing the whip up in front of him to make a barrier, as well as using a brief tug on the chain. If he tries to run through the whip, you may tap him on the nose with the butt (not the lash) of the whip hard enough to get his attention. Do not haul on the chain. Like hauling on his mouth when you ride, this only makes him pull back.

You will find in yourself a tendency to get in by his shoulder and lean when he passes you. While he may be kind enough not to trample you, he will never learn to relax with you in that position. Instead, when he goes to pass you, as well as signaling him to stay back, speed up yourself to keep your body in front of his head. If necessary turn quickly to the left and continue in the new direction, which will put him behind you again.

Once you get the horse to stay behind you, you also have to teach him to stay off to one side, so that if something spooks him from behind he doesn’t run over you. For this, carry your whip in your left hand, with the tip facing back. If he moves in toward you, wave the whip horizontally behind your back, flicking him on the shoulder if necessary to make him move away. If he tries to get past you again, turn left or bring the whip in front of him.

You will need to be both insistent and persistent??the strongest weapon that animals and children have is the ability to keep trying the same thing over and over until they wear you down. While you will probably need to be firm, try not to get angry or aggressive. You just have to be determined that your way is best for both of you.  Eventually the horse will say “Oh, all right (sigh),” and then “Oh, this isn’t so bad,” and walk quietly beside you with the line slack.

Spook Training

Once he has these two techniques, dropping his head, and walking quietly behind/beside you, firmly in mind, then you can start going for walks.

An important factor in controlling shying is to use judgment in exposing your horse to frightening situations. A young or tense horse can easily be overfaced by a scary situation to the point where his reflexes take complete control of both his body and his mind and he ‘loses it’. At that point you lose control, no matter how expert you are. Once you have done this a few times with a horse, he loses faith in your judgment, which is very hard to remedy.

The far end of the arena is one of the most insecure places for a horse to be in. He feels trapped by the high walls, alone, and away from his stable and herd mates. As he approaches it he becomes more and more tense, finally spooking at almost anything and bolting back to the gate.

At this point, one of the most threatening things you can say to him is “I don’t care how scared you are, you can’t go home!” That says to him,”I don’t care if that bear eats you!” His body knows it’s there, just as your body knew the electric fence was on. Instead he needs you to say “I hear you.” If you don’t, you become part of the problem, and his need to get back to the stable or herd grows stronger instead of less.

What you should say to him at first is “If you need to reassure yourself, you may turn around and go back. What you may not do is wheel and race back, since that threatens me, and also will make you feel more frightened.”

Therefore, rather than insisting, as is common practice, that the horse must go now down to the far end of the ring, and stay there, instead you lead the horse away from the gate or stable until he starts to get a little tense. You then allow him to stop and wait briefly, then turn slowly and walk quietly back. Then you ask him to walk away again. You should find that the second time he will walk farther before he starts to tense up, but if not, don’t worry about it. What you are trying to establish in the horse’s mind is that he will feel more comfortable if he doesn’t allow himself to panic.

At the same time, you are bringing out his ‘stop and see what it is’ reflex, which is what you want to replace the ‘turn and run’ reflex. You are also saying “I’m listening to you, and allowing you (within reason) to do what you need to do.” Listening to him is the first step toward getting him to listen to you. So you need to keep him wherever he needs to be to feel comfortable. Then, little by little, you can push the envelope and build his confidence in his ability to face greater dangers calmly.

Many people think that if you let him turn away the horse has ‘won.’ Training a horse should not be an ‘I win, you lose’ situation, but a ‘win win.’ By letting him walk back you are merely saying, “I understand your problem.” By asking him to walk away again you are saying, “I think we can solve this problem. Let’s work on it together.”  Once the horse realizes that you are trying to help him rather than ‘master’ him, his whole attitude toward you and his fears changes.

So start with easy situations. Listen to him carefully and, especially at the beginning, be very willing to let him stand and stare as long as he wants, or turn and go back as soon as he needs to. If he loses control, as quickly as possible get him to a place where he can get it back, always focusing on persuading him to stay behind and drop his head. Use another horse for company if you need to, at first, but your goal is to get him to listen to you.

Dealing With Barn Sourness

Once he listens to you in familiar places, then take him out for walks on foot. Only go as far as he will go without getting tense, even if that is only ten feet from the barn at first. Treat him exactly as you did with spooking, because it really is a spooking problem, but rather than spooking at one object, he is spooking at the whole world!

When he will walk away from the barn 50 feet or so and back without worrying too much, introduce the concept of not rushing home by having him stop, at first only momentarily, as he is walking home. As soon as he stops release pressure on the halter so that he stands on a loose line. If he moves off again that’s okay at first. Later just ask him to stop again until he gets the idea of stopping and waiting until he is asked to move on again. Gradually increase the length of stopping time until he can stand comfortably with no restraint or fussiness. Once he will do that, the barn sourness is pretty much cured.

Somewhere along in here, teach him to drop his head when you rub the top of his neck  near the withers by using this signal in conjunction with the other until he gets the idea. Then when you’re on him you have a way to get him to drop his head from there. It needs to be practiced until it’s fairly automatic.

Once you are riding him in potentially spooky situations, it helps if you know how to do a safe emergency dismount (Hold mane, feet out of irons, land  facing forward) The knowledge that you can get off if you feel the least bit threatened is very helpful if you lack confidence. Even if you are very experienced, if you sense that the horse is really losing it you can hop off and try to get his attention from the ground. If you don’t, at least you are alive and able to walk home.

Finally, allow plenty of time. It may be a year or more before he becomes fully dependable. Reflexes take a long time to change. However, if you are patient, and neither of you is overfaced, you should succeed.



  1. My horse is 9 year old HanovarianxTB 16 HH whom I bought from a dealer in Pontefract 2 months ago. Riding out on his own he does ” slow spins” for no apparent reason ( to us). He does lack confidence and operates as a 5 year old. How can we help him? Penny Dobson 07817 382666

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