How to Handle a Scared Horse

Updated on February 25, 2016
CC BY 2.0
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If you're around horses very often, you will eventually be in a situation with a scared horse.

Horses are flight animals. It is in their nature to be sensitive to danger and avoid it. This article will cover why horses scare easily, what the main things that scare horses are, and a few tips on how to handle a scared horse.

The Fight or Flight Response

The fight or flight response is how animals react to a stressful situation. There are some animals that will automatically fight the danger (think about an aggressive dog when someone or something unfamiliar comes around.)

Then there is the flight response, where the animal is going to run away from the danger (think a deer grazing in your yard and you walk towards it to take a picture and it runs.)

Predators will most often fight, and prey animals will respond by flight.

Here is a tip when it comes to being around horses, we are predators and horses are prey. I'm not saying that we are dangerous to horses, but our reactions are more towards predators and fighting, and horses are going to react as a flight-responding prey animal.

What Scares Them?

Today while I was riding I noticed a piece of plastic stuck in the fence up ahead. It was fairly windy and I figured my horse would be scared of it.

She walked right up to it, but her ears were up and she was nervous and curious about it. Horses are unpredictable. They smell better than we can, and windy days can really make them a little more on edge. Here are the main things that scare horses.

  • Small Areas: Horses are claustrophobic. Small areas such as horse trailers, some barn areas, and others, can give a horse anxiety.
  • Unfamiliar Objects: If a horse sees an object that it isn't familiar with, it is going to assume that it is dangerous. That is just their nature. Run away from danger first and stop to ask questions later.
  • Predators: Hopefully this doesn't include you, but it could. In Pat Parelli's book "Natural Horse-Man-Ship" he uses an example that someone can be riding (or at least just sitting on the horse while the horse moves) after awhile the rider might ask the horse to do something and the horse thinks that the predator on its back just came alive, and may overreact to the situation. Horses may also be scared of large dogs or any other animal they see as a predator.
  • Water: I'm not talking about the water in their trough, but if you are crossing a river or spraying water it can be a different story and the horse may want to flee the situation.

Most of the things that horses are scared of make sense from a flight animal's point of view. A horse is extra cautious with its vulnerable parts (mainly its legs) because if the horse is injured and in the wild, there is no way to escape danger.

If you can look at situations from the horse's point of view, you can anticipate which ones will make your horse uncomfortable and use an exercise to focus your horse's attention on you, rather than on the scary situation.

Training Will Help With a Scared Horse

If you are a beginner, you should find a reputable horse trainer who can help you develop respect from your horse.

The respect is going to build confidence. The confidence leads to trust. Trust is what will help you avoid having your horse skittish all the time. If the horse trusts you and you are relaxed, then there is a better chance that the horse will not spook, bolt, or buck because of fear.

You should have some exercises that will allow you to focus your horse's attention on you. If you don't focus the horse's attention, you will have no idea what it is paying attention to. By keeping the horse focused on you, you can avoid a stressful situation.

Gaining your horse's respect and keeping its energy focused are important tools in the event your horse is scared. Once a horse trusts you and has confidence that you aren't going to let it be in a situation that will harm it, it will stay more calm.

I'm going back to my ride today as an example for a moment. If my horse didn't trust me and we approached that piece of plastic what would happen? The horse would tense up, and I'd feel the horse tensing up and know it's not paying attention.

This would cause me to be stressed and fearful. The horse senses my fear and it confirms to the horse that the plastic is dangerous. The horse will make a move to flee the area. I've spent the past five years building confidence with my horse.

Even though she was nervous I didn't feel any fear. She walked past the obstacle cautious but confident.

Key Points

  1. Try not to be scared yourself. The horse can detect your fear. If you get scared or nervous about the situation, the horse will want to get out of the situation even more. This could lead to the horse bolting.
  2. If you are new or unsure about horses, find a trainer who can work with you. They can give you instructions on how to build trust and respect between your horse. They can also give you exercises to keep your horse focused on you.
  3. Remember that once the horse goes into "reactive" mode, it is not thinking. Teach your horse an exercise that will get it to start thinking again. Flexing the head slowly to the left and the right from a standstill is one way for both of you to regroup after an unpleasant situation.
  4. Learn as much as you can about horses. You will never be able to know everything when it comes to working with horses. Learn about how they act and react. Learn about training and be open to different training techniques.
  5. Be careful. If you feel unsafe in a situation, don't be afraid to jump off your horse. There are also groundwork exercises you can do to refocus your horse's attention on you.

If you have a horse that is often spooking, and you are uncomfortable about it, it is important to seek out the help of a knowledgeable horse expert.


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    • profile image

      courtney schares 5 years ago

      i like how you say you can calm a horse. i also have a question im doing a science fair what do you think would bee a good idea if you want to do it on horses?

    • profile image

      madie pippin 5 years ago

      I think what u wrote is amasing i am also kind of scared of my horse but im getting over it and working through it and getting better and better and pretty soon be able to do the barrels loping pretty soon

    • thebluestar profile image

      Annette Donaldson 6 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Oh so familiar, been there several times with my horses. I used to hack out over an iron bridge many years ago and my mare was petrified of the noise her shoes made. Our dog Penny used to go with us and if Penny walked steadily in front, Rowan would follow, noise or not.

      I have also been known to sing to my horses in fearful situations. Never learnt if it was the event that scared them or my singing lol

      I also loved the photo taken from the riders view.

    • Cathi Sutton profile image

      Cathi Sutton 7 years ago

      One thing I have enjoyed while gaining my horses' trust is the simple excerise of touching. I touch my horse as much as possible. While my horses eat I brush or pet the horses. I also freely rub their legs with elbow grease applied. This is an extention of imprinting. While leisurely riding I pat and rub their necks. Also I talk to my horses a lot. The tone of your voice can greatly influence the horses attitude. I enjoyed this Hub very much. Horse education is so important! Keep up the good work! You're helping to keep people safe! P.S. I LOVED the photo taken from the riders' view!!!

    • rocknrodeogirl profile image

      rocknrodeogirl 7 years ago from The Columbia Gorge

      I have read some of your horse hubs! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Good points! I've written several horse hub, too!

    • rocknrodeogirl profile image

      rocknrodeogirl 7 years ago from The Columbia Gorge

      Thanks for reading and commenting. It is hard to get past fear around horses, I am working on another article that I should be publishing soon called "Gain More Confidence With Horses", it might help you find your courage!

    • maryb1978 profile image

      Mary Brand 7 years ago

      This article is very enlightening to me. As a child, I was kicked by a horse, and have always been afraid of them. I can't remember if I was trying to pet him, but it seems like I was going to. Perhaps, they have sensed my fear as well, but I have never been able to comfortably be around a horse since then. Even at our local "pumpkin patch" I have been hesitant to even pet one on the head. Thanks for the info. Maybe one day I will find the courage to try again

    • rocknrodeogirl profile image

      rocknrodeogirl 7 years ago from The Columbia Gorge

      Thanks for reading, Pamela!! ;)

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      Interesting hub about horses.

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