How to Handle a Scared or Skittish Horse

Updated on August 9, 2019
rocknrodeogirl profile image

I've spent many years building confidence and trust with my own horse. I'm happy to share advice from my experience.

CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0 | Source

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 Horses?

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. 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.

Attention-Focusing Exercises

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.

An Example From My Own Horse

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.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image

      adrianne helm 

      2 years ago

      my horse is very skittish and will often run away it will not let me touch it at all and its become a problem but i tried some of the things you said about looking at the horse prospective now we have a really strong bond to the point i can ride here bare back without being scared of falling off

    • profile image

      courtney schares 

      7 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 

      7 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 

      9 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 

      10 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 imageAUTHOR


      10 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 

      10 years ago from Georgia

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

    • rocknrodeogirl profile imageAUTHOR


      10 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 

      10 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 imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from The Columbia Gorge

      Thanks for reading, Pamela!! ;)

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      10 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Interesting hub about horses.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)