How to Handle a Scared or Skittish Horse
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.