Spooking and Desensitizing

Image may contain: horse, sky and outdoorA very common problem I’m faced with is owners wanting to fix their horses spooking issues. I can’t blame them because spooking can be one of the most annoying habits a horse develops. In this blog I hope to shed some light on why horses spook.

A few years ago I took a lesson with one of my favorite horseman. I took my horse who developed an aversion to both the big ball and the mechanical cow little stuffed cow. When he’d see either of these 2 things he’d panic, become shaky, jumpy and would often feel on the verge of exploding if I pressed him on. As I went for my lesson, ball and cow in hand, my favorite horseman asked me what I’d like help with. I said “my horse has an aversion to these two things and I want him to get over it.” He looked at me and said “ok but we don’t need the ball or the cow.” I was baffled, confused and honestly a little upset that he wasn’t taking my concern seriously. I don’t think he understood just how bad my horse was about these 2 things!!! In hindsight, now I know why…

Horses, first and foremost are prey animals. They are wired to be sensitive to danger and in a fraction of a moments notice, can be seen in fight or flight, fleeing from perceived danger. It’s the very reason they have survived as long as they have and have developed the quickest reaction time of any prey animal. I think we often forget how gentle horses really are given the world we ask them to live in…

The most common fix I hear for horses that are spooky is lots of “desensitization”. You have methods like tying the object they spook at to the fence or having them eat off a tarp or tying things to their bodies or using tools, sounds or objects during training. I’m not saying its wrong, but it’s not the whole fix and often times, desensitizing can do more harm than good. When we flood the horse with stimulus, we can overwhelm his senses and cause them to be chronically explosive or the opposite, which is shut down. Both states actually leave a horse in a state of self preservation and over time it changes their natural way of being. Tying things to a horse or to their pen or having it be part of their environment can be damaging if the horse also lives in a constant state of anxiety and tension which again is self preservation. Finally, using desensitizing in training can damage the confidence of a horse when they basically either learn to stand still and tolerate something or the person will continue to use the tool. I did this method for a long time and usually would hit a road block with almost every horse at a certain point because once in motion or doing a task that object would cause the worry and possibly, the meltdown.

Why doesn’t this sort of work, work? Short answer… Confidence. Some horses are just born confident, quiet and agreeable with horses and people. These horses are the 1 in a million because they don’t seem to have much reason to protect themselves and therefore are very safe to be around. They rarely get bothered and when they do, there is usually good reason. This has always baffled me until I started to learn why my desensitizing efforts weren’t as effective as I thought they’d be.

When a horse is in a state where he is nervous, anxious and on the verge of fight, flight or freeze (self preservation) they will associate the stimulus as being negative and a threat to their safety. I was taught to keep applying the stimulus until my horse stood still and relaxed. What I see now, is the horse was seeking the easiest answer. Initially you’d get fight or flight, then the horse would come to a stop because fleeing wasn’t the answer. When they stopped, we took the thing away. But were they actually good with it or were they just seeking the easy way out which was standing still? Again, horses lack the part of the brain responsible for premeditated action, higher reasoning and doing the harder thing even if its the right thing to do. So waiting for a horse to stop moving his feet before removing an object is the teaching of a fact, if you don’t like something, freeze… its not a bad thing to teach at all but its also not the fix to the reason they spook to begin with.

At first when you put the tarp in the stall with food on it, they may be very suspicious about the threat. Depending on the sensitivity of the horse, eventually they figure out that the tarp is not a threat and it only comes to offer food. Now you want to ride your horse and when you come upon tarp in the arena, your horse is very likely to go back to his original behavior  of possibly being very suspicious or fearful about the tarp. At this point we usually say “stupid horse, its just a tarp, you’ve been eating off one!” There are exceptions to this of course and some will say their horse will play with anything whether its in their stall or not and that he’s just spooky about x, y or z. lol. I’m not referring to horses that don’t have obstacle issues.

Spooking in a nutshell is anxiety that has built up in the horse. Experiences build in a horse. If they have positive experiences, they become calm, responsive and sane horses. If the experiences have been negative, they become spooky, fearful, and may be obedient and light to your requests but when s*** hits the fan, they choose their survival over yours. Has your horse ever spooked and run off? Have you come off and your horse heads home? Does your horse need another horse for comfort? Examples like this lie in the lack of connection between horse and rider. Your horse doesn’t seek you for his safety and comfort.

Working with horses that have anxiety means we need to lower our energy, lower our expectations and soften our mindset. When you see a spooking horse as a horse in need of help, you’ll be able to help your horse because you come from an empathetic state. If you see it as a problem needing to be fixed, you’ll often do too much with too high of exceptions which tend to cause more trouble. I learned this the hard way when I tried to “fix” my horse of his spooking about the ball and stuffed cow. After all, the stupid objects lived in his pen and he played with them when I wasn’t around!!!

Since that lesson a few years ago, I’ve learned more about the reason why horses spook and why they continue to spook given our efforts with so much desensitization. It really hit me when I went to go work my horse on the mechanical cow after about 2 years away from it. He was no longer afraid of it and we hadn’t even practiced anything related to it or desensitizing! But what I had practiced is the underlying issue… the anxiety, tension and insecurity my horse felt with me.

My final thought on this and how to address it is in ourselves. I have noticed that anxious, busy, and fearful riders tend to have anxious, busy and fearful horses. Riders who are soft, confident and attentive to the horses emotions, have horses who are quiet and level headed. The secret is in our minds and when we manage our emotions, thoughts and expectations, our horses change their behavior. There’s an exercise I try and teach people who are willing to work on this. Often times they try it when I’m not looking because its a bit of an awkward thing to try. The first time they try it, they get a surprise and ask was that a coincidence that I did this and my horse just did that? Nope!

The ability to practice this awkward exercise leads to the results you are after without a bunch of extra work or training. It teaches you how to be methodical in the development of your horses confidence while you also work on the vision you wish to achieve with your horse. It really amazed me that when I changed my pattern and became more mindful of my horses emotions, the hard stuff became easy. 🙂

If you’d like to learn more about how to help your horse with spooking issues you can join my Face Book groups. There is 2 groups, one that specializes in groundwork and the other specializes in riding. There is exercises as well as application of exercises to maximize the relationship with your horse regardless of the discipline you choose to do.



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