Saturday, May 2, 2009

On Spooking

I was reading a post on Gail Ivey's Yahoo group this morning and it made me think about what happens when our horses spook.  I think it's not the horse spooking that's the problem, but our (conscious or unconscious) reaction to the horse spooking that creates problems.  Mark Rashid often says about spooking:  "Your horse spooked, you spooked and you ran off together!"

The example Gail Ivey used in her post was sneezing - if every time we sneezed, someone pinched us, pretty soon we'd be anxious about sneezing.  We'd try really hard not to sneeze, but when we just couldn't help it we'd be in a fret because we knew that pinch was coming, and we'd do all sorts of things unrelated to sneezing trying to deal with the pinch.  I think when our horses spook it's often like that - we do something in reaction to the spook - clenching our bodies, grabbing the reins, or in the worst case actually punishing the horse for spooking.  It's these things we do in reaction to the spook that can create all sorts of unwanted behaviors.

Spooking for horses is a natural protective behavior - if they didn't spook in the wild they'd be dead.  It's a reflex, like sneezing.  It's what happens after the spook that's interesting - in most cases I think if we can just keep riding, just keep on doing what we were doing in the first place, or even do nothing at all, that our horse will recover from the spook without our having to "fix" it.  That said, you have to have some confidence in your riding just to ignore the spook and keep on with what you are doing.  It's also helpful to have some ways to stay calm, yourself, such as concentrating on keeping your breathing regular and slow no matter what happens.  It's fine with me if my horses spook - it's not OK with me if I spook in reaction to their spook.

Victoria at Teachings of the Horse had an excellent post that reminded me that I need to order Mark Rashid's new book Whole Heart, Whole Horse - I'm going to do that right now!

No riding today, despite the lovely weather - music lessons instead!


  1. My Toby has such a big, fast spook, I have no time to clench, so usually he spooks and we just go on. With Tucker, I usually have the time to think and, the other day, I found myself tightening up. I struggled to relax as he is rather unpredictable, and he settled. It's hard, sometimes, to overcome the instinct to prepare yourself for some kind of stronger action on the horse's part, but it does work!

  2. Great post! Although in the horse world if you ask two different people you will get three different answers I agree with much of what you said.

    By the way I love all of your bird posts and the pictures and info in them.

  3. The sneeze analogy is great - I had never thought about spooking like that before. My biggest problem is getting a fright when my horse spooks, so I tense up.

  4. This may sound weird, but I actually enjoy when Maddy is rare, but it tells me where the holes are in her training. I think you can alevate most spooking by lots of approach and retreat, not pushing your horse over threshholds, and building confidence with play. Get those things and you don't have a horse that spooks.

  5. I agree with photogchic - I think you can reduce the frequency of spooking, and the horse's follow-through on spooking - bucking, bolting, etc., using the techniques she suggests. I'm not sure that, for some horses, particularly those of a more reactive temperment, you can ever completely eliminate spooking - and some horses are sound spookers and some are sight spookers - my objective in that case is a spook-in-place, which moves into relaxation as soon as the spook is over.


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