Correcting a Severe Spook

Recently my mom had a fall from a horse and sustained very serious injuries (see link “My Mom’s Accident” on the right for more info)….  the horse she was riding spooked when a miniature horse came trotting up to us in the pasture as we were riding through.  But it was not just a normal spook; this horse acted like the mini was a lion that was about to eat her.  She jumped sideways, eyes bugging out, snorting, and then snorting and crazy, spun around several times and then bolted.  When she took off, she veered suddenly to the left, my mom torpedoed off to the right, landing on her head.  Although she attempted to regain control of the horse just prior to her fall, the horse was completely out of control.  Recently I had the opportunity to ‘correct’ this problem (although a horse might never really be cured of this type of behavior, the following is a good guideline for resolving or reducing this type of behavior)…..

I was riding the same horse through the same pasture and in the same spot, when the same miniature pony came trotting up to us.  (It was deja vu all over again!)  My mare started to freak out; her eyes bulging, snorting, and started dancing around on two legs….  without hesitating, I immediately grabbed one rein and prepared for the One Rein Stop by cranking the shortened rein right around to my knee, bending her head as far as I could…. (this is no time for gentle; in a dangerous situation like this, use WHATEVER means necessary to crank that head around to your knee)….  meanwhile, as she was spinning around (now on one leg), I grabbed a large hunk of mane.  I do this because I don’t want to rely on the saddle in these situations… my best bet for staying on the horse is to connect to the horse, not the saddle.

I spun her about 5 times with my inside spur firmly planted, and when the mini was about 2 feet from us, I stopped my horse from circling, and “Faced her fear” (the mini).  As she stopped and sniffed, I let the reins out a tiny bit, but made sure I had a good grip in case she tried to squirt out to the left or the right.  Had she tried this, I would have immediately brought her head back to the mini, continuing to make her ‘face her fear.’  She sniffed the mini several times and then began to lower her head.  I let her reins out a bit more, and she let out a breath (a sign that she was starting to relax)… at which point I stroked her neck and praised her (still keeping my grip on the reins tight in case of a sudden attempt to bolt out of there….)   I let her take a few steps, keeping in mind that it was very possible she might explode again.  She didn’t.  As we walked throught the pasture, the mini followed along beside us.  I allowed my horse a bit more rein, but was keeping a sharp eye on her for signs of another spook/bad behavior.  Fortunately, she was good for the rest of the ride.  I will follow up again by bringing her back to this pasture and doing the same thing again, until she no longer bats an eye when the mini comes running up to her.

In situations like this, although dangerous and scary, I would rather be on the back of the horse than on the ground… I would not recommend this to most people.  If you encounter a situation where the horse is really freaking out (beyond a normal spook), it is safer to get off quickly.  Your life/limbs are far more important than any horse, and far harder to replace.  Use the method described above only if you are a very confident rider, and as always, it pays to practice this technique at home with things like umbrellas and tarps and other scary items… just have someone there to help you and do it in an enclosed area. Start small and work your way up.  Soon your horse will be ‘de-spooked.’

I plan to put up a video showing the technique I described above….  stay tuned!



Since that first correction with the minis, my horse is now perfectly calm with them.  When we ride through the field, all three minis come up and circle around my big horse like tiny planets… then they do fly-bys as we walk through the pasture.  My mare has never spooked at them since!


12 Responses

  1. I agree completely with these statements for a spook but what two of my horses do is something different.

    I can’t always predict what they will spook but it could be a gum wrapper on the ground or a llama. They drop their front ends and go from 15 hands to about 9 hands. They drop their heads and their front feet spread out. Then in a nano-second they spin from their dropped position. I just gracefully fall over their shoulder.

    With a lot of work they are getting better at spooking in place and not doing the spin but it has been a LONG road.

    The amazing thing is – they are half brothers. Any body else have this same type of thing happen?

  2. Liz! Your description is too funny! Are these quarter horses perchance? They are SO handy about moving those front ends, aren’t they? It ‘s what makes them so great as cutting horses! If you aren’t doing cutting, you should definitely look into it!!
    Seriously tho, maybe try the “Facing Your Fear” technique (not you, the horse!)… Next time he spooks, no matter what, make horse face what it is that is scaring him, but without pulling on both reins or keeping them tight…. (I know this sounds hard….)… keep the reins slightly loose but be ready, and when horsey begins to turn away from the object, QUICKLY pick up that rein and face him back to the object. A slight release here, but stay ready…. he may try to turn to the other side now… do the same thing and face him back to the spooky item. then a slight release (timing is everything). Two things will happen…. you may notice a sigh or exhale as endorphins kick in and horsey begins to relax a tiny bit…. also, you teach him not to spin when scared, but to face the object….. good luck, and let me know how it goes!

  3. How is your mom? Is she okay? A little spooked herself? Does anyone think that help, in the form of psychotherapy is helpful to riders? I use EMDR to de-spook the human and am wondering if other horse people might find this helpful?


    • Hi Janelle, My mom is great… 100% recovered… thanks for asking about her! She has even talked about riding again, but I said no! LOL Too stressful for ME! I do know that many riders do benefit from counseling of one type or another….. we have several sports counselors here in our town, maybe because we have a higher than average number of upper-level and Olympic riders!

  4. Hi Areronm, i ride bitless on my now 4yr old appy/QH i think the fear began in the river area of the paddock, i think he got a fright one day(wind,leaves, branches falling) bolted and hurt his back under a branch i found him very sore one morning and it scabbed as the hair grew back. after that is when he is in that area he gets spooky, he has bolted twice with me on him from that spot. allthough i was eventually able to turn him and wasnt hurt i hated life was in his hands! we do desenitise a lot and neck and leg yields, i have been giving treats in the spooky spot and doing ground work,respect, leading through the area as often as i can but he is either asleep one day on a ride or a fire cracker the next! dont know how to calm him. i do face him to the fear but in the river there is no specific object to face? it seems to be an area where something bad happened. i started him myself, as a 18mth old.we ride on trails with other horses(up to 14 sometimes) and he is fine.i really want to ride through our river and set up a cross country path….one day?? i hope.any ideas?

    • Hi Jen, sounds like you have a tricky problem there…. I’m assuming that nothing else has changed (like what you’re feeding him, etc.) when he is quiet one day and hot the next. It sounds like you are doing the right things… keep the mantra in your head: “make the right thing easy, and the wrong thing difficult”…… that is, each and every time he spooks, make sure to circle him several times and make him work immediately after the spook… then resume your regular relaxed riding. Make SURE (and this is a hard one) that you are not inadvertently getting nervous/tense when you get to the scary spot, because he will DEFINITELY pick up on that, reinforcing his belief that there is something to be scared of over there. I have found this is the most difficult thing of all for most riders, including myself! You know the spook is coming, but you MUST make your body stay relaxed…be ready mentally to react, but don’t let your body tense, or even let your breathing change… keep breathing long deep breaths.. the horse can feel that! So then, just be very consistent about “correcting” (circles, etc) when he spooks, no matter where it happens. I would also do little things like end your training session at the spooky spot. Reward him well and get off him there. Pretty soon when he is tired, he will try to drag you there so he can stop working! Good luck and let me know how it’s going!

      • Hi Aeronm, i just wanted to let you know we had 2 other horses and riders come and we rode in the river, crossed the banks and water in 2 places and he was willing and calm, i was very relieved, i wonder how he will go without company next time?

      • Glad to hear it!

  5. I recently bought an 8 YO Clydesdale gelding a few weeks ago and he has gone from calm and bold when I got him – leading the group down unfamiliar trails, etc. – to timid and looking for things that might eat him. I don’t look for problems on the trail or expect them, and spooking doesn’t frighten me. Even small noises behind us make him jump and scoot a little – like a low snort from another horse with us. He throws his head up and gets tense when he sees riders, walkers, joggers, etc. coming towards us. I had stopped the other day to the side of the trail as a pair of riders I knew approached, he was watching and I was talking to them when all the sudden he bolted away to the side. I stopped him quickly and turned him to them, then did a lot of backing. I know I need to do a bunch of sacking out and groundwork this winter and that will help. How does a horse go from confident to a big chicken in a few weeks? We ride daily and he NEVER is allowed to go home if he acts goosey, I just ask him to refocus or work harder. It has to be me but darned if I know what I’m doing to cause it. He is respectful of me, and listens, but is a little jumpy at times – always watching everything going on! I’m not aggressive in my body language, if I’m on the ground and he gets tense I talk to him and he will drop his head and soften his eye when he focuses on me.

    • Hi Jen – I had a horse that did sort of the same thing… used to be calm and cool as a cucumber, and then was really spooky and sometimes spooked for no reason at all… turns out she had Lyme Disease (still does; she is chronic)… and it was affecting her brain/behavior. If you live in an area that has Lyme disease, I would test for it. Do the Multiplex test which will give you more information than the snap test. If you do not live in an Lyme area, the only other thing I can think of that would cause a change in behavior like that is a change in feed….. there are low-energy feeds (hay, etc) and high-energy feeds… if I feed my quiet TBs high-energy feeds, they get spooky and zany and silly for no reason. Try to find feeds that specifically say “Low energy” or “low carb”… hope that helps… good luck and let me know how it goes! ~Aeron

  6. Hi aeronm, I have a gelding that literally spooks at everything. I’ve had him now for like six years and have never been mean to him or anything, but he was definitely abused before I got him. He doesn’t trust any human except for myself and actually turns to me to see how I react when something spooks him, but my problem is although he trusts me I need to find a way to really decrease his spook episodes as it is dangerous to him and me.I don’t think sacking out is the answer in his case? He is a very nervous horse, do you have any ideas how I could help him to be a more relaxed horse?

    • Hi Chantelle! I HIGHLY recommend tracking down the first John Lyons video series…. they cover spooking well and would be better to see than to have me try to describe it! Check ebay…. good luck!!

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