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When Horses Get Scared

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 02 April 2012 · 1,307 views

When horses get scared while youíre riding, there are all kinds of ways of reacting to the situation.  I would like to discuss just some of them.  Sometimes, the way people react when horses get scared just makes things worse.

The hardest-to-deal-with reaction is for a person to respond to a scared horse by getting scared himself.  This reaction is usually a result of having had a previous bad experience when a horse got scared; for example, being thrown and badly hurt when a scared horse shied.  Itís a hard-to-deal-with reaction because itís something the person canít help.

The problem with getting scared yourself is that it just makes the horse even more scared.  Most people know they need to be unafraid to deal effectively with a scared horse, but being unafraid is easier said than done.  Unfortunately, I have no magical solution to this problem.  You canít pretend to be brave, because the horse knows better.  Some people get over their fears, and some people donít.  My purpose is not to try to solve this problem for people but just to note that it exists.

Another possible reaction is to reassure the horse; e.g., to pet him and talk to him soothingly.  Some behaviorists discourage such a reaction because they say it rewards the animal for being scared and will therefore just make things worse.  If an animal is genuinely scared, I donít think that reassuring it serves as a reward, but this possibility IS something to think about in some situations.

For example, most horses react first and think later, but both things can happen very quickly.  If the horse shies, then decides everything is okay after all, THEN you reassure it (when itís no longer scared), it MIGHT learn to shy in order to get rewarded.  However, if youíre reassuring a horse to try to keep it calm while youíre standing under a tin roof in a hailstorm, youíre unlikely to be teaching your horse to act afraid in order to get rewarded.

What most people are taught to do is to distract a horse thatís getting scared.  In other words, if a jacket hanging on the rail of the arena is making the horse nervous, you might ask him to circle to get his attention on you instead of on the jacket.  Then, you can circle closer and closer to the jacket until youíre going by it without any reaction from your horse.

Distraction works quite well with most horses, but it doesnít work with all of them.  My current pet horse is off the charts with regard to reactivity, and distraction doesnít work well with her.  I can distract her, and thereby get her closer to the jacket (to use the above example) without her noticing, but when she DOES notice it, she explodes.  If I just let her watch the jacket warily while I make her pass it (a little closer each time), she eventually settles down and goes by without ever having exploded, so I DONíT use distraction with her.

Another possible reaction is to let the horse stop and look at whatever is scaring it.  Many trainers discourage this behavior, because it puts the horse in control, but it works pretty well with horses like my current extra-spooky mare.  Sheís very curious, so sheís motivated to check out scary things and, because she trusts me to protect her, she will approach them on her own if I encourage her to do so.  (Never try to FORCE a scared horse closer to something.  Doing so will just result in an explosion.)  Sheís also very oral, so sheíll try biting the scary thing once sheís relaxed.  When she gets to the biting stage, I know itís okay to go back to working (as long as the bitten thing doesnít move when she bites it!).

The worst possible reaction to a scared horse is to punish it.  Sometimes, people punish a scared horse on purpose, and sometimes, they do it by accident.  The latter happens when a person doesnít notice that the horse is scared.  All he knows is that the horse didnít do something that he asked it to do.  He punishes the horse for ignoring him, but in essence, heís punishing the horse for being scared.

Itís even worse when somebody purposely punishes a horse for getting scared.  That kind of behavior is simply abusive.  Punishing a horse for getting scared is like punishing a kid for being afraid of snakes.  Does anybody really think such punishment will make the kid less scared?  Well, it wonít help the horse, either!  In fact, it will most likely just make things worse.

What happens when you punish a scared horse, on purpose or by accident, is that you give it yet another reason to be scared.  In some cases, it will then explode in fear because youíve raised its fear to panic level.  Even if it doesnít explode the first time, it will be more likely to explode when something scares it in the future because it will not only be frightened by the scary thing, it will also be afraid of getting punished for being scared.

In other words, punishing a frightened horse just makes things worse, and it could very well make a relatively normal horse into a dangerous one.  ALL horses, even the most bombproof ones, are subject to being startled by unexpected scary things, so shying is perfectly normal for ANY horse (although the bombproof ones rarely do more than flinch).  Horses canít help it --- they were born that way.  If a horse is punished for shying, though, it will learn to shy first and then buck or bolt or whatever to try to avoid being punished for shying.  A rider who was unbalanced by the shy will probably be thrown by the subsequent buck.  However, such behavior is not the fault of the horse.  It is the fault of the person who punished it for something it couldnít help --- for getting scared.

So, there are many ways to react when a horse gets scared while youíre riding it.  Some are good, and some are bad.  In some cases, it just depends on the horse and/or the situation.  A rider needs to be able to recognize when a horse is getting scared and to be able to react in a way that will help calm the particular horse he is riding.

When a horse gets scared, it can be scary for the rider, as well.  Because horses are reactive animals, riding is not the safest of sports.  The danger can be minimized, though, with a good, knowledgeable rider and a relatively calm horse.  Everything in life has its own costs and benefits, but Iíve always thought riding was definitely worth the risks involved.  In my opinion, thereís nothing better than the feeling of being in harmony with an animal as beautiful, powerful, gentle --- and yes, timid --- as a good horse.




Nice article, one thing about mounted patrol training that can transfer to regular horsemanship (which is where it came from originally). Is to teach the horse using a scaffolding technique to train the horses. Starting with small scary things the rider and horse are exposed to small scary things first from a distance and the confidence is built up gradually. As the horse has been taught to trust the rider, he will respond to the rider asking him to hold his mud. The request is not a discipline, but a reassurance to trust the rider that the horse will succeed and not be hurt. The goal is not to scare the horse or to try to make the horse not fear anything, because that is not possible, the goal is to have the horse trust the rider to the point that he will listen and do what he is asked even though he is scared. In that he continues to build confidence to an amazing level. The confidence has to come from the rider through to the horse over time. It has to be reinforced with lots of good experiences. The horse responds amazingly well. Just a thought
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In this post, I was talking about immediate human reactions to immediate horse reactions. What you're talking about is training to try to minimize such horse reactions. (I say minimize because, as you say, we'll never eliminate them.) You've mentioned two kinds of training that are used to try to "bomb-proof" horses: desensitization and generalization. Desensitization is the gradually increasing exposure to a scary thing, so that the horse never panics but just gradually learns that the thing is not so scary after all. Generalization is that, as the horse is exposed to many such things, he learns that, if the rider tells him it's okay, it probably is. How well this type of training works depends on the horse. With naturally calm horses, you can produce one that is, indeed, pretty bomb-proof. With naturally flighty ones, you will be less successful, but you can still make SOME progress. With my ultra-reactive horse, we've gone (over many years) from full-blown panic attacks to just flinches (most of the time) when she sees something scary. She flinches at EVERYTHING, but at least, it's only flinches.

Another common type of training is called flooding. Flooding is when you expose the horse to the scary thing full out and just keep scaring him until he quits responding. One example is tying a tarp to a horse's tail and watching him run until he's exhausted, to get him used to blowing tarps. (Yes, I've actually seen somebody use this technique.) Flooding is cruel, and often makes things worse instead of better. Desensitization is a much better technique, but it is not as commonly used with horses as flooding is, because flooding has been around forever. (For example, sacking out is a flooding technique.) So, I'm glad you mentioned desensitization, and we can both keep encouraging people to use THAT technique instead of flooding.
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