Riding Through Fear on a Spooky Horse

by Mike Kinsey and Jennifer Denison - from Backcountry Basics

You're out on a trail ride, pointing out scenery and wildlife to your riding buddy, when suddenly your horse jumps to the side, dodging the horse-eating monster lurking in the bushes. Shaky in the saddle, you wonder if the rest of your ride will be this nerve-wracking.

If your horse is terrified of things along the trail, you must build his confidence and trust in you, and you must become an alert, active rider, anticipating scary stimuli and gaining control before he can take charge. Otherwise he or you could get hurt.
He must have the skill to:

— Move forward, backward and stop readily.

— Yield laterally to direct-rein pressure in both directions.
Spook Cues

Signs of spooking include becoming excited, tensing his muscles, raising his head, pointing his ears forward and/or snorting. You can reduce the severity of his spook and, in some cases, teach him to “spook in place” by developing his confidence, sharpening your communication and diverting his attention from the scary stimuli and to your guidance and control.
Simple Solutions

1. Read his body language.

As you ride, look ahead for possible spooky spots, and monitor the horse for signs of spooking. Place one hand on each rein and be ready to take charge of the situation with direct-rein control. Your goal: Anticipate his urge to flee, and keep him moving under control. You might not be able to move him toward the object, but you can make him move in the direction you specify.
2. Turn toward the object.

Ride two-handed for direct contact with his mouth. If you allow him to stop and fixate on the object, you lose his attention and your control. If he spooks and attempts to run, calmly, confidently and immediately use direct-rein pressure to turn him toward the scary object and then perform a training maneuver. This prevents him from developing a habit of bolting from scary objects. Bolting is much more dangerous than jumping sideways.
3. Work in your horse’s comfort zone.

Once you turn your horse, immediately circle or weave 10 or 20 steps away from the spooky object. Allow him to enter his comfort zone, where he relaxes and listens to you. Remain calm and use consistent cues, assuring your horse there’s nothing to fear.
4. Encourage him to relax.

Continue to work him in the comfort zone until he relaxes, complies with your cues and moves willingly. With both reins in direct-rein control, work toward the spook-producing spot performing the same maneuver to keep his mind off the scary spot and locked on you. Return to the comfort zone if he gets upset. Move closer to the scary object in small increments until you are next to it. If possible, move around the feared object (on both sides) to further build his confidence.
5. Work toward the scary stimuli.

When you reach the object, stop and allow your horse to rest near it. He might look at the object out of the corner of his eye, but use direct-rein pressure to prevent him from turning to look at it. Your goal is to convince him to trust your judgment — to accept your guidance over his fear. If you’ve done the exercise correctly, your horse should approach the object and stop without hesitation, because he’s confident and attentive to you. Now you’re ready to ride without reservation, because you have a sure-fire way to settle your spooky horse.
Learn more by reading Backcountry Basics: Your Guide to Solving Common Problems on the Trail by Mike Kinsey, with Jennifer Denison. Available on sale in our store!