bend away from spooky object
Bend away from objects and go! Photo Credit:NBanaszak Photography

You're probably familiar with that horse-eating monster in the corner of the arena. You know - the invisible one that pops up even after passing that spot for the 100th time!

Or it might get even better. After going by without a thought for the past fifteen minutes, your horse suddenly decides that the invisible monster just showed up this moment! And you're stuck riding the spook rather than riding your plan (hopefully, you are riding and not on the ground).

In any case, your horse might spook at imaginary objects. He might spook at real objects - as in, the jumps that were moved around and put back differently than the day before. Or he might spook at a sound - no object needed!

The spook can be a problem not only in terms of the potential danger it might cause to you and your horse. Even if it is just a mild side-step or a dropped shoulder to the inside of the ring, your ride can be affected as well.

Your horse will likely drop his back and increase in tension through the body. He might lift his head and look at the offending objects, or step away without even looking. The tempo might be affected and you might find yourself becoming more of a reactive rider than you would like, waiting to see what happens and then trying to fix it after the spook.

What to do?

Always be safe! If you feel that you or your horse are not in a safe situation, take steps to de-escalate the situation. Tone down the ride, avoid the area, get off and work from the ground. Always be super-vigilant about safety for both of you. The solution below might not work for everyone in every scenario. Use your common sense or get help from a professional.

The following solution is a long-term "fix". It is not intended to give you a one-off, on-the-spot result. The horse's response will take time to develop, but if you stick with this routine in every spook situation (assuming you are safe enough), you will actually be able to teach your horse what to do when he feels like he should scoot, balk or deek sideways.

Step 1.

Do not look at the offending corner or object!

Most of us tend to have our attention attracted to whatever the horse is looking at. As John Lyons has often said, you end up spooking right along with your horse, since now both of you end up looking at the horse-eating monster! Your horse says, let's get outta here! And your body says, wow that is a scary horse-eating monster! And you both end up feeding each other's spook.

So first off, assuming you know what your horse is looking at, look the other way - preferably to the middle of the ring, where there is absolutely nothing to gawk at and everything appears to be calm and boring.

Step 2.

Encourage your horse to do the same.

This is where your bend aids come handy. Turn your own body to the inside. Use your inside seat bone and leg to ask for the bend. You can even do a small leg yield out (yes, in the direction of the monster) assuming that your horse is looking to the inside away from what he is scared of.

Take up just enough contact so that you have clear communication, and so that you can stop any dangerous movements. Try not to pull back. Stabilize your elbows so you don't pull, and keep your rein length consistent as you bend your horse.

Use your inside rein to help with flexion and get the horse's eyes looking toward the middle of the ring. Use your outside rein as a neck rein to prevent the horse from drifting too far out.

Step 3. 

Go straight.

Well, straight on the turn or bend. So the body stays bent, but the front legs should only go where you want them to. No side stepping. No stopping. Just GO!

Give the horse a way out - straight ahead.

You can give an inch in your elbows to free the horse's front end slightly (not a lot, especially if he feels like he is going to fly sideways) to encourage the forward movement.

Step 4.

Half-halt.

Here comes the half-halt! Just as in any other movement or transition, use the half-halt after the "go" to control the amount of leg speed and impulsion. Make sure you are committed to the horse's movement. If the horse lurches forward, go with him and then control through the half-halts. Do everything you can to not pull on the mouth or jerk the reins or in any way cause discomfort to the horse's tongue or bars of the mouth.

The resulting picture should be that the horse stays on the path you sent him on. He might spook up a storm, but his legs keep going exactly where they were going in the first place. The horse might tense a bit but as you bend him toward the middle of the ring, he should calm down and settle in his gait. If he learns to go when you ask him to, his rhythm should stay even and his pace should stay unhurried. 

And then it looks like there was no spook at all. In the long run, your horse might even learn to not spook because there is nothing to spook at in the first place. 

Remember that this is a lesson - it's a learning process that will take many repetitions for both of you to master, especially if your horse is used to spooking fairly regularly. It's not a quick fix and there is a fair amount of learning that must take place on your part until you can communicate it effectively to your horse. 

At the beginning, accept any reduction in the spook as an improvement. Over time, you can expect less and less evidence of a spook. Always encourage your horse with your voice, a light pat with your inside hand, or a change of topic after passing the spooky area. 

Good luck and remember to be safe!

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How to “Fill Up” Your Outside Rein for A True Neck Rein: Regardless of the style of riding, the neck rein can and should be used for basic communication.

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13 Comments

  1. This is a great article with real strategies to manage the spooky corner. Thank you. I wish I had read this two years ago when my elementary dressage horse was in permanent spook mode (later found out he had bilateral cataracts forming). Too old to bounce then and now… I am riding a younger bigger horse now and admit I am lacking confidence as a consequence of the falls I had from the old boy. Now I have some tools in the box to use with my lovely Andalusian filly who is much less spooky than my retired gentleman. Lois

  2. This is amazing. We have the same invisible gremlins at our barn. Luckily my horse is smart enough to detect these pests and fly through the air, jumping perpendicularly with the greatest of ease at great rates of speed to save the two of us. She will even save us right in the middle of a dressage test, what a good girl. With my inability to detect these dangerous horses eating rascals, I am sooooooooooooo lucky to have such a devoted horse. So I don’t think this post applies to my steadfast trusty mount. HA, HA, HA

  3. Remember that to “show your horse a way out,” you need to direct your eyes to show your horse where you want them to go. Works In The saddle as well as on the ground.

  4. I can tell right away when my horse is going to fixate on the spooky open door that has been closed for the past 6 months. The technique you describe does indeed work, and we have utilized it together now enough times for “Miss Sassypants” to know that yes, she can go forward and away from the situation without going nuts at the same time.

  5. These techniques are very similar to what I have been using lately (with success) on my hot horse who formerly spooked at the doors in the indoor arena. Here’s what I’ve been doing:
    1. I Keep him “on the bit” (pushing gently forward and reaching into the contact).
    2. I Encourage him to go forward well BEFORE he reaches the scary door (not just at the last second).
    3. I look PAST the door, usually into the next corner.
    4.I Keep him on both reins but especially on the outside rein, never just on the inside rein (the side away from the door). If he turns his head to look, I keep contact with both reins, never letting the outside rein drop. I supple with the inside rein.
    5. As I approach and pass the scary door, I press gently with my inside leg at the girth and open with my outside leg/thigh, giving him an easy place to go: slightly TOWARD and past the door. At the same time, without losing contact (very, very important), I “allow” him to stretch forward and down into my outside rein and supple gently with my inside rein, and gently flex his head toward the inside (away from the door).
    6. I praise him BEFORE, during, and after passing the scary door.
    7. My mental attitude is to convey to him that I’ve got this all taken care of, that we are going THERE (somewhere PAST the door), and that it’s a nice relaxing place to be. I “relax” him past the door while keeping him forward and thus giving him confidence.

  6. The advice is consistent with what I’ve been told for a long time, but I was hoping to read something new and magical here. I’ve been working on the spook for 7 years with several different trainers, but it’s only getting worse with time. An explosive split-second drop and spin, and boom, I’m in the dirt before I even know what’s happened. My mare is 21 and I think her eyesight has been failing. I know how the poor thing feels! To stay safe, (away from the scary corners and doors) we can only use about 1/2 of the ring now. It’s a good thing I love her so much — I really am far too old to keep hitting the ground!

  7. Check your horse’s vision! As others have noted, poor vision often makes horses extremely reactive to things that aren’t really there. I have two vision-impaired horses. They react totally differently because one only has limited (and failing) central vision and the other has only peripheral vision.

    Good point made: Be safe. This plan makes sense for horses with excellent bridle skills and a habit of responsiveness to the usual aids. Restricting rein length and adding pressure with legs or seat could escalate problems on a horse with less developed habits. Regardless of how a horse has been training lately, pressure-packed situations always bring out the strongest habit, not the most recent lessons.

    Additional point: If you see something you think might spook your horse LOOK directly at it and let your horse know, “I see it. It’s not a problem. Now that we’ve cleared that up let’s get on with business.” Add support. Add authority. If you haven’t “lied” to your horse in the past he will usually continue without spooking. (Or react ever so slightly just to test you…) Horses spook at objects they didn’t expect (whether the expectation seems reasonable to us or not) or because they think it will get them out of work.

    Respond to your horse rather than react to what he does. Knowing when to change up your plan or press onward is an art – not something you learn from reading a book.

  8. Any equally great tips for when the boogy man/ghost/monster or rabbit jumps out while riding outside? Also what to do (apart from praying or using tender loving words directed at horse) when 1/2 off & it hurts way too much when landing?

  9. P.S. I can handle the arena ones, but the trail ones are the ones I don’t know are coming until either too late, or almost too late?
    Thanks for ANY suggestions

    1. Cathy, out in the big world there are lots of things to distract a horse and send it packing for the hills. My horses are totally comfortable with “support reins” – which means shortening up snaffle-bit reins so there is the lightest of contact on either side. We practice moving at all gaits through cones and corners, alternating loose rein and support reins. Being able to hug your horse with your legs is also something practiced. When legs and reins are supportive they create a cocoon of contact. Whenever I trail ride I alternate between loose reins and the “cocoon” as a matter of habit. If I think we’re entering an area that might have horse-eaters (thick trees where deer or birds could leap out or rotten slippery footing) I simply pick up the reins, add supportive leg, and we practice the cocoon. It’s a place of security for the horse.

      If your horse does startle you can either calm with the cocoon (don’t lock hands or legs into a death-grip) and then either stop or press forward into a new “exercise.” The important element is making this a familiar habit for both you and your horse. He needs to relax into supportive reins and legs with muscle memory – so panic doesn’t kick in when he suddenly feels pressure on rein or rib.

      One-rein stops only work when horses (and riders) respond from habit, not conscious obedience. There isn’t a lot of thought-processing when a horse spooks. Habit kicks in. Making the “cocoon” a habit gives you far more tools than a simple one rein stop and gives you a lot better chance to keep your horse straight and balanced.

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