We’ve all seen horses spook at things before. It is usually an unpleasant experience for both the horse and rider/handler. Luckily there are ways that you can diminish the chances of your horse spooking by building up his trust and confidence.
First let’s talk a little bit about why horses spook. Horses are prey animals which means that they are constantly on the look out for danger. This instinctual nervousness is how they survive in nature. In a herd of horses, even domestic groups, there is usually one horse who is the leader of the herd. This horse is responsible for ensuring the safety of all of the other horses in the herd by watching out for danger. The other horses are then able to relax because they trust their leader to watch out for them.
When we are working with or riding a horse we need to assume that role of herd leader. When a horse accepts us as his leader, he is going to trust us to take care of him. When something makes him nervous, he is going to look to his leader for guidance. If his leader remains calm, then he will remain calm. If his leader becomes nervous, then he will become nervous. This is why it is important to remain calm when your horse is afraid of something. If a horse does not feel that you are a strong enough leader, then he is going to assume that role himself in order to protect himself. This means that he will constantly be looking for danger and will always be on alert. This is what leads to spooking and skittish horses. Only when you establish yourself as a leader that your horse can trust will he be able to relax.
Doing ground work with your horse is the best way to establish his trust in you. There are a variety of exercises you can do such as lunging, work in hand, desensitizing, and liberty work. I advise you to seek the help of a trainer before attempting any of these. A good trainer will be able to help you determine what exercises would be best for your individual horse.
Once you have established your horse’s trust, begin to expose him to new things. This can be anything you can think of- taking him outside of the arena, dogs, cars driving by, flags, plastic bags, loud noises, other horses, the possibilities are endless. The more you can expose your horse to, the more confident he will become. Again I advise you to work with a trainer or knowledgeable horse person to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
If your horse does start to become nervous it is important that you calmly take control of the situation. Gives the horse something to think about to help refocus his attention on you. This could be doing work in hand, asking him to circle or back up, or asking him for a shoulder-in, which has the added benefit of preventing him from being able to bolt. The goal is to get the horse’s attention back on you, quickly and calmly so that he learns there is nothing to be afraid of.
With patience and consistency, you will find that you have a horse that looks to you as his leader and trusts you to take care of him.