All horses spook at some point; more so when young and inexperienced. Even so-called bomb-proof horses will spook at something new. The instinct is intrinsic in their genetics as they are prey animals – run first ask questions later. Unfortunately, this reaction can be dangerous to someone who might be either riding the horse or even leading them. The majority of equine related injuries are due to a horse spooking.
When horses spook their first instinct is to move as far away from the unknown as fast as they can. Some horses become so frightened that running is secondary to totally flipping out (i.e. bucking, rearing, scooting). If a rider is trotting along in a relaxed manner, or even cantering up a hill only to scare into flight a flock of turkeys, there can be some serious consequences.
There are several ways to teach your horse how to rationally deal with sudden scary situations. First of all, you as a rider must remain calm and think clearly. This can often be difficult when dealing with a frightened horse, as you are afraid of being injured. However, the calmer you remain, the better you and your horse will handle the situation.
Secondly, horses tend to run from the unknown. As soon as possible make your horse face this big unknown. Most often it will immediately calm him down as he recognizes the object of his former fright as nothing more than a white rock, sunshine on a log, a vehicle or maybe even a person walking toward him on a trail. Meeting up with an ATV on the trail can lead to disaster as the noise and quick movement will cause your horse to react negatively. Sometimes turning to face this fear can cause more fear; the horse proceeds to rear, buck and otherwise flip out. At this point getting off might be a good idea as your fear will feed the situation. When your horse sees you near the ATV, unflinching, he will more quickly accept the situation.
To teach a horse to spook without all the antics he will need to be conditioned to not only trust you, but to face his fears, take note of the source, recognize the source and then calmly continue.
The best means of teaching a horse to accept new things is for him to be with another horse who is quiet and has already learned how to approach the unknown. However, if you don’t have this luxury do the following:
Begin with a minor fear, such as an unmoving ATV. Lead your horse to it calmly. Place some treats on it and allow your horse to take the treats. Lead him away and back several times until he no longer shows any ear flicking, eagerly moving toward it expecting to receive treats. Next turn on the vehicle, repeating the process. Once your horse fully accepts this, have someone move the ATV a little, gradually increasing the movement as the horse accepts and relaxes at the sight and sounds of the vehicle. Finally, get on your horse and ride him toward an idling ATV. Have the person on the vehicle give him treats. At this point your horse will identify the ATV as a treat dispenser and like to see it instead of trying to run from it. This can be a far safer reaction when on a trail and meeting up with an ATV, or that sunshine on a log.
Repeating this process with each new fearful object or situation will teach your horse to turn and face the fear, stare at it to see if it is something dangerous to him and then move forward to investigate it. This is far safer than flipping out and taking off, helping you to relax as you ride, further enhancing the trust between you and your horse.