Riding Tips

Understanding (and dealing with) the spooky horse

Herd running
Written by Aimee B.

How to Help Startled Horses

Do you have a horse that spooks easily? If so, you’re not alone! Horses are prey animals with a natural instinct to look for danger. This can often result in them spooking at even the most boring, everyday objects.

Read on to learn about why horses spook and what you can do to help prevent it. We’ll also provide some tips on how to handle a spooked horse.

Spooking Defined

Spooking can mean various movements ranging from bolting, rearing, moving quickly to the side, or even jumping in place. It happens when a horse is startled by something and reacts suddenly.

This “flight or fright” response has kept the horse species alive for centuries. But that doesn’t make it easy to deal with when you’re riding!

Equine Psychology 101

Horses are prey animals, meaning they have a natural instinct to look for danger. Known as the fight or flight response, a horse will have a natural urge to flee when it senses danger.

This reaction is hardwired into their brains and is meant to help them survive in the wild.

Horses aren’t equipped with sharp claws or teeth like predators. As prey animals, their primary mode of defense is speed. Although horses will rear, bite, or kick out when threatened, their go-to defense mechanism will always be to flee the object that frightens them.

What will startle a horse?

The short answer is that anything has the potential to startle a horse!

Anything unexpected or that makes a strange sound, or is otherwise odd, can spook a horse. That said, different horses have different thresholds for scary objects. Some may be described as “bomb proof,” which means almost nothing seems to startle them. Others are notoriously spooky.

Just for fun, let’s review a few of the things my high-strung Appendix Quarter Horse has spooked at:

  • Being saddled from the right instead of the left
  • Another horse, where we didn’t expect to see one
  • A bird, flying in the air (like birds do)
  • A repetitive noise that we only just noticed
  • A miniature horse that looked like a tiny carbon copy of him
  • And finally…seemingly nothing at all.
Horse at sunset

Photo Cred: Bottomless Backpacks

What does a horse do when it spooks?

A spook can range in severity from a horse carrying tension in its back to a full-out bolt. Rearing or bucking are other possible behaviors due to a spook.

You might notice some pre-spook behaviors such as an elevated headset, ears pricked forward at something, huffing or breathing out quickly, or the whites of the horse’s eyes showing.

Sometimes a horse will dart to one side or even whip a sudden 180-degree spin. In short, horses will move quickly to escape whatever it was that scared them in the first place.

How do you handle a spook?

If your horse does spook, it’s essential, albeit difficult, to remain calm. Getting upset or angry will only make the situation worse.

Instead, stay focused and consider what you need to do to keep yourself and your horse safe.

Here are a few tips for handling a spook:

  • Remain calm: as previously mentioned, getting upset will only worsen the situation. Try to take slow, deep breaths to help you stay calm.
  • Talk to your horse in a soothing voice: this can help reassure them and let them know everything is okay.
  • Keep your body language relaxed: horses are very good at reading body language. If you appear tense or nervous, it will only make them more agitated.
  • If you’re in the saddle during the spook, keep your horse’s feet moving: He can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, so if he’s concentrating on following your instructions, he can’t spook. Circles can be helpful!
  • Watch for situations that could cause a spook and ride proactively: If you’re coming up on a big, scary trash can, start asking your horse for a side pass. Or a half-halt. Or create a serpentine. Ask for any movement that tells your horse that you’re in charge, and the only thing he needs to worry about is your next cue.


Desensitization is simply the process of teaching your horse to accept whatever comes his way.

Through training, you can prepare your horse that scary things can come and go, but he doesn’t need to react to them.

How do you desensitize a nervous horse?

Desensitization involves exposing your horse to a variety of experiences. It’s traditionally done in the early stages of training a horse to accept a rider.

One of the first desensitization exercises often involves taking a blanket and rubbing it all over a horse’s body.

Once the horse accepts this, other materials such as a tarp or plastic garbage bag are used.

Desensitization work is often done on the ground and then progresses to the saddle. Although desensitization work can be done at home in your arena, trail riding presents further incredible desensitization opportunities.

Taking your horse off the property to shows or clinics is another excellent way to desensitize your horse to a variety of stimuli.

In general, the more varied experiences you can give your horse, the more he learns to accept these scenarios without bucking, bolting, or shying.

Desensitization is a life-long process requiring consistency. And every horse has a slightly different personality and level of reactivity. Although desensitization can tone a reaction down dramatically, some horses will simply always offer some level of response.

Horse cantering

Photo Cred: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What do you do when a horse spooks at nothing?

Always suspect pain or discomfort if your horse seems to spook at nothing. If you’ve ruled out issues with your horse’s teeth, back, or the saddle, determine whether there is any pattern to the spooking.

Does it always happen at the same place in the arena? Or when you walk by that barn sign?

Spooking at nothing out on the trail can mean your horse has caught the scent of a predator such as a mountain lion or bear.

Pay attention to the cues your horse gives in these situations, as listening to his instincts can mean distinguishing between a terrifying encounter with a wild animal and getting back safely to the campsite.

Q: How do I stop my horse from getting spooked?

It’s not always possible to prevent spooks. But by desensitizing your horse and teaching him that he can trust you as the leader, you can decrease the severity of a spook.

Be a proactive rider and learn to pick up on your horse’s cues. You can often prevent a more serious reaction by engaging him before a full-out spook.

Q: Can a spooky horse be fixed?

Through desensitization and training, you can reduce the severity of a spook. But horses are prey animals and will always have the basic instinct to flee from scary things. Some horses have a stronger flight instinct than others.

Despite all the training and desensitization in the world, some horses will be more reactive than others. It’s the level of reactivity that often contributes to incompatibility between individual horse and rider pairs.

Sometimes a more reactive horse can be intimidating to a more timid rider.

Seeking advice from a professional trainer is always best if you’re struggling with spookiness from your horse. Safety is always the first priority, and seeking outside help may be what you need to keep both you and your horse safe.

Parting Thoughts

Although spooking can be a reaction to something in the environment, it’s also possible that your horse has pain or discomfort somewhere and the pain was the actual cause of the spook. If your otherwise calm and collected horse is suddenly reacting to anything in his environment, it may be time to consult a professional.

Although spooking can be scary, you can take steps to minimize it. In helping your horse calm his nerves, you can also become a more confident rider.

All seriousness aside, the things our horses spook at can be pretty comical. As long as you and your horse stay safe, sharing your experience with other riders who understand can be one of the best ways to overcome it.

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About the author


Aimee grew up riding and showing in western pleasure and horsemanship through 4-H. She began riding dressage 7 years ago and is currently training her 3.5-year-old Friesian/Quarter Horse.