Solving Spooking


by Linda Parelli

This article was originally published in the May 2009 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.

If you were a prey animal and knew that other animals hunted you for food, wouldn’t you be alert to every little noise or unexpected movement in the bushes? Just try walking through the bad part of town and you’ll start to feel what the horse feels! Danger is lurking, and every hair on your body is standing on end in an effort to detect and react to that danger as quickly as possible. Your survival depends on it.

The intensity of a horse’s fear is such an easy thing to forget when he spooks – it scares us, it’s frustrating, seems unpredictable and can be very dangerous. The more unsafe the horse feels, the more he spooks, which means the safer he feels, the less he will spook. It is up to us to teach our horse to feel safe when in our presence no matter what else is going on. Gradually this will affect him in other parts of his life as he becomes a more confident, trusting and settled animal.

The horse is one of the best, most successful prey animals on the planet. He has survived millions of years of predation with his capacity to detect danger, his lightning-fast reflexes and his ability to outrun predators. Being spooky is critical to survival in the wild, but it is often the reason people lose confidence and sell their horses. Yet with a little savvy you can help that spooky horse be your perfect partner.

The Wrong Thing at the Right Time

How we react is going to either help the situation or make it progressively worse, because the horse is not only scared of the thing that’s spooking him; he’s also scared of the thing on his back.

Spooking is a reaction that scares us, too. We don’t want to fall off, so we grab on for dear life, quickly gripping with our legs and pulling back on the reins. In this moment, nothing could be worse for the horse, because it feels as if a lion has jumped on his back—the claws are in, he can’t run away, he’s being dragged to a stop, he’s totally trapped, and for sure his life is about to end.

There are two aspects to solving the problem of spooking. You need to know what to do and what not to do in the moment. But even more important is how to prepare your horse so he doesn’t feel the need to spook.

What NOT to Do

  • Don’t pull on the reins.

When a horse feels the need to flee, holding him back can cause total panic. Obviously you don’t want to be run off with, but there is something better to do.

  • Don’t chastise the horse and think he’s acting like an idiot. “What? It’s just a stump!”

When you growl at your horse or punish him, it makes him afraid of you and confirms that you are a predator.

  • Don’t make him go up to it in order to prove to him that it’s not scary!

If you were afraid of a snake and someone was pushing you toward it, would that help? No! Same with horses. But horses do not have the capacity to reason the way we do. They spot an unusual shape, and it means danger. They don’t realize it’s the same bucket that was there yesterday but now is tipped over. They just know that something in the environment changed, and this could mean danger. Horses are incredibly perceptive. As you help them to become braver you will not change their perceptiveness, but you will change the intensity of their reaction.

Success with a spooky horse starts with total understanding and freedom from judgment, because he needs our leadership and protection and to not feel additionally threatened by us. From there we can start to increase a horse’s confidence so he can act more like a trusting partner instead of a prey animal who is literally scared for his life.

What to Do When Your Horse Spooks

As with just about everything Parelli, watch what everyone does and do the opposite!

  • Point your horse’s nose toward the danger, but allow him to drift sideways or backward.

Do not push him toward it in any way. When facing the danger he cannot take off in blind panic. Even if he goes backward pretty quickly, it’s a lot slower than a gallop!

  • Remain calm.

Remember that you are supposed to be a leader, and your horse has to be able to depend on you. If you get scared, it’s going to scare him threefold! Learning how to manage your own emotions is critical. First you have to not react, and then you have to do the right thing.

  • Stay balanced without gripping.

It helps to push on the base of your horse’s neck, which will anchor you and loosen your legs automatically.

  • Use one rein for control if things get really bad.

This is an emergency one-rein stop. When you bring your horse’s head to your toe you can stop him more effectively and safely than if you pull back on two reins.

  • Get off if necessary.

A scared horse is a dangerous horse. Get off quickly and then help your horse to calm down.

Act as if nothing happened rather than make a fuss and force him to go up to the scary thing.

  • Commit to better preparation for a better future.

Take the time and make the effort to teach your horse to become calmer and braver so he is more confident in himself, in you and in his environment.

Calmer, Smarter, Braver

Repetition, approach and retreat are the keys for desensitizing a horse and building his confidence, but the real secret is preparation. Confidence is about being prepared for the unthinkable. Every day that you play with your horse you need to be doing something in some way that improves his confidence.

Some horses are not very spooky at all (usually Left-Brain horses), but you still need to improve their confidence as insurance for the future.

Here are some ideas for developing your horse’s confidence:

  • Teach your horse the Seven Games. This gives you a language with which to communicate, and it establishes your leadership in a 51:49 partnership. The Seven Games are applied through Parelli Patterns, and together they create positive behavioral changes in your horse and advance your horsemanship and leadership skills. All are important for overcoming spooking.
  • Respect fear thresholds. When your horse hesitates and won’t go forward it is usually because he’s afraid. Rather than force him forward, retreat and reapproach the threshold until he offers to cross it without fear.
  • Develop the extreme Friendly Game. Can you get to where your horse stands relaxed and calm while you whirl your Carrot Stick and string around (overhead like a noisy helicopter, slapping the ground all around him)? Use approach and retreat over many sessions, getting stronger, then softer, stronger, softer, but maintaining the same rhythm. If you stop when your horse reacts, you’ll teach him to react. Keep going; just get softer or move away some, and pretty soon your horse will learn to not worry.

Important: Learn when your horse is calm versus frozen in fear. Look for soft eyes, regular breathing, level head, no tension in flanks or neck, as opposed to staring eyes, irregular breathing, a high head or really low head, tense neck and flanks, which will tell you that he’s actually still worried.

  • Send him over tarps, under tarps and through narrow squeezes. Using the Squeeze Game pattern – going back and forth, back and forth – is very calming for a horse, and when you do it near the object he’s afraid of you’ll find that he may get curious and want to go up to it, which is great so long as it is his idea!
  • Following is a great way to build a horse’s confidence. For example, if he is afraid to step on the tarp, simply drag it around until he tries to catch up to it, sniff it and step on it. Same with fear of vehicles or dogs or bicycles – as long as it’s going away from him, he’ll get the courage to go toward it, and pretty soon it won’t matter what angle it comes from – it won’t bother him.
  • Bring his energy up sometimes while playing with him on the ground, urging him to gallop, such as on a 45-foot Line or in big corral at Liberty, and then help him calm down by gradually focusing him on a task, such as putting his foot on something. This is about expanding his emotional fitness so he can think even though his adrenaline is up.
  • Put a plastic bag on the end of your Carrot Stick like a flag, and cut the end open so it doesn’t balloon up. Ask a friend to sit on a chair or log and gently rattle the flag while you play with your horse. At first he’s going to be distracted and afraid, but the key is to ignore it. Gradually your horse will get more focused on the task you’re giving him and ignore the commotion, too. Do this every day for seven days in a row and then keep it up a couple of days a week until your horse doesn’t even give it a second look. (Using a Parelli Pattern such as Figure 8 or 180s is a good idea.)
  • Teach your horse to bend to a stop with one rein from the walk, trot and canter. Try not to release the rein until he calms down, and pretty soon it will actually become a calming exercise. (Note – Do not force or fight your horse. Take the time it takes and help him to learn it as a skill.)
  • Take every opportunity to help your horse become braver. Whenever he is worried about something, practice the different things to do: Turn his nose toward it and let him drift; give him a task or pattern to do to change his focus; bend him to a stop and get off; play the Squeeze Game near it; follow it. Stay cool, calm and collected yourself.

Building a horse’s bravery takes time and repetition, and it is our responsibility to help our prey animal trust our decisions and adapt to the environment, not live in fear.

Work on your own emotional fitness and develop appropriate reactions:

  • Think before you act or react.

We should always remember that the horse is a prey animal that will default to fear, and that we are a predator who defaults to fight. A technique we teach when a horse does the opposite of what you want is to say “How interesting!” It helps you to think before you act instead of reacting, and in this way you’re more likely to do the right thing for the horse in the moment. As you practice something as simple as this, you are practicing keeping your cool when a horse spooks.

  • Improve your skills.

How quickly can you reach down one rein, bend your horse and step off (without falling over!)? This needs to become second nature, so automatic that you can do it as a positive reaction in a negative situation—a situation in which you don’t have time to think.

Under stress you are likely to do what you have been programmed to do, so this little safety drill is a great program to install. Most people clamp onto a scared horse because their program says “Stay on no matter what!” That’s how you get hurt. Change your program and change your results.

How Will Things Change?

Some horses will completely stop their spooking, while others will just spook a lot less. For example, instead of jumping out of their skin and changing counties, they will flinch and cock one ear at the object and the other at you, as if to say, “Should we be worried?” And you’ll reply, “Nah, it’s just a stump,” and sail on by.

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