Many horses can be called “spooky”, they over-react to harmless things in their environment – a blowing leaf, a flapping bag, a pole that is in a new location, or it may be completely unapparent what they are reacting to at all!
Riding and even just handling these horses can be frustrating, even for an experienced rider, as sudden spooks are a jolt to the nervous system, and when they happen frequently and unpredictably, they become all the more frustrating.
For a new rider, these sudden movements may be a real safety concern as they are developing the fundamental skills of balance for sticking with a horse moving slowly let alone one that is ducking and spinning!
How do we deal with spooking? Can the reactivity that causes it be improved?
In this article, I’m going to suggest four factors of spookiness and how we can work on each one.
The first is the horse’s balance and stability. Second is their personality – the part that is largely determined by genetics and breed. Third is their ability to think and process information about new and novel things. Fourth is their degree and frequency of exposure to those things.
1 – Balance and Stability
The body, or more specifically, the central nervous system, recognizes the critical importance of staying upright. It is part of basic survival instinct.
When the nervous system feels as though it is in constant danger of losing balance and falling it will be more alert and reactive to perceived threats.
A horse that does not have good balance, whose weight is not well distributed over the four feet, allowing muscles to relax, will be more on the alert than one who is able to stand and move securely.
There are many factors that can affect how balanced a horse is, from the health and care of their teeth and feet, to their level of training, and how physically comfortable they are with tack and a rider. Read more here on how posture and movement affect emotion for the horse.
The model describes five traits for personality, and since, as humans, we do share many basic structures of our brain with the horse, I believe we can use this model to better understand our horse’s personality.
The fifth trait on this list is Neurosis. Think of this as the degree of sensitivity of an individual. In the case of our horses, sensitivity varies with the individual, but there are certainly breed traits that play a role. The obvious example is that heavy draft breeds tend to be less sensitive than finely built Arabians. Some amount of emotional stability and sensitivity is genetic, unique to the individual, and will limited in how much it changes.
3 – Ability to Think
There is a phenomenon in brain science referred to as “learning to learn”. It means that as an individual learns, they don’t just learn that material or movement, but with repeated learning, they get better at the process itself.
This is true for humans and true for horses as well. In regards to spookiness, we can change a horse’s pattern of thinking in potentially scary situations.
Here is an example of how the thinking pattern can change. If we pair new (and perhaps previously scary) objects such as clippers, tarps, a strategically placed plastic bag, with something positive, such as a food reward for investigating that object, we teach the horse to approach new items with curiosity and positive expectancy instead of fear. The horse learns to make a conscious decision to use the higher regions of his brain to actively investigate the item instead of running off. We expand the connections in the horse’s brain for “investigating new things”.
We may not eliminate the startle response, but we can switch on the processing afterwards.
4 – Amount and Frequency of Exposure
Horses get used to objects or situations they are frequently exposed to.
Park the tractor in a new spot next to your horse’s pasture and he may run and snort the first few days he is turned out, but eventually – if the tractor does not hurt him or scare him – he will get used to it.
We could say that he has habituated to the tractor.
The process in which this happens is called desensitization. Many people connect the term desensitization with the old method of “sacking out”, which typically involved restraining a horse while repeatedly exposing them to whatever it was they were afraid of.
Horses generalize situations differently than people. We can learn quite quickly that a large red ball is a large red ball, regardless of whether it is located in the indoor or the outdoor arena. The horse may not make these generalizations as quickly, but through the learning processed I discussed above, he can adapt to new objects, different situations, and become more confident.
The more that “new” becomes routine for a horse, the less they will react to things new, different, or out of place.