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Understanding the Horse’s Fear Response: Spooking, Bolting, etc.

The Horse’s Fear Response

The horse’s fear response has been an important survival mechanism for them. But when riding and training our horses, fear is one of our biggest adversaries. The vast majority of accidents with horses are due to the horse being afraid and responding to that fear through bolting, bucking, jumping to the side, leaping forward, kicking, striking, rearing, etc. Horses are hard-wired for fear, they evolved to either run from predators, throw them from their backs with a strong buck, or stand and fight them through striking and kicking.

As riders and horse owners, we may have many questions about handling this emotional response from our horses. What causes fear? How do I know if my horse is afraid before it escalates to dangerous levels? How can I calm him? Is there a way to prevent unpredictable behaviors resulting from fear? If I am a better leader will my horse will my horse recognize there is nothing to be afraid of?

When a horse acts in fear, they become very unpredictable. They may run into their handler, ignore the rider’s aids, and in cases of complete panic may even run through fences or crash into jumps as their brain is under the control of stress chemicals and the horse’s perception of other things in the environment is diminished. In order to keep ourselves and our horses safe, understanding fear, recognizing it, and looking to reduce or eliminate the fear while controlling the movement of the horse is critical.

What is a Fear Response?


The flight response is variable.

The characteristics of a fear response are fight, flight, or freeze. In the horse, flight is the most readily used response. Flight does not always mean bolting away in complete panic, however. As Dr. Andrew Mclean states in his article Fear Principle, “the flight response is extremely variable… it can be fully on or partially on.” Flight can be as simple as attempting to increase the distance between the horse and the object of fear. It may be a head shy horse raising their head, or a horse jumping to the side in a spook. Flight can be a horse constantly going too fast, or rushing towards jumps.

Other signs of fear or tension include tail swishing, high head carriage, a hollow back, teeth grinding, or refusal to move – known as freezing.

Prevent the Horse from Practicing Fear

We know that learning is much stronger when emotion is involved, and fear is one of the strongest emotions that we, and our horses, can experience. For survival reasons, fear responses are learned very quickly. If a horse learns that flight in any form can remove him from the source of fear he will continue to repeat the behavior and may use the flight behavior in more situations. This is why, in our training and riding, it is important to first, not use fear as a training tactic, and two, not allow repetition of fear responses removing the horse from the source of his fear, whether that is spooking, running forwards, rushing fences, or even jumping sideways away from fly spray or a water hose.

Allowing repeated fear responses essentially practices these behaviors. Instead, when we notice the horse becoming more worried, we should use a method of desensitization or habituation to ease the fear while controlling the horse. This requires both a knowledge of desensitization techniques as well as skill from the handler or rider. (In next week’s article, we will discuss desensitization.)

Many of us who own horses have limited knowledge of their lives and behavior before we came to know them. This means we may not fully understand the source of some of their behaviors because when a horse learns a fear response, it is always there. We may train new behaviors in its place and desensitize the horse to what initially caused his fear, but we cannot undue the response he learned and we can never be sure that it will not come back. This extra quick learning of fear responses is called “one-trial learning” and is another important survival mechanism for the horse. However, dealing with these responses is the reality of riding on the back of a large animal with a brain that stores memories and processes emotion in ways not that different from us.

If Our Horse Trusts Us as a Leader, Will They Learn Not to be Afraid?

I have often overheard or been asked the question, “if I am a good enough leader for my horse, will he no longer be afraid in new or frightening situations as long as I am present and calm?”

Horses can learn to trust us if we are consistent and fair, and our relationship will certainly be much better if they form good associations with our presence, instead of associating us with fear, pain, or tension.

I believe we do have to be careful how we think about “leadership” when handling our horses, and you can read more about that here. Our ability to stay calm will help our horse to be more calm as well, but more importantly, staying calm allows us to assess the situation and respond appropriately. However, the expectation that our calm presence alone will always keep our horse relaxed and quiet is bound to set us up for disappointment.

How do we Prevent Fear Responses?

There are three basic steps we need to take in order to help our horses perform the correct behaviors and avoid inadvertently teaching the horse to use his fear responses. These are:

  1. Train the correct response to all the aids, so that each part of the horse’s body is under control from cues by the rider
  2. Build repetition and value for performing these correct responses
  3. Do not allow successful reinforcement of fear behaviors, especially flight behaviors

Understanding desensitization, or the process of helping a horse get used to things that scare him, is also an important part of training and preventing dangerous fear responses. We will discuss four methods of desensitization in next week’s article.



Mclean, Andew. Fear Principle.

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