Decreasing Human Fear and Diminishing Spook in Horses


Guest post by Samantha Harvey, Alternative Horsemanship

Horses have tugged at the heartstrings of the human race for centuries. There is something awe inspiring about the emotional connection we share with horses.  That idyllic partnership is far easier imagined than experienced, with unexpected challenges and steep learning curves along the way.

For many women, time with their horse is used as an emotional outlet, or sanctuary from life’s demands. They tend to initially make emotionally-based decisions.  If they do not have the skills and ability to recognize when the horse is asking for help, things can quickly become overwhelming. 

Learning horse behavior can feel like watching a magician.  People enjoy the magic act, but they know that there is a “catch” or that something more is happening than what meets the eye, making the “trick” seem like magic.  The rational explanation shares how the trick works, dissolving the illusion of magic.

Effective Communication

People view horses in the same way.  They recognize more is happening than what they understand. If someone does not understand how to read the horse, or how to have effective communication with their horse, they can begin to feel at the mercy of their animal. 

These horse-led experiences whittle away at your confidence and ability to make immediate decisions, especially during stressful occasions.  You become defensive when handling your horse, creating anticipation in both you and your horse. Anticipation can trigger fear, complicating the human and horse partnership.  Unfortunately, it isn’t until things have gone really wrong, before most women seek guidance or help.

Avoid Ego-Based Instructors

Along the journey of horsemanship, finding a supportive coach or instructor can be another unexpected challenge.  Sadly, what I call “ego-based-training” options are a dime a dozen.  These teaching methods promise quick fixes with huge initial appeal to the riding community.  But these approaches tend to leave holes in the human’s and horse’s education.

Trainers and Coaches Must Be Adaptable

Here are some common scenarios with instructors who try to get things done “quickly” versus with quality.

Instructors or trainers that lack the ability to appropriately adapt how they present quality information limit the usefulness of the instruction they share. Professionals unable to clarify details with the specifics of how, why, when, and what, leave room for misinterpretation. 

The teacher who rushes the student, or is degrading or abrasive in their tactics, increases stress levels in the student. This can lead to an overwhelming, emotionally draining experience, increasing the student’s concern and fear, rather than decreasing it. 

Trying to function with these emotions, and anticipating continual critique from the instructor, affects both the human and horse’s mental availability. Anticipation leads to anxiety and stress

Emotions Inhibit Learning

If you experience these emotions while attempting to learn, how much can you actually absorb?  Afterwards, will you be capable of retaining the knowledge and applying it when working with your horse on your own? 

Along with these emotions, other factors such as physical limitations due to age, worries about potentially getting hurt, etc. can weigh heavily on the mind of novice adults and returning adult riders alike. And so the vicious cycle begins.  Humans and horses become wary of one another, with anticipation, defensiveness and fear about the upcoming experience.

The dream of an emotional connection with this majestic animal unravels into a reality of anxiety and turmoil.  And yet, if you learned the necessary skills, like how to support your horse instead of challenge your horse, these experiences could be avoided altogether.

Handling Horses that Spook

So that brings me to one of the most common fear-triggering experiences for riders, and one of the most undesired behaviors in the horse: “How do I get my horse to quit spooking?”  In terms of a spook or dangerous behavior, the question focuses on the undesired physical outcome.

This is like looking at a car crash and saying “I wish that didn’t happen,” rather than ask, “What factors contributed to the car crash, and were any preventable?” Such as having bad brakes, a loose steering column, or if someone was distracted while driving…

After ruling out potential pain factors or health issues in the horse, (which are frequent contributors to dangerous horse behavior), you can change your focus from the negative and unwanted physical movement, to a positive approach that creates a mental willingness and availability in the horse.  This influences a shift in the energy, mindfulness, and presence of any woman working with a horse. 

Stay Ahead of the Spook

Change the focus from trying to fix or contain the symptom (the spook) by exploring the potential root causes.  Rather than waiting to offer your opinion until the moment of peak stress level, offer input proactively. Your goal is to decrease the potential mental and emotional buildup in the horse that leads to over-reactive-ness.

What do I mean by proactive? If you began each session by assessing the horse from the moment you arrive in the pasture, stall or paddock, you learn to read your horse’s mental and emotional starting point for the day.  This “tells” you what you need to do in that session to influence a shift in his thought and body. By addressing the horse’s brain before his body, you can figure out when and why subtle shifts in behavior appear as a result of your horse’s concern.

Fast Feet – Fast Brain

If a horse is stressed on the inside, his brain is far away from his body and he can seem very distracted; unable to acknowledge your presence.  A common approach in this scenario is making the horse move more and faster, thinking this will help his focus; “I will make him move his feet to get his brain with me.”

By doing this, people are actually “filling” their horse’s cup of what he can handle until it becomes too full. Then “all of a sudden” the horse spooks, explodes, etc. Of course, it wasn’t all of a sudden at all.

If you slow down and learn to interpret your horse’s behavior, even in the most “boring” scenarios, you’ll begin to notice the emotions your horse may be experiencing, even if he isn’t acting big and dramatic.

The little hurry in his walk, the busy-ness with his head when standing still, the constant movement or swinging of his hind end when groomed and tacked, the tension in his jaw, neck and back as the saddle goes on, the inability to stand for mounting, locking up his body and unwilling to be led forward, the pulling or heaviness on the lead rope or rein, etc.

Unwanted Behaviors are Symptoms

None of those seemingly insignificant, unwanted behavioral physical resistances are the issue. They telegraph a horse’s fear, worry, anticipation, etc. When he is bothered on the inside, he gets physically more dramatic on the outside. Traditionally, folks are taught to ignore the busy-ness, “Oh, they just do that,” or reprimand it; lunge, desensitize, etc.

What does this teach the horse? When he is having a problem, or is concerned, he either is ignored, or reprimanded and may even have more pressure forced upon him at the moment of his discomfort. So what happens in the future?

When your horse is bothered on the inside, he gets physically more dramatic on the outside.

Each time your horse’s cup starts filling, does he look to you for guidance? No. He “handles it” by getting bigger, faster and increasingly frantic, as he reaches a point of being overwhelmed. I see it ALL the time. It doesn’t matter the breed, training, background or discipline. People are “taught” to ignore the horse until they can’t. 

Samantha Harvey

Are You Overwhelming Your Horse?

This isn’t about repeating something mindlessly over and over. Repetition can do two things, it either causes your horse to mentally shut down and check out – seemingly quiet – until you change something and he “suddenly blows up,” or you continue putting him in overwhelming scenarios that overwhelm his mind (i.e. then the spook happens.)

So what can you do?  Start the conversation and strengthen your foundation before emotions build up in your horse.  Learn how to address the horse’s brain first. Help him learn to look where he is going (folks are amazed by how many horses never literally see what is in front of them due to anticipation), before he moves.

Reassess both his and your understanding of pressure and how you communicate from the ground. Can you influence his brain, then his movement? Does he mentally check in with you by habit, or is his brain a half mile away from his body? If he isn’t mentally able to “hear” you, and he is defensive towards how you communicate, his stress will continually increase. Once overwhelmed, your horse will literally run away from it.

Set Personal Goals

Some personal goals to consider:

  • Rather than focusing on the obvious – his movement, start to focus on subtle behavioral nuances your horse offers regarding his mental and emotional state.
  • Find a quality trainer (this can take a lot of effort) to help you learn this approach and who can teach you how to have a respectful conversation with your horse.
  • Learn to believe the horse when he shows initial concern.
  • Learn how to support your horse mentally through his worry and bother, rather than just containing him physically.

Eliminate Reactionary Behavior

As your skills develop, you will learn to read your horse, recognizing his thoughts before he commits to a behavior.  This eliminates the “wondering when he will do something” or the “suddenly” moments and builds your confidence.  The horse will learn to think through bothersome moments and to “check in” with you, offering you an opportunity to direct how he should handle it.  This increases your safety and decreases the chance of dramatic reactionary behavior.

Offering this support and clearly thinking through the unknown lets the horse learn how to physically soften in moments of insecurity or stress, rather than build in defensiveness and tightness.  When he learns to relax through your guidance, his defensive reactivity will decrease, without you “making” him do anything. The more thoughtful and confident the horse is, the less reactive or “spooky” his behavior.

No Quick Fixes

This isn’t a quick fix. It requires your commitment and mental presence.  Learning to have emotional empathy and offering clear leadership allows you to accurately evaluate your partnership with your horse. In the long run, you’ll gain clarity, positive leadership skills, timely decision making abilities, effective communication, and participate in the partnership by supporting your horse, clearing the way to the amazing, emotionally fulfilling moments we all dream about.

Learn more about Samantha Harvey HERE

Photographs on this post provided by Samatha Harvey.

Related post: Why Your Spooky or Balky Horse May Not Really Be Afraid

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Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber is a best-selling Christian author, speaker, and coach who helps people accomplish God's unique purpose for them and advance His kingdom on earth. She's also a retired World and National Champion horse trainer and breeder.

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber is a best-selling Christian author, speaker, and coach who helps people accomplish God's unique purpose for them and advance His kingdom on earth. She's also a retired World and National Champion horse trainer and breeder.

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