Why Your Spooky or Balky Horse May Not Really Be Afraid

Journey photo close up

It’s not nice to tattle, but I’m gonna do it anyway. My horse, Journey, is such a goof that I had to share it with you. For no apparent reason he balked on his first real trail ride, so I’m tattling on him. Shockingly, I had the presence of mind to take a couple of pictures (which seldom happens.) Read on, the photos are included.

The Beginning of This Horse – Human Relationship

Richard, a six-year old Appaloosa gelding, joined our family in the summer of 2015. At first blush, our spotted kill-pen rescue needed boatloads of groceries, vaccinations and worming, basic hide and skin care, and a trimming program to address hooves that almost kissed in the front, giving the impression that Richard was a narrow-chested zipper horse, estimated online as 13.2 hands tall. The picture reflected a stocky well-fed horse. The older I get the more I appreciate a short distance from ground to stirrup, so I was thrilled with his height and substance.

While quarantined, I visited Richard every day, letting him know I would be there no matter what, testing what he knew, what was okay, and what wasn’t. In the first few days I got my hands on him, lightly touching, moving, asking, and supporting. I also did a quick trim on his front feet, removing some of the extended hoof wall so he would be more comfortable. His back feet weren’t immediately available, so I skipped those.

I figured my zipper horse was shorted on his nutrition and would probably catch up, which he did. In his first two months with us he grew two inches in height and is a sturdy-built model. He’s now closer to 15 hands than 13.2, but that’s okay. He wears it well.

A Bundle of Nerves with an Appaloosa Ego

Richard was nervous. Not big-time spooky, but flinchy and uncertain. My new spotted horse was twitchy and concerned, but tried to smother it with Appaloosa cool. Anyone who knows Appaloosas up close and personal learns that ego and spots go together.

Four months into the process I wanted to quit. It was too hard, too dangerous, and I was too old. At least, that’s what I told God, fretting in my study chair about nonsense, when the truth is, I was afraid.

I know how to work with Journey, Lord —— but I don’t WANT to!” (Add a whiny note for the full effect.)

How was that possible? For years I specialized in stallions, taking on horse problems large and small without one emotional ruffle. I remember being annoyed, frustrated, exhilarated, and grateful for angels watching over me, but fear wasn’t on the list. Journey was something altogether different. He WAS the most dangerous horse I ever worked with.

God Brings The Relationships We Need

Was I that much different than Journey? I had tons of confidence, shocked when I had to admit I was afraid of anything. Of course, that’s one of the lessons Journey brought, part of the gift God gave me in the guise of a skinny zipper horse wrapped in a fancy rug.

God waits.

I wish I had His timing. He waited patiently, letting me talk myself around the problem until I was willing to hear His response. I wasn’t off the hook. It was my job to train and ride Journey. Learning how to put my life in God’s hands, in the here and now, regardless of the outcome, was a transformational experience.

Fast forward three years. Richard quickly became Journey, the perfect name for his personality and purpose. We worked through a myriad of issues, some small, some life-threatening – for both of us. God always sends the relationships we need.

Today, Journey is on course to be my number one equine partner. At nine, he’s the youngest in the barn, fits me perfectly, and has a ton of ability. He’s committed, quiet, and meets new challenges with more confidence that I imagined possible.

Journey’s Most Embarrassing Moment

Journey overcame the most significant emotional trauma I’ve ever dealt with in a horse, and I’ve trained quite a few special-needs horses. His foundation is broad and strong. If anything, I over-prepared him. Journey was solid – until our first real haul-out-and-hit-the-woods trail ride. I was prepared to quietly respond if Journey reacted to a deer, bird, switchy branch, or other normal trail ride boogey.

Mr. Too-Cool-For-School didn’t react to anything.

Until the moment. When he stopped. Balked. Wasn’t gonna step forward.

Journey didn’t wheel and bolt. He didn’t throw his head in the air and blow. (These are important points, keep them in mind.) He simply put on the brakes from a walk and would not go forward.

But he would go backwards or veer off to the right. His choice was up the right bank into the trees, which didn’t seem like such a hot plan to me. I stopped his forward motion and rode him back up the trail ten yards. We stopped, reversed, and walked back along the trail like nothing happened.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure WHAT happened. There was no obvious issue.

Journey Balked, Refused, and Retreated

Even if I was iffy about the cause for concern, Journey wasn’t. When we got to the spot he balked at the first time, he did it again. I asked him to move forward. He politely declined my request.

We retreated again, then approached one step at a time. Only one. Which meant he was listening to me.

Did he go over the spot? No. I asked with more intention, he backed up the bank toward a wall of trees.

Once the problem was identified, I tried a few more options, failed, and decided to dismount and take a picture. Here’s a photo. Do you see the problem? This is the very spot Journey said, “Nu-uh, not gonna move one step forward.”

Can you see it?

your spooky horse or one who refuses to move may not be afraid

Journey wouldn’t cross a partially buried root, mostly covered in fallen leaves, the top arc sticking up a very scary ONE INCH. Surely, Journey would lead across the root. One step at a time.


Which is when my iPhone came out of the pack on my right thigh. I thought Journey’s response to the little-bitty root was funny and wanted to document his embarrassing moment. This was Facebook worthy!

your spooky horse or one that refuses to move may not be afraid

The oh-so scary root was a total nothing-burger and Journey wasn’t really scared. He put his nose right on the root and nibbled leaves.

When Fear Isn’t the Reason a Horse Refuses

Remember when I described Journey’s initial reaction? He didn’t tense, bolt, or do anything else a horse in fear of his life does. I have photographic evidence that he wasn’t afraid. He won’t take one step forward, but while I’m taking pictures he’s gazing around at the scenery, unconcerned by the ROOT. He even put his nose on it to snack!

My two trail partners and I laughed about Journey’s silliness, but I still had to get him over the root. I tried to lead him over, he didn’t go. In fact, he backed up the two foot high bank and high-centered himself in a downed tree and pile of brush.

Once I realized that he knew he was stuck and stood quietly waiting for help, I laughed again, delighted that he didn’t struggle against his scratchy prison. Limbs of varying sizes stuck out between any two sets of legs. He had a tree trunk with branches under his belly from off side to near, a freshly fallen sapling running along his midline from tail past his nose, and a mess of branches and brambles poking out this way and that.

Journey had no obvious means of escape, with nothing but more trees and brush behind him. And, he was on a bank higher than me. I still held the reins. (Wish I had a picture of that, but I was kinda busy.)

Well, that didn’t work out so well, did it Tough Guy?

Horses Test You Before Real Trouble Comes

The root wasn’t the reason Journey balked, this was. The root was a test. Journey wanted to see if he could trust me in a jam. Smart horses don’t wait until there’s something of real concern to quiz the leader, because that might be too late.

Now he was in a real jam.

I grabbed the still-pliant sapling sticking through Journey’s front legs about six feet away from his chest, pulling it toward me. It bent around enough to clear his midline. Holding it back with my right hand I used my left arm to point in front of Journey, looked in the direction I pointed, and asked him to, “Walk.”

Journey hesitated for two seconds, then hiking up knees to chin and hocks to rump, he walked forward just as he does on a longe line or in liberty work.  I passed the test. With no drama, emotion, or angst, I solved Journey’s problem. He didn’t lose one hair, but gained an ocean of confidence in me- in us.

“He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much” – Luke 16:10

We walked over the root as if the whole thing never happened. “Root, what root?”

I mounted and we finished a delightful ride. There are a few points we need to work on, but it was a great adventure. And goes onto Mr. Journey’s “My Most Embarrassing Moments” reel.

Listen to What Your Horse is Telling You

Horses who balk or refuse politely aren’t terrified, they’re communicating. Pay attention to your horse’s body language, energy, and focus. Journey wasn’t stiff or fleeing for his life. He wanted to see if I would keep the promises I made over the past three years in a completely new situation.

Horses don’t change personalities when they haul out to ride trails, show, or go somewhere new. What changes is the behavior, energy, and response of the folks who brought them. Riding an arena horse into an open field for the first time may cause unexpected behavior. The way we respond informs the horse. Any concern the horse might have is confirmed if the rider tenses up.

  • Anxious riders usually ride anxious horses.
  • Calm riders usually ride calm horses.
  • Precise riders usually ride precise horses.

If your horse politely refuses, respond in kind. Be light, specific, and polite. There’s a reason. It’s your job to figure it out.

As for Journey and me, we’re looking forward to visiting the root again.

Want to read more about simple exercises and concepts that transform horses from being a Richard to a Journey? Check out Discipleship With Horses. 

exercises guide to training horses

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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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