Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Answers to Let's Talk Questions about Spooking Horses

Nuzzling Muzzles did a blog post Let's Talk where she addressed the subject of Arabian horses spooking. Because she owns and rides Arabians she gets told a lot her problem is the breed of horse. So she put a list of questions to her readers. Since the source of these questions is the misconception that Arabian horses are spookier than other horses, I told her I would post my answers to those questions here.

Have you ever experienced a non-Arabian horse spooking?

Yes, lots of them. In particular when I was working at an Arabian show barn we had some track thoroughbreds in for legging up because of problems with the pipes at the track. That month the TB's were there, I saw more spooking than the whole 3 years I worked at that farm with Arabians. Those horses were a I'm not saying it was because they were TBs but more it was what they hadn't been exposed to....but those suckers can spook BIG TIME! They made our Arabians and half-Arabians look like light weights.

What usually triggers spooking?

I think anything unfamiliar or unexpected can trigger spooking. Heck sometimes things like that spook me.
I find the biggest type spook happens when my horse is concentrating really hard (like during a training session) and something breaks that concentration. That something can be anything sudden or unexpected....a bird chirping, a branch falling in a distance, a kid throwing a rock....some little thing that wouldn't normally bother the horse, will startle it when it's concentrating resulting in a spook.

What are the ways in which you've experienced horse spooks? (i.e. jumping to the side, bolting, jumping straight up, puffing up, snorting, kicking out...)

Me, I've experienced all of these things mentioned.

Do you believe that spooking is really tied into breed?

Not me, it's an equine characteristic period. I think that each horse reacts differently based on how observant they are. A horse that goes around in a fog may not spook as much as a very observant horse. But you can bet when that unobservant horse does spook, it's gonna spook big. I've actually seen those quiet horses do worse things because no one knew they needed to be taught to listen through a spook.

Do you believe that spooking can be worked out of the genes through selective breeding?

Nope! I think it will always be there. It's one of nature's defenses for the horse. I do think that some horses are more reactive than others but I think that has more to do with their awareness and attentiveness to their surroundings. Just like I said above, even those horses will spook and the odds are it will be worse than the reactive horse because their humans have taken for granted the horse wouldn't spook.

Do you believe that spooking is connected to the handler's reactions?

Yes, sometimes I think spooking can be directly related to a handler's reactions. When a handler lacks confidence and expects things to go wrong, they will probably go wrong. The horse can sense that lack of confidence and so it will be looking for something to go wrong too. At the first sign of something irregular, that horse will spook because it is expecting to be frightened by something.

If a horse and handler are in a new situation and the handler is nervous, most certainly the horse will be too.......unless of course, it's a seasoned horse that has seen just about anything. My horse like that would be Dandy......he's about as bomb proof as any horse can get. He does not pick up tension from his handler.

Do you believe that spooking is tied in with fear associated with abuse from humans or other animals?

Sure, horses have great memories. If they've had a bad experience and it involved humans, they're going to suspect humans unless they have good experiences to counter it.

I once knew a stallion who had been known for his kind disposition at the Arabian show barn where I worked. The horse was sold and several years later discovered in bad shape and labelled as a man hater.

Fortunately for the horse, he was returned back to his former residence where it took him months to regain his trust. That horse spooked at everything......even though he'd lived there before. He was hyper vigilant trying to protect himself. Gradually the horse regained his trust in humans and became the same sweet kind horse he had been before he was so badly abused. The spookiness stopped.

One can only wonder what was done to this horse to turn him so dramatically against people. Yet even with that terrible experience, the horse was able to work through it and trust again.

Do you believe that spooking is a survival instinct?

Absolutely! and a darn good one!

Do you believe that horses learn to spook from their dam and other horses?

I know horses learn to be affected by their dam and other horses. I have seen it happen. I have a mare that teaches her foals to be afraid of humans because she doesn't particularly trust people due to the way she was raised.

Her foals are born bold brave horses that walk right up to you. In five days times she has them climbing the walls to get away from anyone who approaches. It takes a while to get them through that "spookiness" and that can't even be started until after they are weaned. The only exception to that would be my daughter, Lindsay, who has bonded with that mare and cleans stalls and feed. Lindsay can win the foals over easily because the mare isn't worried about Lindsay either.

But by time these horses come out the other side they are back to being the brave, bold horses they were born. They are not spooky or jumpy about much of anything. Sure they will spook at things, but they get it under control easily.

Percentage-wise, how much of spooking is nature and how much is nurture?

I think that is probably different from horse to horse. It just depends on the individual.

If you believe spooking is isolated to Arabians, what is your logic? (i.e. Generations of Arabian horses suffering through sand storms, miles of desert with no exposure to anything but sand somehow got into their bloodline so that they jump at every new object and sound...)

I was going to do a whole post on this subject but I can't remember where I read the information I wanted to share. Even without the reference, I'm going to repeat what it said because it really made sense to me.

The characteristic head of an Arabian horse's has a lot to do with it's sensitivity. The placement and size of the eyes allow the horse to see farther distances than other breeds. The shape and placement of the ears capture sound more efficiently making the Arabian able to hear sounds frp, farther away. Also the way the nostril flare wide when excited make for a keen sense of smell. All of these things together make for a horse who will recognize a threat much sooner than other breed. Hence, you have horses that appear to be spookier when in fact they are much more sensitive and observant.

Do you believe that a horse can be trained not to spook?

Nope, but I believe a horse can be trained to handle spooking in an appropriate manner. Although I do think you can teach a horse not to spook at some things., that's for sure with proper desensitization. Mine don't spook at all kinds of things other horses do because we work on many things right from when they are first born.

The Chuck Kraft Clinic - Killer Part 3

Do you believe that a horse can be taught to spook in place?

Yes, I have done this and will continue to do this. God bless John Lyons who got me started on this in the first place. I've built on what I learned from him and can usually come up with a fix for any horse I've had issues with.

How are some ways that you have taught horses not to spook or to spook in place?

I've done different things with different horses. But I think it all comes down to teaching the horse what is acceptable behavior when it spooks in any given situation.

In hand I want a horse to be mindful of my position, to maintain the box I allow the horse to occupy and to listen to me. In the saddle I want the horse to stay soft, not change gait and listen to me. I guess the listening part is important to me because I want the horse to learn that he can trust me. As long as he listens he will be safe.

Right now we are working with Legs and his spooking in the show ring. We started with him on ground work . We crash things or whatever to startle the horse in the first place. When he does spook he hits that bit hard and he teaches himself that's not a good thing. So he's learning that he needs to stay soft and listen when he spooks. Then things turn out ok.

I had to de-spook Scandalous as well. With her I used trail obstacles, lots of raised complicated poles. She learned quickly that getting scared and trying to escape only made things worse. When she listened and let me guide her through the problem, she came out ok.

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  1. This is a very good post. Yes, I believe all horse breeds can spook, however they can be desensitized with time and training to "keep it small".

    I am worried about my upcoming foal. Her mother is wary and skittish, although she has come a LOOOONG way to trusting me. I hope she doesn't pass this on to the foal. My goal is to be there with it as soon as possible to imprint it.

    This mare does a lot of spooking in the arena. I'm wondering now if it's her way to "escape" the tediousness of the lesson. Getting her full attention with lots of complicated moves like changing speeds, directions, and trotting poles, is the only thing that helps.

  2. Can you have a solid horse that spooks? You betchya! At least I do! My 13 yr old gelding, who will climb mountains, swim across a lake, cross any creek will do a 180 at a rootbeer bottle laying on the trail! And tomorrow he might not even notice that same bottle. We just laugh and say it adds to his charm. The kids used to try to guess at what Blue will look at funny when he comes across it on the trail. 99% of the things we think MIGHT spook him, don't. But then there is that 1% that surprises all of us!

  3. Thanks for doing this post. I was especially interested in your opinions on the subject since you have so much experience with so many different Arabian horses.

    Gabbrielle has always been rock solid and I couldn't wait for her to turn four, so I could start riding her. However, just in the past few weeks she has been doing a lot of in-hand spooking when I lead her between her stall and her pen. I'm perfectly relaxed, so I know in this case I am not causing her to be tense. I thought maybe it's just because everything looks different after it snows. But now the snow has melted and she's still spooking. Because of this I am also wondering if horses develop spooking behaviors around a specific age.

    When she was a yearling, she went right into the horse trailer. When I brought her home for the first time, she stepped out daintily and went right to grazing. She didn't seem to care where she was, nor was she concerned about her surroundings or the other horses. Now she's worried about everything. I can't figure out what triggered this sudden fear. She's normally a very brave horse.

  4. Our two mares are very different. Arwen used to spook quite a lot when I first bought her, but eventually, she's stopped. She really rarely spooks these days and all I have to do to make it "go away" is to pretend nothing happened.

    Our second mare Sahara is the dominant one. I don't think anything scares her, and she has to my recollection never spooked. She's the type of animal that face danger rather than fleeing from it.

    Our foals have started out being afraid of most things new (or at least: new things that move!) but as soon as they get to know it, they settle down.

    Concerning Fantastyk Voyager's mare; keeping Arwen stimulated and satisfied turned out to be the best remedy to keep her from spooking, so I am pretty sure it's been her way to get out excess energy.

  5. Cactus Jack, Thanks, spooking certainly affects us all.

    Fantastyk Voyager, We have a mare just like you describe and she does teach her foals to run from people. I do imprint my foals but mom's fear seems to impress the foal more than the imprinting. However, once they are weaned we can woe them back although it takes a while.

    My guess is if I had the time to do more one on one right at birth and continued on until I weaned the foal would be fine. However, with 28 head I just don't have that amount of time.

    Tammy, I totally agree. My 19 year old gelding, Dandy spooked at something going by the arena door yesterday. We laughed because it is so out of character for him.

    NuzzMuzz, My guess would be that something has changed for Gabbrielle. Whether that be she isn't feeling quite herself or something is different in her enviroment, she is unsettled or she wouldn't be doing this.

    I know there can be changes in the environment that we don't always see, critters moving in, something happening during the day to affect her routine, subtle stuff that we might not notice that the horses do.

  6. Esther, yes, the brave ones are the ones that I find spook less as well. They are secure in their faith in themselves and that translates to thinking they can take on the world if need be.

  7. I agree with everything you posted, MiKael. All horses can and will spook because it is part of their nature.

    This, in my opinion, is why the bomb proof, fighters not flee-ers, steady eddy horses of the world are worth their weight in gold for child riders.

    If you have a Dandy-like horse, worship the ground he walks upon and keep giving him children to teach and care for. Worth their weight in gold!

  8. Thanks for leaving a comment on my goat blog- I didn't realize you were so close- I have an Arab gelding, big, and 6 years old that we have no time to train. If you know anybody willing to give him a good home and use him, would you put us in touch, please?

  9. I agree with Esther as well. A confident leader horse is more apt not to spook. They believe they can handle whatever comes at them. I rode a boss mare when I was young. She was tough as nails. Your dog barks at her, she's not running away, she's gonna kick the snot outta your dog!

    I now ride a middle of the herd gelding who needs me to be the calm center of our team. If I'm calm, if I provide immediate assurance that the soda can isn't going to eat us, all is fine. I love my horse...wish he'd get a little more brave, though. Hopefully with time he will do so.

  10. Couldn't have said it better myself. I hate it when people catergorize breeds as spooky, or that they can't work past it, or that it's born into them...

  11. I AGREE!!!
    I've owned a good number of Arabs (and other breeds too) in my years with horses. The bravest horse I've EVER known was an Arab, and the spookiest horse I've ever started was also an Arab. Personally, some of the most fun loving, personable, responsible equine citizens I've had the pleasure of knowing have been Arabs!
    Recently our (non-arab) very brave lead mare began to exhibit very nervous behavior in the paddock. She began to spook at the simplest things, refused to go into her stall but stay out where she had a clear view of her entire surroundings (regardless of how severe the weather was), she even once ran through her paddock fence. She began to be very edgy, you could feel her stress when she was in-hand. All this was very odd. When talking to neighbors we learned that a bear had been spotted in the neighborhood. I could have told you that he was still there...somewhere...this horse was clearly letting us know!
    I think the one big difference between the Arab and the other breeds' spookiness is that you can reason with an's hard, sometimes, to reason with a stubborn, hard headed horse.

  12. I answered that question at NuzMuz myself and in fact, the only horse that I have ridden that actually never spooked was my friend's Arab mare, Toots.

  13. All horses sppok. Simple as that. You can bombproof the horse to death and then something, that you never considered as being spooky will show up and your horse will see it and spook.

    My bombproof paint mare trusts me and tests me, too. Her typical behavior around odd objects is to snort at it. And then ignore and move on.

    She's bolted on me once when a huge commotion happened behind us....dogs running into a horse pasture out on the trail and the pastured horses getting worked up. But she was easily controlled.

    When she heard a chainsaw buzzing in the distance, her ears went up and she was alert. But all it took for her to calm down, was my voice telling her 'it's ok'.

    As you know, I took her out for a snow ride, our first one. We walked our usual trail with familiar objects the entire way.
    Even a deflated inflatable snowman was something she had walked by previously.

    But this time we had snow. She was concerned about a wagon wheel covered in snow, so I walked her up to it, she snorted at it. Then ignored it. But as we turned, something spooked her and she side-jumped into a teleportation move, and I lost my balance and fell off.

    I'm still not sure what spooked her. Possibly the sun glinting off the snow?
    Something else covered by snow that looked odd to her?

    Whatever it was, it happened in an instant and I had no time to talk her out of it and calm her down.

    All horses lose their mind and spook. And it can happen in a split second.

    I think I need a velcro saddle with a seatbelt.


    ps, by the way. Thanks for my hamfattery award :)

  14. I get so annoyed when people label a breed for something that is just an inherant nature. Horses spook because they are prey animals. Their first instinct is to get away from anything they perceive as dangerous. Of course, we all should realize that our bomb-proof horses wouldn't last very long in the wild. Failure to "spook" at real or perceived threats will end a horse's life in that situation pretty quickly-LOL.

    I've always thought that Arabians were perceived as being more spooky because they are intelligent and observant. If it is the case that they are more spooky because of their breed, why oh why are so many "green" riders and kids so happily and safely carted around by so many bomb-proof Arabians? Doesn't make sense does it?

    We have a registered Paint gelding that is the biggest spooker we own. He is miserable to ride in the pasture. He is a horse that has always, ALWAYS looked as far away as he can. Any little movement on the horizon and he is fixated on it. Something moves beside him and he spooks, with drama. His spooking is simply because he does not focus on things near him and it constantly startles him. He is great in an arena setting, where his line of sight is limited.
    Another mare we have goes balistic if anything moves near her feet. It took me a long time to figure out, that because of the way her eyes are set on her head, she cannot see what is down there and it panics her. Nothing else spooks her. I can handle her legs and trim her feet with no problem whatsoever. Drop a leadrope near her feet and she goes balistic.
    Another mare has lost a bit of her vision at the bottom of her left eye. She spooks very specifically in relation to that. She cannot help it, so there is no sense trying to "fix" anything there.
    And finally, I have a young gelding, who spooks in place. If anything "spooks" him, he freezes and turns to observe it. Some of it may be his eyesight and some of it is because he is pretty slow to mentally process things and has to fixate on the object that caught his attention until he can wrap his brain around it. My poor, sweet dummy-LOL.

    So I guess in the long way around what I am saying is, I don't think spooking is "breed" specific. Things like eye position, visual accuity, how observant a horse is, how focused they are, basic intelligence(too smart or not very) and life experiences all play a very big factor in how spooky a horse is now or will be throughout his life.