Spooky horses — building my horse’s confidence

My pony can be quite spooky sometimes out hacking, but is usually very good especially with traffic.
There are a few ‘spots’ where he always tends to spook on our hacking routes…like where a dog will run up the gravel drive really quickly and jump up a metal gate, he ends up spooking down the road at high speed every time we go past…..or the donkeys in a field on the left….or the horses galloping around at welsh D breeders yard down the road.
I end up avoiding these routes sometimes as i feel myself get really nervous about these ‘spots’. I don’t want it to stop us going around our fave routes but i find myself getting very anxious/nervous when we are coming up to the ‘spooky’ spots!
Have you got any tips? Should i just get off and lead past until he realises they arent going to hurt him?

I am using this question as an example of one I get a LOT:  how to cope with a horse who is spooky.  Anyone who sent me any questions about spookiness – there will some things in here that will make a difference to you and your horse.

Now there are many ways I could respond to this – but everyone who knows me also knows I like to tell stories:  as I tell a story, you can see what parts of the story make sense for you and your horse – and will come up with your own stories and ideas to help your horse become less spooky.

First of all though, I will talk about my main principle when I have a horse to ride, especially a new one (like Gracie) who I plan to ride out to lead on my hacking with confidence courses.

My main principle is, that to be safe, I need my horse to ask ME whenever she loses confidence.

A bolting horse, a spooking horse – a nervous horse – are all horses who are making their own decisions about what is and isn’t scary, about how to respond.  If I can develop the relationship where when my horse has a question about something, or is unsure, she asks ME what to do – then my ride is going to be a LOT safer than is she makes her own decisions.

How so I do this?

Well, that’s where the story comes in.

Gracie is my new horse: a stunningly gorgeous (I might be slightly biased but others have said so too!) Irish TB who is 9 years old, chestnut – and 16.3.  And who is, in her previous owner’s words “quite green” as she does not have an awful lot of riding hours on her.

She has been with me for about four weeks now, and has settled into the field. And as part of our relationship building I have spent time hanging out, feeding – and doing basic groundwork.  Groundwork for me means can I move my horse’s front end, back end, shoulder, leg, head – in any direction without any opposition reflex.  If I can do this, then I know I can handle anything I meet out on a ride simply by getting off and dealing with it on the ground – and that causes me to feel a LOT more confident!

Anyhow, the basic groundwork was there, so I decided to head out on an “online hack” to see how she was when she was out and about.

One reason I like to do an online hack with a new horse is that when I am on the ground I can really focus on reading the horse and learn their subtle signs of worry and loss of confidence – without any of my own stuff getting in the way.

Anyhow, back to the story.  We walked out of the field – I had Gracie walking about 12 feet behind me, where she was relaxed with her head down, then I would ask her to move up so I was walking level with there the saddle will be,  so I could practice reading her from there.

We walked along the bridleway and under the road – and came around the corner to see – THE CONCRETE COWS!

Gracie grew about 3 hands, snorted and stood there – on full alert – what on EARTH were these strange things?Image

The first thing I did (after saying a thank-you to my unconscious for making sure I was on the ground today!) was put myself between the cows and her.  Since my objective is for her to see me as her source of safety, doing this was a good place to start.   Coincidentally, it also meant if she ran away from the cows she would NOT be running over me. 

Then I just walked around the cows – letting her “drift” as far as she needed to feel safe.  I was using the 45ft line to make sure she could move her feet as much as she liked without feeling trapped.  This meant that I was never “making” her feel unsafe, someting I felt was important.  She could move as much as she liked.

I walked close to the cows, and went around them in a circle one way, then asked her to change direction and we walked the other way.  Changing direction has the same effect as a small circle – a horse has to step under itself, disengaging its hind end and that almost always has a calming effect.

We walked around and back again – I made a big point of staying totally calm. And acting as if I came across concrete cows every time I went out for a walk.

As we did this, she began to calm down.  She returned to her normal height – and her head lowered a bit.  And I was able to shorten the amount of rope she was needing to use to feel safe.  After about ten circles each way, she was able to graze without snatching too much at the grass – so her grazing was changing from “displacement grazing” which is used to manage anxiety, more towards “actual grazing” which is a slower, browsing type of eating.

When she was happy being about 20 feet away from the cows and was moving without needing to grow tall and high headed, I moved my own position (which was about ten feet away from the cows) – and sat on one of the cows.   Gracie grazed out on the line – quite comfy with the idea of me being near the cows.

Now it was time for the next step in confidence building:  for Gracie to be nearer to the cows than me.

I moved away from the cows – about 50 feet away and asked Gracie to do a half circle going past the cows and then coming around me where I asked her to turn and face me (which, incidentally caused her to disengage her hind end).  Notice that we started this exercise with her FURTHER away from the cows than she had been – because as I was now not protecting her from them I wanted to give her that extra bit of space and room to move so she would still feel safe.

After all, if I want her to look to me for safety, then I have to remember to always create situations where she feels safe with me and can trust me not to put her outside her comfort zone.

We played this “squeeze” game backwards and forwards and as we did this she started relaxing – and actually wanted to stop moving and have a snack – so I said ok – IF you do that next to a cow.  She tried – but had to move so we did the squeeze a few more times – then she blew out, relaxed and grazed right next to one of the cows. Image

All of this took about thirty minutes.

The next confidence and relationship builder was playing with puddles – but that is another story….

So here’s a question for you: what can you take from this story to help you with your spooky horse? To help build your horse’s confidence?

Yours, in confidence




17 thoughts on “Spooky horses — building my horse’s confidence

  1. OMG I’ve just ridden past them! Took us a little while as we were on them but did manage it without much fuss:)

      • We did! No one there though, although the dog agility tunnel was another interesting item! The. bay mare is a bit friendly isn’t she? The boys didn’t know where to put themselves! We have already decided they just love each other though!

        Hi Jennifer! Long time no speak:) Louise C here with Flynn.

  2. Concrete cows should be interesting!With Malaga its PINK!Why on earth do people plant pink flowers in their borders…or the ones with silvery leaves for that matter!? I’m wondering if its a sight thing as Sarah-lee didn’t like plants with silvery leaves either?
    Malaga also doesn’t like “things” hiding in the greenery,I’m sure he was bought up in a town as he’s much better with roads and traffic so I also try the avoidence route…I’m working on that! If there’s a deer in the hedge or a pheasant creeping along(although he’s not bad with pheasants now),we do approach and retreat although it usually happens on a closed in fenced off bridle path making it an intense squueze game,if I’m sure he can’t cope I slip off and work it out on the ground…a safer option.Then I get up again and we have a grazing session till he’s really relaxed and then move on….never met concrete cows though we have the real thing round here 🙂

    • Enjoy your ride today — I am just laughing out loud at the idea of having a spook busting day based totally around pink and shiny things!!!! The paddock would look VERY interesting!!!


    • Hi Susan — yes indeed — the squeeze game is that half circle game I played with Gracie: so once she was ok being around the cows but quite far away, I put myself about 50 feet away from the cows — and asked her to do half circles where she had to go between me and the cows, so I was facing the cows and asked her to go from, say , my right to my left — as she came in front of me I would look to see how calm she was and as she came around and past my left shoulder, I would ask her to turn and face,me — wait a minute, then send her back the other way — so she was going backwards and forwards between me and the cows. As she got calmer, I moved slowly nearer the cows until I was about 10 feet away and she was going right next to them with no worries. So the squeeze game is where I ask my horse to go between me and something — and we do this backwards and forwards as the change of direction at each end to the half circle helps relax them and get them calmer and calmer — later on I will do this exercise while riding too!

      hope this clarifies!


  3. I hadn’t picked up that they were
    concrete so when you calmly said you sat on one I was sooooo impressed!!!

  4. Great Blog loved reading it. Also has given me lots of ideas to get my youngester used to some of these before taking her out with me on top lol. Keep writing these blog you are doing a great job x

  5. Great Blog loved reading it. Also has given me lots of ideas to get my youngester used to some of these before taking her out with me on top lol. Keep writing these blog you are doing a great job x

  6. I found this very interesting and used a similar method with my reactive mare, but unwittingly now have a horse who decides “that might be scary” and ducks to my other side because long as I am between her and the “scary object” (currently she has decided the red barn and horse trailer are to shiny) she is ok, I can move her between me and the “scary object” but any time I stop she still tries to duck behind me, though she will stay between me and the object if I have a hand on her, but sticks with me soon as I try to step back from her. is it possible for a horse to be to dependant on their rider? She will also fly backwards if someone else leads her ahead of me past an object until she is closer to me.

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