Managing spooks

By Jenny Richardson

Spooking, napping, shying – all common equine flight responses. For the rider, a ‘spook’ can be a daunting experience, depending on the severity of the horse or pony’s reaction. For those riding young or inexperienced equines, spooking can increase the risk factors for a fall.

grey horse spookingWe all know that horse riding is dangerous, but contrary to popular belief, many experts believe experienced riders on well-trained, older horses are statistically more likely to be injured. This is due to the fact they accumulate more hours in the saddle in a given time period.

The key to managing spooks is to ‘manage your preparation’. That’s Sport Psychology speak for being prepared for all eventualities! Firstly, if you aren’t confident riding your horse out on the roads, and are worried about the effects of spooking, you really shouldn’t be doing hacking out alone – yet. It is far better to work on bomb-proofing the horse at home, so when you come to ride out, you are transmitting positive, confident signals to your horse.

Hacking can be a ‘spooking’ minefield; tractors trundling down narrow roads, lorries careering around blind corners, and wild-eyed pheasants shooting up from nowhere. The best way to prepare for an enjoyable ride out is to do as much work as you can at home, to ensure your horse is prepared for most eventualities.

Try the following:

Wherever you can, ride or lead your horse through different surfaces – through muddy puddles and soggy ground, and across uneven, moving surfaces such as shingle or leaves.

If you do a lot of flatwork schooling, make sure you allow sufficient ‘free time’ in the school – so the horse is walking and looking around on a loose rein. Horses that spend lots of time on the bit may not be used to a different line of vision.

Ask friends and family to help by desensitising your horse to new things when you’re riding (pictured below) – such as rustling jackets, dogs on leads, vehicles passing and umbrellas opening.

spooking horseIf the horse is unsettled in the school, ride lots of transitions and and changes of rein to get the horse’s attention. Get the horse listening to you away from a scary object, before circling closer

Use your riding to ‘slow the pace’, if the horse is feeling hot and sharp in the arena. Slow your rising trot, and use your body weight to slow him down.

Develop a regime of training that develops trust, so the horse respects your leg aids and looks to you to lead him through any scary situations

Take sensible precautions like always riding with a helmet.

Jenny Richardson BHSAI is Equestrian Centre Business Manager at Ireland’s Castle Leslie Estate, a venue that offers luxurious equestrian riding holidays and training breaks in the heart of Ireland. The team welcomes riders of all abilities and age groups and offers expert tuition, gentle hacks and exhilarating cross-country rides over an extensive XC course. Visit

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