The Horse Physio - Delivering care with expertise since 1992

10.9.2021 How To De Spook Your Horse: Chapter 6

To the side and all around

It can be uncomfortable for us to think about how stressful it can be for our horse simply being surrounded by people or by objects.  The difference for a horse between being in his natural environment, or even in his field, and being in a stable or at a show, is huge.  As with everything, some horses cope with it better than others, and much is likely to be due to how these things were introduced initially.  Bear in mind that a horse who is ‘stressy’ may be suffering from physical discomfort, which could include gastric ulcers, and I’d recommend thorough assessment from a vet and ACPAT Chartered Physiotherapist ( or Registered Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioner ( specifically in relation to the ‘stressy’ behaviour.

If you are confident that pain is not part of the problem, then first become aware of what might or might not bother your horse.  If he is stressed in a particular environment, is it because he feels it’s too enclosed, or is there a roof tile flapping, a tree brushing against the side of the building every so often, or does the horse next door pull threatening faces, for example?  Is the problem people, sights, sounds, or smells?  Does he need to overcome his fear, or can you make his life more comfortable by removing the cause?  Whilst I am a strong advocate of spook busting, I also believe that some situations are better ‘managed’ than ‘fixed’, and it’s ok in some situations to take the easy way out and avoid the problem altogether!

Having said this, one of the best places to begin your bomb proofing is by desensitising your horse to strange objects that approach his side.  The reason for this being such an effective place to start is that you can easily control your movements and stay in balance, which allows you to learn to ‘read’ your horse and respond appropriately.  You can use a feather duster, a flag, a plastic bag, an old t-shirt, or anything suitable and safe.  You’ll soon find out what bothers your horse and what doesn’t, and if you work correctly you can use this knowledge to help him to overcome fears and develop trust in his handler.  Remember as always that safety (for you and your horse) is the number one priority at all times, and that it’s the release of pressure that teaches your horse that he’s done the right thing. Begin with your horse on a reasonably short rope, so that although he can react and move away, his choices are limited, to help him learn more easily.  Gradually move towards him with the object, watching his reaction closely.  You are looking to move close enough that you are at the edge of his comfort zone (i.e. his adrenalin level rises, but his feet stay still) but not outside it (i.e. if he takes flight then you have gone too far).  Once you reach this point, back off just a little, wait for your horse to relax, and then back right off.  Repeat this as many times as feels right over as many sessions as necessary with as many different ‘spooky’ objects as you like, until your horse is confident and trusting enough for you to approach him at your chosen speed with the chosen object in your hand, without any obvious signs of concern.

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021

Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion