The Horse Physio - Delivering care with expertise since 1992

15.9.2021 How to De Spook Your Horse: Chapter 7


One of the most obvious things that could ‘spook’ a horse is of course the sheer fact of having a rider on his back!  A horse naturally knows that a predator on his back could spell death, and yet he is willing to put enough trust in humans to overcome this.  Often horses who have been backed too quickly, without this trust developing, remain frightened to some degree of the rider on their back.  This can mean that unexpected movement from the rider, either shifting weight, or moving arms or legs, can cause sharp reactions.  The horse’s reaction of course unbalances the rider, which in turn causes another unexpected movement… and so on. Many of us have known a horse who is worried when the rider lifts a leg to tighten the girth, leans forwards to give their horse a hug, or takes a coat off while on board, and yet all of these things are achievable (although not necessarily recommended for every horse and rider partnership!).

If your horse seems unsettled with the rider, and you’re confident that discomfort is not the cause (see my book and DVD ‘Understanding Horse Performance: Brain, Pain or Training?’ to help you tell the difference), then you may need to return to basics and re-back your horse.  If he’s confident with the rider on board, but reacts to movement of the arms or legs, then you can desensitise him to these movements incrementally.  If, for example, he does not like the feel of your leg going too far forwards and touching his shoulder, you can move your foot just a little further forward than normal, making sure you stay just within your horse’s comfort zone, and wait for him to relax a little before you move your foot back to the neutral / normal position. 

Often it is sensible to desensitise your horse to things above him by working from the ground. To begin with, ensure that your horse is relaxed with the exercises in the chapter in this book ‘To the side and all around’. Next you can hold the flag (or other object) above his back, his neck, or his quarters, all the time watching his reaction.  You are aiming to stop moving the flag at the point before he feels the need to move away, then bring it just a little lower and wait for him to relax.  You can build on this over several sessions until you are able to wave the flag above your horse’s back without any adverse reaction.  Once he’s confident with a silent object such as a flag, you can, if you want / need to, work through the same exercise with something that makes a noise, such as a plastic bag on the end of a stick.  You’ll be amazed how much your horse’s overall confidence improves as you work though these exercises and develop the partnership between you and him.

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021

Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion