Last updated: February 16, 2023
I was leading my new horse from the walker to the barn when a came around the corner. The poor thing was so scared that he reared up and started pulling me. I know horses are skittish when they get to a new home, but I still wonder why they are so easily spooked.
Horses are skittish because they are prey animals and are acutely aware of everything unfamiliar. Horses have many predators in the wild, so to survive, they learn to quickly react to something near they believe may hurt them and stay away from strange things.
Many horse owners think that a skittish horse is not good for riding. But it’s normal and usually can be worked out of most horses. Let’s learn how to recognize and treat your horse’s skittish behavior.
Reasons horses are skittish.
Horses are incredibly skittish animals. They have many natural instincts that can cause them to react without thinking, and they also have a fear of the unknown. It seems that horses can be easily spooked even in the safety of their own pastures.
Though domesticated and bred to be docile animals around humans for centuries now, they still have a wild side that surfaces whenever one is not paying attention; this means it only takes something as small as an unexpected noise coming from behind you to scare your horse into taking off like lightning through some open field!
As prey animals, horses have an instinctive reaction to run away from potential threats to their safety. To better understand your horse’s behavior and why it can be easily spooked, it’s essential to learn about how horses perceive their natural predators.
Almost all medium-to-large carnivores hunt horses, including bears, big cats, wolves, hyenas, crocodiles, and some species of snakes. Prey animals, such as horses, have excellent senses. They have to remain very alert and vigilant in their natural environments.
Any little noise that might seem insignificant to us can be a matter of life and death to a horse. For example, a plastic bag moving in the wind might be a venomous snake, rustling noises could indicate a predator hiding in the bushes, a sound of water splashing could mean there’s some animal in the water, etc.
And this sense of danger causes them to flee the area quickly. Though domesticated horses are pretty docile, their wild counterparts, like zebras or Przewalski wild horses, can be spooked easily and have an instinctive wariness around humans.
What are horses scared of the most?
We used to have a quarter horse that was scared of the most innocent thing – butterflies! He used to become fidgety and distracted every time he saw one. It made me wonder, what are horses scared of the most?
Horses are naturally wild animals. Though the first domesticated horses came a few thousand years ago, most of their wild instincts and behaviors are still present. In the wild, horses are most scared of natural predators like lions, wolves, and alligators.
Domesticated horses can be scared of any sound they haven’t heard before, and it could be as innocent as the sounds of plastic bags, barking, or any suspicious noise in the wind. They are also afraid of being left alone for a long time.
A single kick from a horse can carry a force of 2,000 pounds per square inch, but they rarely have the opportunity to use this weapon; they would rather run.
Below is a helpful YouTube video showing how to work with skittish horses.
4 tips to help stop your horse from spooking.
A well-trained horse is essential. To start, you need to be the boss, so they know who is in charge. It’s also necessary to build trust with your horse, bond with them, and give them confidence, so they don’t spook at everything.
Each individual horse has unique needs, but through the years, I’ve seen some things that could help horse owners discipline animals and prevent unnecessary spooking.
To help your horse stop spooking at everything, first rule out the obvious issues like an improper saddle fit, hunger, loneliness, and painful medical conditions. You can also try the following to counter-spooking:
- Warm up your horse before going on a trail. It’s best to choose a place where your horse is comfortable, e.g., somewhere near the barn or a quiet place. Give your horse at least 15 collective minutes of walking, trotting, or cantering.
- Is your horse afraid of an object? Take it slow. Don’t try to force your horse to move toward the thing. Instead, try to get it to face the object at a distance and stay still until you think it is good enough. Ride in circles around the object and decrease the radius by a few steps every so often.
- Know your horse. Different strategies work with each horse depending on its personality. Sometimes, owners have success feeding the horse near the place or thing that spooks them, having other horses or people close by, or simply walking with the horse to the spot while calming them. The spook might be a one-time thing, and ignoring the problem might be enough.
- Maintain your control. Horses are very attentive to how you behave. They are very good at noticing your actions, body language, and verbal cues to determine if you are confident and how they should behave.
When a horse gets spooked, stay relaxed in your seat. Avoid pushing in or tensing your legs or pulling the reins too much. Sometimes, you must give up and confront the problem after a few days.
There are calming supplements and drugs available to help anxious horses. Dormosoden Gel (Dorm) is one of the more popular calming agents.
Predator vs. prey – which ones are horses?
Animals can be predators or prey. A predator is an animal that hunts other animals, called prey. Examples of predators are bears, big cats, wolves, crocodiles, and spiders. Examples of prey are sheep, cows, zebras, and rabbits.
Because a predator is a creature that hunts another animal for food, they have sharp teeth and claws and need to eat meat for energy. In any situation where predators must fight, they will be attacking and not defending themselves.
Many predators are also prey, depending on the circumstances. For example, a snake is a predator to a rodent, but it’s prey to raptors like eagles and hawks.
Horses are prey animals that eat grass and low-protein food. They live in herds and rely on each other to survive. If they have to fight or run, they will usually run away since they don’t have sharp teeth or strong claws to defend themselves.
What are some things that can spook horses?
Horses are very sensitive to their environment and can be spooked by many things. Some of these include loud noises, other animals, or something as simple as a person’s clothing color.
Horses often try to escape things that are scary by running away from the object in question. This reaction sometimes leads to injury for both the horse and its rider because they may run into something while being startled and might fall, hurting themselves or their rider.
Horses sometimes get scared of things that are normal for us. Some examples of these are:
- Being patted or slapped
One study suggests that patting your horse increases its heartbeat, while scratching the horse decreases the heartbeat and makes it feel relaxed.
Most horses don’t appreciate being patted or slapped – it’s not what they expect from fellow horses in the wild. Instead, they prefer being gently scratched, rubbed, or kissed.
- Tight spaces such as horse trailers
Horses aren’t a fan of indoor environments. They prefer to graze and run free in open, sunny areas. Enclosed and dark spaces like indoor arenas or horse trailers can easily spook many horses.
Some horses are also afraid of being put in a stable. It’s easier if they trust you and know they will have food inside, but being locked in tight spaces for too long can easily frighten them.
- Random sights and noises
Our friend had an outstanding and athletic mare, but she was scared of butterflies and panicked! Horses can fear many innocent things like car horns, rabbits, water hoses, footballs, and getting their hooves cleaned.
If you are taking good care of your horse’s health in general, it’s normal for the horse to become spooked by ordinary things.
- Being left alone for long
Horses are herd animals. They feel safer when they are around other horses or people they trust. They don’t like it when it’s too quiet either; in nature, they expect verbal signals from other horses to feel secure and relaxed.
If you only have a single horse, and it doesn’t get to interact with other equines as often as it should, it’s likely to show anxiety symptoms, like being very easily spooked, trembling, sweating, and appetite loss.
What does a horse do when it shows fear?
Being herd animals, horses trust us to be aware when they are showing fear. Most of the time, paying close attention to when your horse seems out of character can tell you when they are getting uncomfortable.
If your horse is intimidated by an object, it will usually lock its eyes and ears on it and refuse to move in its direction. Some horses may decide to hold their ground and stomp their feet on the ground.
If your horse shows a sudden lack of confidence, such as attempting to slow down, walking in a zigzag motion, or trying to turn around, it might mean it’s scared.
Horses that are afraid may move their ears back and forth rapidly. Their neck muscles might tense up, and they will typically arch their necks. Increased heartbeat and heavy snorting are also signs of a horse being frightened.
Finally, every horse has a unique way of expressing its emotions. Some might tremble in certain places or start to pace, for example. The better acquainted you are with your horse, the more quickly you can tell when it’s afraid.
Can a horse sense your fear?
Equine research found that horses can smell emotions. Horses can smell when someone is afraid or happy. This could lead to a new understanding of how people’s feelings affect the emotions of their horses.
Does magnesium help calm horses?
Magnesium does help to keep horses calm and relaxed. Magnesium is a mineral that horses get naturally by eating forage. However, there are magnesium supplements you can add to your horse’s diet if they are deficient in this mineral.
Meet Miles Henry
An avid equestrian and seasoned racehorse owner, Miles Henry brings his extensive experience to the equine world, proudly associating with the AQHA, The Jockey Club, and various other equine organizations. Beyond the racetrack, Miles is an accomplished author, having published various books about horses, and is a recognized authority in the field, with his work cited in multiple publications.
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