The Spook-Free Ride

This article was Published in the Aiken Horse magazine in June 2013.

The Spook-Free Ride

The elusive spook-free ride is the dream of many owners of Nervous Nellies. But the question “How can I stop my horse from spooking?” is the wrong one to ask. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and the spook-free ride isn’t free, either. Think of the horse’s confidence as a bank account. A spooky horse is generally running a confidence deficit, tiptoeing around at a low level of anxiety until something scary causes a withdrawal from the confidence piggy bank and he spooks! If he had more funds built up, that scary thing might cost him a little confidence, but the horse wouldn’t be overdrawn to the point he had to spook. The rider’s job is to make investments in her horse’s confidence over time, building up the account so that even a big withdrawal like a horse show or a group trail ride isn’t too much for him.

Recognizing the Signs of Anxiety

Rather than “How do I stop my horse from spooking?” the rider could ask “How do I invest in my horse’s confidence so that he no longer feels so insecure?” The first step to building a horse’s confidence is recognizing the first signs of anxiety. For a prey animal, this most frequently manifests as increased watchfulness & readiness for flight. Signs include high head carriage, fixed ears, staring eyes, tight lips, rapid breathing or holding breath, tight muscles, quicker speed or reluctance to move, freezing in place or inability to stand still, crowding close to other horses or handler, and frequent or loose manure.

Being aware of the horse’s emotional state and noticing as soon as it changes is the first step to building confidence. If doing a body/posture inventory of the horse doesn’t provide enough information for the rider, there are two other tests she can apply. The first is to ask the horse to stand still on a loose rein for a count of 10. For an anxious horse, this is often impossible… the horse will want to move his feet. The second test can be done in motion: the rider asks the horse for something simple, such as a leg-yield, lateral flexion, a half-halt, or a transition, and notes the horse’s response time. An anxious horse is not as responsive to his rider/handler as he is when he is relaxed and comfortable, because much of the horse’s brain is caught up in worrying. Think about how much harder it would be to concentrate on arithmetic problems if you were in a plane you thought was having engine problems!

To sum up: the rider can test if the horse is out of his comfort zone and beginning to feel insecure if he: doesn’t pass the body/posture inventory, can’t stand still on a loose rein, and has decreased responsiveness to a simple request.

Investing in Confidence


Once the rider reads the horse as uncertain, he has the opportunity to make a confidence deposit… or a withdrawal. Pushing the horse towards something scary before he is comfortable is a withdrawal. So is allowing him to avoid the scary situation and leave (although sometimes that is the best option at the time if the rider is not confident or the horse has escalated to dangerously panicky). So is punishing the horse for his fear by kicking or smacking him. None of these show trustworthy leadership, which is what the horse really needs! A confidence deposit is made by 1.) allowing or directing the horse to move in a direction he feels comfortable going (yes, even away from the spooky thing!), 2.) continuing to direct the horse in a calm way using one rein at a time if possible (this allows the rider to keep control but doesn’t make the horse feel claustrophobic and panicky like pulling on both reins does) 3.) WAITING until the horse shows increased relaxation and even curiosity to investigate or pass the spooky thing 4.) Working near the scary area until the horse is calm and doesn’t need to rush away.

An important point for less confident riders is that this process can be done on foot as well as under saddle. A rider that feels more comfortable working through her horse’s fear on the ground should not hesitate to dismount and follow the process on the ground, remounting when the horse is calm again. It is important for the rider to respect her own fears and limits just as much as her horse’s!

Investing in these strategies consistently over even just one week will increase the horse’s confidence and bring him closer to that blissfully spook-free ride!

Tips for Horse and Human Students

Published in the 2015 August-September edition of The Aiken Horse magazine.

Tips for Horse and Human Students

Some of us are naturally good students, some of us have to work hard to be good learners. If taking instruction doesn’t come easily for you, there is good news: 1.) you can get better at it 2.) you can empathize with your horse when he’s having trouble learning something new!

Here are some strategies for developing yourself as a great student, and for helping your horse become a super learner, too.


1.) Cultivate a learning mindset. Prepare yourself for a learning experience–whether a lesson or a work session with your horse–by putting away distractions (like your cell phone) and distracting thoughts (like what you’re going to make for dinner). Use your grooming and tacking up time to set your intention for your ride, and to connect with your horse.

2.) Erase the phrase “I know that” from your vocabulary! Assuming that you already know something shuts down learning. Much of horseback riding and horsemanship is gaining a deeper and deeper understanding of basic principles and ideas. The way you understand how to sit the trot, or to ride a balanced shoulder-in will be different in one year than it is today… if you’re progressing!

3.) Try to absorb without judging what is happening in the moment. You can analyze your ride from your couch at home afterwards. In the moment, try to listen, observe, and feel without thinking too hard. Overthinking can take you out of the present and block your ability to receive information from your instructor or your horse.

4.) The most helpful questions are “How do I…?” and “What if…?” because they provoke curiosity. Learning is all about doing something differently than you’ve done it in the past! Sometimes a playful inquisitive thought will open doors in ways you could never predict. This soft, open mindset is often felt and appreciated by your horse.

5.) Learning on a shoestring budget: when you can’t afford as many lessons as you’d like, or your preferred clinician is too expensive, audit! Watching clinics and lessons is a great way to learn and take new concepts, exercises, and techniques home to your horse. Read. Watch videos. Go watch the warm-up ring at shows (this is often free), and watch riders in disciplines other than your own. Great learners stretch out of their comfort zone, and they know that often the biggest investment in learning is in effort, time, and energy… not money.


1.) Prepare his mind for learning. Just like human students, horses often don’t show up for work in a learning mindset. Recognize his mental, emotional, and physical needs… does he need to burn off some energy before he can concentrate? Is he nervous in his environment? Is he feeling bored and cranky today? What can you do to help meet his needs so he can relax and focus and go to work for you?

2.) Do not punish your horse. Punishment inhibits learning and distracts the horse… now he is thinking more about how to avoid punishment than on how to solve the problem you have set for him! Do your best to make your requests clear; if the horse fails to respond correctly, seek to understand WHY rather than to punish his failure. Over time, the horse that is punished while he is learning becomes afraid to try, resentful and resistant, or shut down. The best corrections communicate to the horse that he has not done what you want without provoking an emotional or defensive response.

3.) Understand when you are teaching, and when you are maintaining, testing or advancing a lesson. Knowledge of where your horse is in the learning process is something every horseman should be keenly aware of. This tells you how much is fair to expect of your horse, how much to repeat, and how quickly to increase the difficulty of an exercise.

4.) Be encouraging! Notice the slightest try when your horse is learning and reward it. When your horse knows there is always a “right” answer and knows that you will help him find it, he will put more effort into finding solutions. If your horse becomes discouraged or stressed during the course of a lesson, be willing to make the lesson easier so he can be successful.

5.) Know when to stop a lesson. Often we do not repeat a lesson enough for a horse to truly understand it. But sometimes we drill too long! Part of the study of horsemanship is knowing when to quit at just the right time to accelerate your horse’s learning and keep him willing and eager to come out again tomorrow.

Being a great learner is your responsibility as a student. Helping your horse be a confident learner is the responsibility and privilege of a good horseman. Happy learning!