Spooking and Anxiety

It often happens in a show situation. You and your horse are out of your comfort zones, when suddenly the flowerpot in the corner takes on menacing proportions. What can you do?

Well, not much, unless you have given yourself the tools you need before you get in that situation. Now’s a good time to train those tools. Then you can deal with the gremlins in the corner of your own arena, too.

Training Tools

To be able to effectively communicate with your horse while he is anxious about something he has seen or heard, your horse needs to know a few things so well that they happen almost automatically.

  • Go. He should go forward from either a light squeeze of your legs or from two light whip taps. Having either at your disposal in a scary situation is very helpful.
  • Stop. He should stop reliably from light rein pressure to the point that you can stop him in three steps from the trot.
  • Turn. Think about it: a shy or spook is jut a turn that you didn’t ask for. It doesn’t really matter what caused it. Being able to turn back onto your line without the horse just bending the neck and carrying on his line is essential. Train two light whip taps on the shoulders for reinforcing your rein cues.

If those three responses are installed, you’ll be able to address the scary object problem in any situation.

Approaching the Scary Object

Give your horse as much rein as is safe to move his head around so he can focus on the area or object that has caused fright. Tell him to go towards it. This is why it is important to have a light and well trained go response. Your horse is likely to rear if ‘go’ is not light.

Before he wants to stop himself, ask him to stop. Continue approaching the object in this manner, a couple steps at a time, until you feel he will no longer go straight if you ask him to go. In this spot, step back and forwards. You will find that his attention is taken with the object, and go and stop will be heavy. Continue backing and going just a couple steps each with clear releases of pressure for correct responses until go and stop are light again. You will now be able to approach closer.

Correct any sideways shoulder movements with your whip taps on the shoulder and repeat the forward-backwards procedure until it is light again. This process is called overshadowing. You are training your cues to be more powerful than (or to overshadow) the scary thing.

Investigating the Scary Object

The average time it takes a horse to begin to want to investigate something it startled at is 13 seconds. If you can keep your horse facing the thing for that long, he will likely begin to show inquisitive behaviour. If he offers to go closer to sniff, let him and reward him.

Once he is done sniffing, repeat the forward and backward overshadowing procedure until the responses are light again. Correct any sideways shoulder movements that you didn’t ask for with shoulder taps, but don’t force him to walk sideways towards the scary thing.

Leaving and Returning

Leave the scary object before your horse tells you he wants to. Right after he has sniffed and you’ve made sure stop and go still work is a good time to walk away.

Circle back in a fairly large circle. You are going to walk past it now. Don’t try to get too close to it yet. I also prefer not to insist on a straight line yet. Walk a wiggly line around your circle. If it is a right circle, turn one step to the left, go straight a couple strides, turn two steps to the right, straight a couple strides and so on to complete the circle. In this way you will ask your horse to step one step towards the scary object and as soon as he does, you will ask him to step away again.

When turning one step towards the object is easy and light, ask for two. Try a straight line past it, correcting any random shoulder movements with the reins and/or whip taps.

If you stop near the object, don’t stop for long and give scratches or a small food treat near it and then continue.

When Time is Tight

In a show setting you don’t have time for all of that. But if you have done this many times at home with different scary things, that experience will transfer to the new situation. If you and your horse have done this before, your command of go, stop, and turn should be good enough that you can ask your horse to go towards the object with slowing and going faster instead of stopping, and by keeping his shoulders very steady between the reins, correcting any random steps.

Training a better ‘turn’ is the single most effective way of reducing shying and spooking—so never fear, you won’t have to take ages in the warmup ring or pause your dressage test to do some training. With some practice of this, you’ll be able to feel the tiniest un-cued step and correct it before it turns into a shy or anxious response.


Horses explore things on their own in a round-about way. We can take advantage of this through wiggly lines and gradually getting closer. They also habituate to new things fairly easily through overshadowing because they can only pay priority attention to one thing at a time. It is either you or the object. We can take advantage of this to help systematically reduce fear and anxiety by diverting attention to your cues instead.

Catching the Wary Horse

The hard-to-catch horse can make you reticent to ride because it takes so long just to bring him in. Because running away is a fear behaviour and is rewarded because the horse can go faster than you can, it is learned quickly and can be hard to get rid of. See if your horse fits into any of these categories.

  1. The Wary: Hasn’t been handled much, or has had a couple bad experiences and not many nice ones with humans. If approached too fast he is likely to split.
  2. The Learned: Having practiced running away for years, he knows all the tricks. He gets the treats and still gets away, lets you pat him then spins and runs, and is master of using obstacles or other horses in his escape.
  3. The Insecure: Once caught, this one is just fine. But somehow the catching is a roadblock he can’t get past.

The following training ideas will help each type, but some will be more effective than others in different cases. For all, start in a moderately sized, safe enclosure. You don’t want it so small that the horse feels trapped, nor so large that you get tired out! Also think about what the horse gets once he is caught. Does he receive clear training that matches how he learns? Clear training reduces anxiety and improves his experience of being in with you, making him more likely to allow himself to be caught.

Technique 1: Approach and Retreat

This technique is helpful for all catching problems. It will just be significantly harder to apply to The Learned horse, because the body language he will give you will be very subtle.

Begin with no halter and no aspiration of riding today. You are going to very precisely reward the behaviour you want (standing still) so your horse doesn’t leave and feel the reward of distance between you.

Start walking slowly towards the horse. Pay careful attention for any of these signs:

  • flicking the ear farthest from you back
  • looking away from you
  • shifting the weight away from you

When you notice any of these, stop walking immediately. If the horse stays where he is, step back a step or two to release any pressure. The signs are listed from least obvious to most obvious. If you stop moving when you notice an ear movement, your horse probably won’t leave. If you don’t notice the signs until his head is away and his weight is shifting, you’ve probably lost him.

If your horse leaves, never mind. Both of you need to learn this new exercise. Pay attention to what happened just before he left and try to catch yourself and stop a little earlier next time. Just trail behind your horse, not catching up, until he stops and stop too. Then begin again.

If you succeed in keeping your horse still, he will probably turn his head back and look at you. This is your signal to begin approaching again. Go slow and watch for any signs, stopping immediately and retreating before he moves. Once you’ve done this a few times without a halter, try bringing one along and see if there is any difference in his behaviour. You may find, especially with The Learned horses, that you start again from the beginning—but that’s ok, it will go faster the second time around!

Remember, do not retreat if your horse does move. You do not want to reward moving any more than it is inherently rewarding. Just trail along until your horse stops. Do not chase him in any way with actions or words. Be patient.

Technique 2: Counter Conditioning

Most effective for The Wary and The Insecure, this approach used in conjunction with Approach and Retreat can make being caught a great thing. If being caught only ever leads to being taken away from buddies or into a stressful situation, not many horses will continue being good to catch. If, however, it means itchy places are scratched and food is received (as long as aggression is not an issue) and the training is clear, your horse’s opinion of catching may change.

When you get up to your horse by Approach and Retreat, start by visiting. Try to find itchy places and give them a good hard scratch. Starting by the withers is usually good if you’re not sure what your horse will like. The shoulder and chest are often enjoyed by horses too. If your horse shows signs of wanting to leave, leave first. Walk away a bit, and try again.

Bring some food with you (just in a hand, not in a big bucket; we’re not going for a bribe here, but a reward). If your horse lets you visit for a bit, offer a tidbit of food. For The Learned horses, this could be their cue to cut and run before getting haltered, so you can reward being haltered instead, or omit the food.

If your horse finds being alone stressful (most do), bring a buddy along or have a buddy waiting where you’ll be taking your horse. You won’t have to do this for always, it just helps to give your horse a new idea of what being caught means.

Technique 3: Train ‘Come Up’

Best for The Learned horse but helpful also for the other types, here is something to replace the unwanted behaviour of running away with.

When you have your horse caught, it would be a good idea to train something that will make it easier next time. You don’t even have to leave the enclosure you are in. If your horse is food-motivated, don’t hesitate to learn about clicker training and use that to reward your horse’s approach. Otherwise use your voice (same words, same tone, every time) combined with a good scratch in a favourite place. This pairs the word with the scratch, eventually making the word rewarding.

Make sure your horse understands how to step forward from pressure on the halter. Don’t start walking, just put pressure on the halter and see what happens. If he moves immediately, you can carry on to the next step. Otherwise train a couple steps forward from light pressure on the halter by releasing pressure for correct steps and using your voice/scratch for positive reinforcement.

Stand a couple steps from your horse now with the lead rope in your hand. Make the noise (whistle) or say the word (come up) that you want your horse to recognize and come to. During/just after this sound, pull on the lead rope. Click and treat when your horse steps towards you, or reinforce in some other way. Repeat this until your verbal cue elicits one or two steps forward without needing the lead rope. That’s good for a first session. In later sessions you can reward for three or more steps, stand farther away, stand in a different position, train in a different area, and keep teaching your horse that moving towards you is a great thing to do.


Getting rid of running behaviour takes patience because of how rewarding it can be for the horse. Don’t take it personally and keep working on it.

None of the techniques outlined here involve any chasing of the horse to make him realize that moving away from you is more work than coming to you. This may work in the short term because he’ll get tired eventually, and if you are skilled at releasing the chasing pressure when the horse shows signs of coming towards you he will learn eventually. However, because of how horses are wired to learn, any chasing can be very frightening and is likely to perpetuate your catching problems rather than solve them. The faster and farther he can go, the more rewarding it is. So I focus instead on going slow and rewarding him for what I want instead of chasing him for what I don’t want.

Mounting Trouble

Your foot’s in the stirrup and you have to hop alongside your already moving horse for a few steps before you can swing aboard.

Or worse, he pulls you right off the mounting block and you have to stop him, get the block, reposition everything, try again… five times.

What causes Mounting Problems?

Your horse could be associating being mounted with pain. Watch out for other behaviour signs that could indicate pain like throwing up the head, dropping the back, pinning the ears, sticking out the tongue, and switching the tail. If any of these are present, consult your vet before attempting retraining.

If you usually mount with a block, your horse has probably learned that walking off prevents being mounted, if only temporarily. This is what is rewarding the behaviour. This can be retrained.

If you usually mount and cue your horse to move off immediately, sometimes faster than a walk, your horse will learn through classical conditioning that being mounted is consistently followed by the cue to go, and the mounting itself becomes the cue. This can also be retrained, but will require changing that habit.

Retraining the horse to stand for mounting

Get a dressage whip to extend your arm. I use a dressage whip because it is thin and flexible and just long enough to be useful but not so long as to get in my way.

Make sure your horse has no reaction to being rubbed by the whip, especially on the hindquarters.

Using a series of light taps on your horse’s thigh, teach him to step away from the taps with that leg by quitting the taps as soon as he moves the leg away, crossing it underneath himself in front of the other one. Reward one step, and only accept at the most two steps. You don’t want him to start running sideways!

Teach this on both sides.

Now move your cue up to the side of his hip. When the cue was further down at first it was more obvious to the horse what was needed. He will readily trial the step-away response for the new cue.

Once this is acquired on both sides, find a sturdy mounting block that has some room for you to move around on it without falling off. Park your horse with his head near your hip. Reach over his back with the whip and tap on your ‘move over’ spot.

Because you have changed the context of the response and are now on the other side of him, he may try moving towards the pressure. Keep tapping through any wrong answers until he hits on the correct one again and steps towards you, away from the whip taps.


When this is reliable, you can add a voice cue such as ‘Over’ before tapping him and soon your horse will park himself beside the block for mounting!

Another useful exercise to teach for solving mounting problems is ‘Park’, especially if you prefer to mount from the ground. See this article for instructions.

He’s Headshy

‘He’s headshy.’ That one simple statement provokes a groan. But even horses that aren’t headshy can be incredibly evasive of the bridle.

So many owners have trouble doing the simple task of bridling their horse. Why can’t he just put his head down and open his mouth?

Even if you’ve never struggled with this, your horse probably does something you don’t like! Read on and see if you can put the principles I show to use with your horse.

Start Simple.

Start without the bridle. Chances are your horse has learned context specific behaviour; in other words, his head goes up when the bridle or your hand comes near, but not otherwise. Start handling his head without the bridle first. Make sure that you wear proper safety gear.

Horses learn what works for them. If he wants to get your hand off his head, whatever behaviour removes your hand fastest is the one he will learn. So be careful to only remove your hand when his head is still.

Progress Slowly.

One short session every two or three days (or every day if that is more convenient) is plenty. Horses learn faster with an interval of a day or two in-between training. Gradually expect your horse to keep his head still for longer. Then teach him to put his head down by removing pressure when he does.

Be Effective.

If you reward your horse randomly, he won’t know what you want. Same if you punish. Wait for the response you want, but also don’t wait too long. Find something that motivates your horse to try answers, and be quick to tell him when he hits the right answer.

Reach the Goal.

When you introduce the bridle again, your horse will go right back to its old behaviour. Don’t worry, that is normal. But now you have the tools to have him relax again while the bridle is on your arm. Go through every step you taught him before until he is relaxed again.

Then bring the bridle closer. As soon as he loses his head posture, stop there and work through it again. You’ll find he relaxed faster with each repetition. With simple steps, patience, and consistency, you’ll have that bridle on his head.

I help people whose horses aren’t behaving the way they want through training like this all the time. I offer lessons and training, but sometimes you just need a little article to set you on the right track.

Check out other helpful articles here.

Respect and Your Horse

How you see respect

So much of the horse training world is built on respect. Your horse has to respect you, because if he doesn’t he will walk all over you, push through you, or not do what you tell him to. That is frustrating and even dangerous.

The concept of respect also puts a lot of pressure on you. How? Well, if your horse doesn’t respect you, it must be because of something you’ve done (or not done), right? That is stressful! Or maybe he’s just a bad horse. That’s even worse—I love horses and can’t stand discounting one as being ‘just bad’.

How your horse sees respect

This is going to sound strange.

Your horse doesn’t look at you and think, ‘I respect this person, I’ll do what she says,’ or even, ‘I don’t respect this person, I won’t do what she says.’

Yet, it is still true that sometimes your horse does what you say and sometimes he doesn’t. So, if this isn’t caused by respect, what causes it?

Your horse is acting on what he has learned. If he is rewarded in some way for performing a behaviour you like, he is going to do it again so he can feel that reward again. That behaviour worked for him, got him something he wanted.

In the same way, if he is rewarded for performing a behaviour you don’t like, he is also going to do it again. The reward is teaching him what he should do.

What this means for your relationship

Just—stand still!

Nothing starts a ride off badly like your horse pinning you against the wall of the tie stall or stepping on your foot—just because he is nervous and can’t seem to stand still and wait for you! This article explores why some horses dance around and how you can teach them to chill out.

What’s the Fuss?

You’ve asked your horse to stop, and you tied him up. What happens when he starts moving his feet again? He has failed the Rhythm level of the shaping scale by not continuing to do what you’ve told him to until you ask for something else. What does that mean? It means this is a training issue, not a respect or impatience issue.

Looking at the problem in these strictly objective terms helps to expose the solution. If he is moving without being asked, he just needs to be taught to not move until asked.

So, what we need to do is ‘shape’ the ‘stop’ response so it includes stopping (which we will assume he already does well) and staying stopped. Shaping is systematically rewarding behaviour that is closer and closer to what you want until the horse reaches the desired behaviour.

So, What do I do?

Check your horse’s stopping. To proceed with training Park, your horse will need to stop in two steps from light pressure on the lead rope.

* If you horse stops in two steps when you stop your feet, it doesn’t count. Why? If your cue for your horse to stop is when you stop your feet, his cue to move is therefore when you move your feet. That means he has permission to move while he is tied up because you are moving. Having a clear cue that shows the horse when it must stand still is necessary. Some cowboys drop the lead rope. I prefer using backwards pressure on the halter. Choose a cue and stick to it.

Ok, he stops well. Grab a dressage whip (it is long enough to be useful but not so long it is cumbersome). Make sure your horse doesn’t fear it. A whip is a cue, not a punishment. If he tries to run away, you will have to get him used to it being around before you can use it. When he is comfortable with you having it, teach him to step backwards when you tap the front of his legs lightly.

Holding your lead rope in one hand and the whip in the other, face your horse so you can see his feet. Step backwards, away from him, just one small step. Did he move? If he follows you, tap the front of the leg that moved until it goes back. Don’t get upset; he just made a small mistake, and you corrected it. Horses don’t learn well from punishment, so calm, quick correction is the best way to teach.

Try stepping away again. As he gets better you can be more creative with how you move. Can you get him to make a mistake? Run away, leap away, jog circles around him, veer off on an unexpected angle. Correct any mistakes and go back to the last level he was successful at to practice.

How Long will it Take?

If you spend 15 minutes on this every time you handle your horse, and if you are consistent and clear, your horse should be standing very nicely most of the time in a few weeks. Keep in mind that when you start going out of sight, you are changing the context of how he learned to stand still (previously you were always in his sight) and he might make more mistakes. If you go to a new area, he may also make more mistakes. Introduce new situations in small steps and give consistent correction. Don’t forget to practice when he is tied as well!

As always, if you’re trying to make headway and it isn’t working, you know who to call! Contact me for help.