Spooking When Outside of the Ring

I ride a horse at a stable not to far away. Some other girls and I go trail riding alot but it doesn’t always work out to well. The main reason is that the horse I ride is often skittish and doesn’t like to do the things I ask of her. In an arena she is perfectly fine but when she sees the trails she seems to freeze up or just start spinning. What can I do to help relax her and keep her well under control? Thank you!


This can often be the symptom of a lack of confidence, both in her ability to handle the scary and unexpected, and a lack of confidence on her part in your ability to handle potentially (in her perception) harmful situations and protect her.   Most likely, she is fine in the ring because the ring is familiar and comfortable.

It’s this basic, underlying lack of confidence that you may need to address.

To do so, you will need to teach her to have more confidence in her own abilities and to have more confidence in you as her “protector.” As with most things, you will need to take time to show her. You will need to put in the effort it will take to convince her that you are her protector and one she can trust implicitly and to do this may even require a complete revamping of your relationship with her.

There are several things that you can do, depending on your situation and the availability of space and materials.

The first, easiest, most often overlooked, and yet the most important thing to consider is how you and her interact in the little, everyday activities you do with her. Things like feeding, grooming, tacking, vet care, leading and handling. In these activities, do you take time to pay attention to how she is “treating” you, or do you get in a hurry, do things out of habit, and don’t really focus on her expressions and her body language? These little, everyday things are critical to how a horse views their companion (you, in this instance). You want to make sure your leadership qualification is firmly established in your horse’s mind.

When horses interact with each other, you will notice some set procedures that they will for follow for certain situations day in and day out. For instance, when you throw out piles of hay, the dominant horse will often go from pile to pile, pushing the other horse off of that pile, taking just a bite or two from each one and moving on to the next one, until all the piles have been visited. They generally end up back where they started and everyone falls to eating. They do this without rancor, generally without aggressiveness, but with assuredness and confidence that the other horses will move off when the more dominant horse says to. Most importantly, they will do this EVERY time. These types of set routines are a comfortable equine way of showing that the leader horse is still the leader and the other horses are respecting that leadership. It’s something all of them expect and it’s done instinctively and consistently.  Therefore, you want to behave the same sort of way. When you feed, insist that your horse stand back for a minute and wait for your permission to come and eat. When you lead, insist that your horse stay at the proper distance and keep her head level with your shoulder without you needing to push and pull her to keep her there. Anytime you need to lead her somewhere, practice leading at a walk, a jog, make turns in both directions, halt and backing up. She should perform all of these things without any tugging on the rope and while maintaining proper spacing and staying level with your shoulder.  When you are grooming or tacking, insist that she stand still and not fidget or walk around. In other words, her focus should constantly be on you and on what you are doing. The herd is always, down to the very last horse, constantly aware of what the leader horse is doing and where it is. You need to have the same respect from your horse.

Now, you also will need to be able to clearly and effectively communicate your horse what you DO want her to do when she is uncertain and nervous and frightened. As with any equine communication, you cannot expect her to listen to you when she has not learned what you want, and you especially cannot expect this of her when she is frightened. With this in mind,  attach a longe line and teach her to walk past you and then halt on command. Then teach her to walk between you and a wall or fence on command and stop on command. Work on these things until she is consistently responding to the commands “walk on” and “whoa” in a variety of common situations.

Once you have your horse focused and seeing you as their leader in little everyday things and she also understands and responds to “walk on” and “whoa” you can start working on your leadership qualifications in the scary things.

Set up as many scary obstacles as you can in the area you have available. Start in the ring where she is most comfortable and set up things like strips of plastic garbage bags suspended from a line, a crinkly tarp to walk over, a large patio umbrella (you can even hang small stuffed animals from it), gaudy lawn and garden ornaments (trolls are especially effective), One very effective idea is to have a friend put on a large backpack or a rolled-up sleeping bag across their shoulders (or wrap a large blanket around their head and shoulders) and walk towards the horse without speaking.  While this may sound odd, you would be surprised how many backpackers and hikers simply do not speak when you encounter them on the trail, sometimes, not even when you ask them to say something.  Always, of course, use common sense and use good judgement on how close and/or quickly to work with each new scary thing.  Use your imagination and whatever you can get your hands on that would be spooky-looking. Practice leading your horse to, past, and over these things Starting from the ground, work with leading her around these exercises, expecting the same focus and respect as always. Then, ask her to walk between you and a scary obstacle, and past you towards a scary obstacle. Remember to give lots of praise and encouragement when she does these things correctly. Your horse should learn to “whoa” when you say to, even when nervous or frightened, and should also learn to “walk on” when you say to, even when nervous or frightened.

Eventually, progress to mounting and riding up,over, through, under and around everything again, using the same “walk on” and “whoa” commands. When riding, make sure you are sitting confidently upright and with solid contact with your seat and legs. Many people, when they feel their horse getting tense, will tense up themselves and lean slightly forward which lightens their seat. To the horse, this feels as if their rider, their leader, has just left them! At the very least, it feels to them as if their rider is ready to jump off and run, too.  Instead of lightening your seat, straighten your shoulders and sit deeper, pushing” her forward with your seat and closing your legs firmly around her.
When she hesitates, tell her to “walk on” with your voice, seat and legs, and when she tries to spin away from something, tell her to “whoa,” in a confident voice (hopefully as confident as you were on the ground), stopping her with your seat and legs and reins.

When you feel confident that she and you are working well together in the arena, take her out for a very short ride along the trail. Don’t go out very far or for very long, and do go with another, confident horse. Keep things simple and easy and practice your voice commands and pay attention to how you are sitting and using your legs and seat. Once you have successfully negotiated 15 or 20 minutes, turn around and go home with lots of praise and encouragement. Work up to longer and further rides as her confidence in herself and in you grows.

Remember, you will NEVER eliminate all spooking, that’s just part and parcel of being a horse. However, you CAN reduce the number of spooks by giving her confidence in herself and in your leadership as well as teach her to control herself when she does spook; that there is no need to bolt, spin, or panic because she CAN trust you. That trust is what will give her (and you) the ability to overcome the fright quickly and proceed calmly with the ride.