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Spooky Horses, part 2 - Horses that are scared of 'things'

For this blog I’m going to look at the horse that is frightened of ‘things’ 😱😱

These horses are genuinely frightened of 'stuff' noise, plastic, people in the bushes, sabre toothed squirrels, pokemons you name it....

They are consistently spooking at the same thing time after time, you always know if there’s something new it’s going to be a problem. If left unresolved what you can find is that your world gets smaller and smaller and more controlled until it’s not ok for someone to walk past the arena or make any noise, or carry anything unusual past you and your horse.

For these horses desensitisation, de-spooking, counter conditioning and ridden techniques that incorporate these are going to be most effective.

Desensitisation & De-Spooking

Different trainers have their own version of these and how they are applied based on their training and personal experiences. Which approach you pick will depend on a number of things, your horse’s character (some approaches will suit better than others), the amount of time you have or are willing to put in to the problem and your confidence as a handler/rider.

If a rider is confident enough and the horse is calm enough I personally have no problem starting in the saddle but this will take tact and timing to build the horses confidence.

If you lack confidence as a rider I strongly recommend that you start on the ground and stay on the ground until you are confident in your horse and their responses to different stimuli. It’s very hard to help your horse if you are nervous yourself.

Desensitisation techniques in all their various forms involve exposing the horse to the scary thing or movement and rewarding them for positive responses and/or signs of relaxation by either

  • stopping the movement

  • moving the scary thing away, or...

  • moving away from the scary thing

Some trainers will also teach the horse to display a relaxed posture e.g. to put their head down to gain the reward. This can be extremely valuable for horses that tend to stay tense and high headed but it is important to make sure that the horse isn’t just putting their head down as a learned response but is staying tense.

Positive reinforcement techniques such as Counter Conditioning also incorporate something the horse likes (usually food) into this reward system. This can be great for really changing a horses mind from something terrifying to something really great!

Be aware that food can cause it’s own challenges so needs to be used wisely so as not to teach the horse to ‘mug’ you for the reward. It’s also important to be sure that your horse isn’t overriding his fear just to get at the treat as this won’t resolve anything.

Taking the Groundwork into the saddle

Learning how to ride around, through and eventually up to spooky objects once your horse is less afraid of them is key to staying safe and building your horses confidence in the saddle. This takes time and patience.

One of the keys is don’t try and ride straight up to the thing your horse is scared of!! Horses in nature don’t do that, they move around the thing, they go this way and that way so they get a chance to inspect it out of each eye. They get a bit closer, then they go away from it, then they come back and eventually they get brave enough to go up to it and have a look.

So how do you apply this in training?...

Ride around the ‘scary thing’, ride past it, allow your horse space from the ‘scary thing’ and progressively get closer through a few rounds. Make sure you go in both directions. Try and keep a bend in your horses body using your rein and leg to help him maintain a relaxed posture and not get tense and tight.

If it's something that moves like a cyclist, lorry or tractor the best thing to do is to see if you can set up a situation where you can follow it at a safe distance and progressively get closer till you can ride past. Horses gain confidence when they can follow something and it's going away from them, something coming towards them is the most challenging.

Learning when to do something and when to stop so your horse has enough time to think is critical, the stopping time being as important if not more so than the ‘doing’ time. This varies from horse to horse and situation to situation. If you give your horse stopping time and he fixes on the thing and starts to feel like he’s growing from 14hh to 19hh and you can feel his heart pumping then he doesn’t need more time standing still! Calmly give him something else to do and think about. If he’s standing processing and getting calmer then the stopping time is productive in getting him more relaxed.

Lastly and of course most importantly stay calm and patient yourself. Horses are highly sensitive to emotions, they don’t know why you’re frustrated or your scared, they just know that something isn’t right and that’s a cause for concern for them.

If you find yourself getting frustrated, it’s time to take a break or finish the session. If you find you are feeling nervous then it’s important to look at whether it’s possible to deal with the situation in a different way where you can feel safer, examples of this would be starting on the ground or slowing things down so that your horse is less reactive.

In conclusion, it is perfectly possible for any horse to become more confident and more relaxed about scary stuff, be that objects or movement. It takes some time and focus to work on it but the results can be seriously rewarding having a confident horse that you can take out knowing he can cope with the situation and if he has difficulty you know how to help. This is a great feeling!!! 😃🦄💕


Before trying any training technique it is important to rule out pain or discomfort. Saddle fit, teeth, back, hoof balance and lameness issues should all be checked by a qualified professional before applying any training.

If you have questions or need idea's to help with a specific problem feel free to get in touch with me on


Lyla has been helping riders and their horses in the UK, USA and Europe for over 15 years. She has prepared horses for crowds of over 6,000 people with no calmers or ear plugs for venues including Birmingham NEC, Aintree, Bury Farm EC and Hartpury.

Lyla specialises in horse psychology and behaviour problems with a specific interest in dressage and has worked with horses from grass roots to Grand Prix across the UK and Europe including international competitors and Olympians from Spain, the US, Canada and the UK.

See or email for more details.


All training techniques discussed are from experience only, it is impossible for to accurately advise on horse/rider combinations without seeing them live. Lyla Cansfield & Equine Mind & Body Training strongly advise anyone considering using any of the techniques discussed to get live help and can take no responsibility for the outcome of applying any of the techniques discussed without supervision. Riding is a high risk sport.

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