Calming Signals: Thoughts About Spooking at Nothing

There are two kinds of spooking. This is the first: It was midmorning on the ranch, and we were riding out. My friend was on the best trail horse in the world, and they were helping me and my young gelding gain confidence. We usually walked through an especially beautiful ravine where the plant growth was stirrup high because it seemed Annie, that good trail mare, could call the butterflies in. One day it happened. A wild turkey fell out of a tree. Maybe it tried to fly, or maybe the bird had an unplanned dismount, but it landed on Annie’s head and turkeys have a decent wingspan. It flapped hard enough for a contagious response from all of us. Humans had no unplanned dismounts that day, but there was some dancing about, and to be honest, it was more alarming to me than to my horse. What a ruckus! The next time out, I noticed myself looking up more often for fear of an attack by air. I developed Chicken Little paranoia. Remember, it is not paranoia if someone is really after you.

The incident stuck in my mind all these years since because that was when it dawned on me that for all our practice with inclines and obstacles, I didn’t know how to train for the possibility of flapping things falling out of the sky onto my horse. We’d worked through plastic bags and mud puddles, but how do you prepare for a legitimate spook; random chaos that is both concrete and real, yet totally unpredictable?

The second kind of spooking can be equally energetic, but it seems there is nothing there or it’s something your horse seen a thousand times. Another young horse of mine back in the day would spook at dressage letters, in our home arena. They’d always been there but just like when Sesame Street would pick a letter for an episode, my horse randomly picked a letter and spooked at it for a week until another letter caught his eye. It was strangely consistent yet never with a visible reason. What is that about? How can I train for the fresh hell of our ordinary surroundings?

Just because there is no visible turkey, it doesn’t mean nothing is nothing going on. A spook can be a cumulative result of layered stresses. Possible issues could be physical like ulcers, bad saddle fit, body soreness, and ovarian cysts in mares. Spooking in a horse who usually doesn’t could even be early symptoms of an upcoming health challenge.

Then there are big-picture stressors like being bullied in the herd, extreme weather changes, living isolated in a stall, or struggling with exhaustion. Being a new horse or having had a recent move is stressful. As horses age, there are joint changes, arthritis, and hoof issues, as well as the knowledge as they get more frail, that they feel more vulnerable. Think of things like this as contributing factors to a stack of reasons a horse might lose confidence.

Perhaps the most notable stressor is harsh or fear-based training, the poor use of spurs or whips, and accelerating cues create stress. If the goal is to control the horse so much that the horse shuts down, be aware it won’t work forever.

Some of us appear to ride with horse-crazy bravado, making jokes about our horse killing us. We like the adrenaline rush. There is still an involuntary response in our nervous system. We might feel bold but our nervous system is on high alert. Others become defensive, but thinking we can control unknown chaos only makes us ride like coyotes, with tense hands and shallow breathing we let the horse know he has another big reason to be nervous. We say horses read our fear but it’s more fair to say they carry these erratic emotions on top of their own prey senses. 

None of these reasons are actual monsters hiding in the arena corner or behind a tree, but they exist and add up until the horse, trying to be stoic and get along, just can’t hold it together any longer. In other words, it might not be an easily identifiable overbearing issue, but rather avoiding the anxiety, belittling what the horse is trying to communicate, lean in and be curious about ways to help your horse rather than push him farther away. 

Could we change our thoughts about spooking? Instead of accusing the environment, consider if there could be a good side to spooking. I notice lots of times, a small spook seems to immediately improve the ride; that it releases emotion and steadies a horse. A spook might be almost like a sneeze, a full-body calming signal, like a neck stretch or poll release with a bit more energy. A spook might be a valuable message we miss if we’re busy looking for the cause in the branches of a tree. 

We can’t train a defense for either kind of spook. There will always be a surprise wild turkey equivalency, real or internalized, and horses will always believe every moment is a life-and-death situation. Spooking is a natural flight response; it’s survival. What we can train is our reaction. We can teach ourselves to feel when our horses are getting near a threshold and rather than flinch, praise them to build confidence. It’s counterintuitive for a predator to face fear with a smile, but horses need our help to change the dynamic.

 We must learn to not spook at our horse’s spooks, and instead of punishing them and searching for the external source, check our internal situation. Did we clamp our legs or inhale and soften? Both are cues. Horses are internally hardwired to spook, but we aren’t horses, we can breathe ourselves down, and in that moment, cue our horses to do the same. They need the reminder as much as we do. 

Start here:

  • Monitor yourself for tension before addressing it in your horse.
  • Breathe, cue quietly and consistently. Ask for simple transitions.
  • Use obstacles (even dressage letters) to train affirmatively, giving your horse time to process.
  • Experiment with ways to engage his mind, curiosity becomes courage.
  • Practice Leading from Behind, and let your horse gain the confidence to take you for a walk.
  • If you feel tension growing, offer your horse calming signals to soothe himself. Exhale, let him look away, stretch, graze a moment.
  • Stay engaged, give your horse something affirmative to think about, and praise his efforts when shadows rise. Stay affirmative when you both need it most.
  • Value building peace more than obedience. A relaxed horse is more likely to stay sound and are safer to ride.
  • Most of all, with a trusting rider, a calm confident horse spooks less often. 

The truth is there is a reason horses spook every time. Sometimes we blame the turkey, but the invisible reasons might matter the most. Fighting a horse’s fear response makes it grow, but by releasing nagging stress we’re creating safety for our horses. In this light, spooking might be something to make friends with.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

42 thoughts on “Calming Signals: Thoughts About Spooking at Nothing”

  1. As always your article is a great thought provoker. If our trail rides include an occasional run instead of slow pace only, do you think that alleviates tension? I’ve been working on getting deep relaxation on cue, but running is the natural release.

    • I might say it differently; movement is a calming signal. Horses must be allowed to move out. Some running turns into hysteria and exhaustion isn’t the same as relaxed… but a forward soft canter is a soothing movement. I would want to see the individual horse, rider, and situation rather than make a blanket statement for all situations. Generally I agree, as long as it doesn’t intimidate or scare the horse. Thanks, Alice.

  2. Definitely something to think about! Because of several factors, I haven’t ridden my guy in over a year and will have another person , years younger than me, ride him several times before I climb on his back. He’s consistently been a solid, no-nonsense guy on the trails when I was riding one or two times/week & I’m looking forward to continuing. Thanks for writing.

  3. What is it with these wild turkeys? I was riding one horse and ponying the other. We were on a familiar trail, though hadn’t been on it for a while. All of a sudden both horses spooked and we were turned 180 degrees going back. I noticed a big cloud of dust as we whipped around. I went with the turn and made it 360 degrees and stopped the horses to look. It was 2 huge turkeys all fluffed up (so looked huge) and taking a sand bath. I had us watch for a while as I told them it was fine and petted them for standing. Finally the turkeys noticed us and huffed away. Now my horses are 17 and 20. We’ve had a long time to develop trust. I don’t know that there is any substitute for time, because horses are going to spook. And doing the things in your blog are priceless advice on how to add the spook to the long history of surviving scary things together that can lead to that trust. But if you ride horses, you have to expect spooks. And sometimes “unscheduled dismounts.”

    • I agree, Therese, there is no substitute for time. And no idea about the turkey crisis. Hope you are having a good summer. THanks.

  4. I got such a laugh out of the whole “turkey dropping on the horse’s head” Yeah, I realize it could have been a disaster – but it WASNT! Far too many times our spooks were caused by turkeys – for some reason they always seemed to wait till we were almost upon them before blowing up up and away. Good girl Annie! (I knew a mare named Annie years ago – she was another good girl).

  5. I have to ask if the title of this essay “…Spooking at Nothing,” was meant to be facetious? I’ve always been of a mind that it’s never nothing to the horse. And as you say, Anna, it’s how we humans behave (react) that makes the difference.
    That said, I’m glad that you all survived the turkey dance on Annie’s head. Wow, what a story!

    • Yes, I’d call it sarcasm. People are always so sure they know more than horses. So sure their dogs aren’t barking at something. I get so tired of hearing horses get blamed for our frail senses… “Turkeys fall from the Sky” might have been better. Thanks Lynell

  6. What’s with the turkeys?!
    First ride on Val – the day I tried him out for purchase, was a trail ride. About halfway through, a wild turkey flew out of some deep brush right beside us. I didn’t even have time to think (how lucky was that) and Val did one of those four legs splayed out spook in place things. That’s when I knew he was the one for me. 🥰

    • Been there several times! For large birds that can fly SILENTLY away – when they want to – they sure do make a comeupance (!) when they dont want to. Most times its laughable. Most…

    • Yup, the reason to buy a horse. As for turkeys, Ben Franklin wanted them to be the national bird. Nothing trustworthy about them. Thanks, Christian. (soon)

  7. Anna, I love the idea of reframing a spook in a more positive light. I was thinking about it like a release valve on a pressure cooker; it’s there so the pot doesn’t explode. My Arabian has been prone to relatively frequent spooking throughout his life. I always thought it unfortunate until you pointed out that there seems to be a deeper sense of calm afterward. Unfortunately, this dull human didn’t see the big picture at the time because I was too busy waiting for the next spook, but they didn’t usually happen again on the same ride. Another case for me of being blind in the present and hind sight being 20/20. Thank you for sharing your brilliance.

    • We learn in hindsight just like horses. Arabs are so fun. I remember being on one who was giving the side-eye to something and almost silently I said, as I looked to the other direction, “Well, don’t look at it then.” And he moved his gaze to where I was looking. He didn’t look at it again. And I’m not saying it would work again, either. Thanks Laurie

  8. My dear old Arab was one of those ‘spook at nothing’ horses, then I realized he primarily spooked like that when I asked him to give over his body to me, specifically collected arena work. On the trails he always looked hard at everything, but we could work through anything on a loose rein with plenty of patience (even when the “solid trail horses” spun for home). Aside from the spooks caused by flapping turkey situations, I wonder if a little more bodily autonomy might help.

    • Way back when we used to see quite a few balloons – you know the ones with baskets & the noise blasting? Now THAT was worth looking at and avoiding.

  9. Since horses read our minds (okay, our emotions) I love the idea of reframing the spook, both during and after. Of course it’s natural, but as you point out, it’s also so man-made. Last winter in Florida my girl was so jacked up by limited turn out time and overall stressors that she jumped at her own shadow. I brought her home to a more horse-friendly environment and that all went away. What we do. That’s the real scary bit. Thanks, Anna. I give myself a pat on the back for riding through her spooks and absolutely saying “good girl!” when she comes back down. As her feeling of safety grows, so does her confidence in me (or vice-versa), and hence our confidence in each other. Looking forward to seeing you in Virginia.

    • When working with people, I try to get a view of the big picture of all the factors in play. How they live in the hours we aren’t with them is always bigger than the in-the-moment things. I’m glad your girl is home. Thanks, and see you soon!

  10. Help!
    I’ve totally lost my confidence. So, here’s the thing if I don’t tighten my grip when I sense a problem I end up on the deck as my mare does a super quick 180. Obviously, when I tighten she senses my anxiety and gets wizzy. I tighten more… vicious circle ensues. How can I break the circle. In my world (Bulgaria) I’m surrounded by turkeys, goats, unschooled stallions and all sorts of free-range livestock. There is a monster round every corner. I’ve had a turkey incident, a loose colt trying to play fight with my mare, a horse a cart fly past at full gallop with gypsy driver yelling like Ben Hur at the hippodrome.
    As a women of a certain age I have enough imagination to see dangerous situations far more clearly than I did when I was younger. I just want to enjoy riding my horse in the beautiful countryside that I’m lucky enough to live in.
    But I’ve lost my nerve and it makes me feel very sad and hopeless.

    • Hi Kati. It does sound like a bit of chaos, and a horse’s response time is 7x quicker than ours… I do appreciate the challenge. I can’t be much help in a comment box, but there is no way to control the environment. I’d cut it into small pieces and start with doing less. Are the two of you safe in an arena? School transitions, small easy ones, and then when riding out, lightly hold your horse’s attention by asking for those same simple transitions. Keep in mind that a transition is anything you aren’t presently doing; it could be a longer stride. In effect, have something the two of you can “talk” about rather than the chaos. If you can, find a riding friend with a calm horse to help. Being a woman of a certain age isn’t easy. Thanks, Kati

      • Hi Anna,
        Thank you for your advice and understanding, it’s much appreciated.
        It is a lot of chaos and I think my little mare’s reaction time is probably more like 10x mine.
        I don’t have the luxury of an arena, and nor is there anyone I could ride out with. Horses are not generally ridden here. They are hitched to a cart and used for work.
        So, I’m on my own trying hard to work things out. Through a long slow process I’ve gained tremendous trust from a smart horse who was badly abused until she was 4 when I got her. I backed her myself, slowly and gently. I do lots of groundwork with her. I barefoot trim myself, never having to tie her to do it. When first came I couldn’t even pick her feet without a huge drama.
        Apart from my husband and I she will not tolerate anyone else near her, not inclined to run away and hide. She can be very aggressive with others.
        She is not confined to a stable, but is free to move around yard, stable and small paddock. I use slow feed hayballs and boxes to keep her moving about and amused.
        All was going well until I quite suddenly began to get nervous. When I was younger adrenaline was good, I liked it.
        Now it just hits me and I’m unable to control the sense of panic that overwhelms me.
        Karina trusts me, so when I’m worried she thinks she should be. As I’m supposed to be keeping her safe.
        I do breath, sometimes I count or sing ( badly). I talk to Karina a lot, whatever I’m doing.
        It must be the woman of a certain age thing. I’m not at all pink and fluffy, and I’m not a little old lady. I get on with stuff, how ever hard or physical, I do it. Takes a bit longer these days but I get it done.
        It’s not the horse, it’s me!
        Maybe I need a therapist. Isn’t that what you do in the US?
        I’m sorry this is nearly as long as your posts. It does help to get it off my chest though.

        Thanks for listening

        • I’m glad for your comment. And you are doing a lot right, aren’t you. Have you had her scoped for ulcers. Might not be easy, but these symptoms fit ulcers, too

          • Hi Anna,
            Thanks so much for your encouragement, I’m happy to hear that you think I’m getting it right.
            I will bear it in mind, although I don’t feel that she has any health issues along those lines. A visit from the vet stresses her so much that I’m reluctant unless absolutely necessary.
            I don’t think the problem lies with her, she’s a star. It’s her insecure owner who has issues.
            Before I go, being English I would like to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth ll.
            What an inspiration to any woman with a love of horses.

          • I respect Queen Elizabeth II both as a horse person and also a corgi person; she is my hero and will be missed here as well. (Even if vets are hard, it’s important. Dr. Sue Dyson and many others believe sound horses are in the minority.)

        • Hi Kati. I agree with Anna about ulcers. I found a product that claims to not only prevents ulcers but actually heals any that they have. My vet strongly approves. It’s Visceral+ from Mad Barn. Both of my horses are on it and I have seen major improvements in a very short period of time. Also, I can tell you that my mare spooks more when she is not rested. I am a huge believer that horses must SLEEP (that is, get REM sleep.) When she has been down in her stall sleeping during the night (evidenced by shavings on her face and top line the next morning) I know she is ready for the day. Just some thoughts. Take good care and my prayers go with the Queen. A remarkable women in so many ways.

          • Hi Kathy,
            Thank you so much for taking the time to write. I will certainly look into visceral+ as a supplement for Karina. Unfortunately, living in Bulgaria it’s not so easy to source products. I do give a probiotic and her droppings are good and healthy. Something I monitor constantly. My husband thinks I’m obcessed with poo. But as you know it’s important.
            I think my post has slightly been misunderstood, however. Karina has a very relaxed lifestyle, she is never shut in a stable or tied. She is able to wander around paddock, yard and into stable as she wishes. Feeding done with slow feed hayballs and a slow feed box placed randomly around the property. Fresh well water is always available, also placed in 2 locations and blocks of natural rock salt. She has to move around to get anything she needs. She is so relaxed about feeding, nibbling for a while,then taking a nap before a bit more nibbling. Just as she would if living a natural life. She also likes to have a proper lie down in her stable, which she can do at anytime. An afternoon snooze seems to be one of her favourite times. Especially in summer when it is very hot here, the stable is lovely and cool and airy.
            Before I had her she was tied in a narrow stall, with little room to move let alone lie down. During the winter, which is brutal, she still has the same freedom to move around. I do put a rug on, but not a heavy one and only if it’s wet or the windchill is very cold.
            People here think I’m crazy, but they shut their horses in small unventilated buildings with little light or fresh air for weeks. Nor do they actually muck out until the horses ears touch the ceiling. Can you imagine?
            Sorry I’m wandering off a bit, but I’m trying to paint a picture for you.
            So, back to the misunderstanding. My horse is very relaxed, yes she can be pretty sharp and move quickly. But it’s me that’s causing the problem. In simple terms, I’ve lost my nerve. My reaction to situations makes Karina think that there must be something to be afraid of
            I tighten and panic, then she tightens and panics.
            Thanks again for taking time, it helps to talk and listen to others.
            You take good care and keep safe too
            Kati xx

        • Kati, thank you for making your situation more clear. Your horse has a wonderful life. I am sorry other horses in Bulgaria do not, but it is the same elsewhere, too, sadly. You did not mention that she is with other horses so I am wondering if she has others. I, too, love the free lifestyle for horses. My two come in and out of the stalls/pastures as they want, etc. It makes their life very natural, as you say. For me, I lost my nerve as well, so I understand completely what you mean. My mare and I started to gain confidence in each other under saddle by walking — alot! I also let her go (the hardest thing to do!) by giving her her head and not holding her back because of my fear. She has all the confidence we need for both of us and when I decided to stop messing and start trusting HER, believe it or not, it was great! Just a thought. We all are trying to find out way. With Anna’s help, thankfully! Cheers.

          • Thank you Kathy,
            Great advice, I will think of your words when I ride. Letting go is, as you say, very hard to do.
            I’m afraid I don’t have another horse. It does worry me that she’s alone in that sense. It’s just not an option. Having said that, one of our dogs lives outside with her, a little stray who is always by her side, even sleeping in the stable with her. We are always nearby too. If there wasn’t a fence between us, I swear she’d come into the house if we left the door open. We also have numerous cats wandering around. And then there’s the neighbours goats, chickens and one has a mare who Karina chats with. So, she’s never really alone.
            Thanks for your support, appreciate it

  11. If I were you, I would go back to walking and leading along the path instead of riding. But I’m not an expert. Just sounds way too scary to ride with a reactive horse, lots of scary things, and a worried rider. Got to restore the sense of safety and enjoyment. Remember they feel your fear so if you are worried they think they should worry more.

    • Hello Alice,
      Thanks for your comments and advice. I’ve had a quick look at James French, I do like what I see. I will be studying it further as soon as possible. Yes, I’m very happy to try new things. As with most things in life, I believe that one never stops learning. I’ve been around horses all my life. For 30 years I worked as groom for a retired British cavelary officer and fox hunting master. A wonderful man and a great mentor, but it was old school. Now I have the opportunity to do things in a much more natural way. It’s a huge learning curve, I only wish I could have done it when I was younger. Help and advice from yourself and of course Anna, and Kathy who has also been very supportive is a great help.
      Kati xx

      • Alice, I deleted that recommendation because although I encourage comments, it’s against our rules to use this site to promote, or even mention, other trainers. I do it as a professional courtesy to others and I hope others will show me the same kindness.

  12. Thank you Alice,
    My reply is pretty much the same as I posted to Anna.
    You are absolutely right. My confidence or lack of transfers instantly to Karina.
    She’s relying on me to keep her safe.
    Kati xx

  13. An excellent article once again. Thank you for considerations I have not thought about and then strategies to change my reactions.
    I am learning that it is never the horse’s fault .


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