How to Handle a Spook

Does your horse see 'monsters' when you take him to new places? Learn how to diffuse his behavior, using the same techniques I use with my horses.

Have you ever seen a rider get into an argument with a spooked horse? The horse leaps away from something he deems scary, such as a banner, cattle pens, or busy bleachers. His rider reacts by trying to bully the horse, kicking and pulling on him in an effort to force him to confront his fear.

Guess what? Wrong approach. Rule No. 1 when your horse spooks: The bigger a deal you make of it, the bigger a deal it will turn out to be.

And guess what else? Your horse will likely never forget that whatever scared him—banner, cattle pen, bleacher, trashcan, baby buggy, bush, or whatever—also got him in trouble. Chances are, he’s gonna worry about it. And spook at it again. And again.

I’ll show you the smart approach to a spook. Using it, I can usually get a horse “over” the object of his fear in a matter of minutes. And…without a fight.1. When your horse spooks, stay calm and take a deep breath. If you can do so without a fight, quietly guide him up to the object of his fear (in this case, a banner), so he can inspect it (see the above photo). Whether he’ll come close enough to sniff it or wants to hang back, next take his mind off it by putting him to work.

Guide him on jog or trot circles near the object, working him in both directions. Gradually work him closer and closer to the scary thing as his comfort level increases. (You’ll know he’s getting more comfortable when he lowers his head and flicks an ear back toward you.)

Look at the worry on this gelding’s face. That worry means he’s reactive. If his rider were to try to force him to face his fear, all heck could break lose. Instead, his rider is doing the right thing: He’s staying relaxed and reassuring the horse. Everything he’s doing is communicating, “Hey, it’s no big deal.”

2. The quiet circle work will soon redirect your horse’s attention away from the object, and back to you. When you can consistently guide him in both directions right by the scary thing without him raising his head or tensing his body…

3. …test his level of relaxation, by stopping him next to it. You’ll know it’s Mission Accomplished if your horse does what this gelding is doing: ignores “the monster.” But look at the gelding’s right ear—it’s still tuned in to that banner.

If your horse pays even the slightest attention to the scary object, and you can do so safely, take a break by it. Let him relax while you chat with a friend or make a phone call. That way the spooky spot becomes a happy place, because your horse gets to rest there. (If he’s still too fearful to stand still, do more circle work. It won’t take long for him to figure out that being afraid is harder work than being brave!)

4. In no time, his fear will evaporate. And you’ll have avoided turning a minor blip into a major problem.

A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at

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