Confident Rider Tip: Solving the Mystery of the Unexplained ‘Spook’

Question from a reader:

“Do you find that you can be working with your horse for a while, then ask the same thing of him as you’ve already done nicely, and all of a sudden he’s not paying attention anymore? And if you try to get his attention he ‘panics’ or spooks suddenly from the least little thing?”

People are often caught off-guard by the spook, bolt or buck that seems to come out of no where.  Some people think it’s just the horse’s way of evading doing something he doesn’t want to do or that he’s trying to ‘get them’.  While it may be true that horses will try to avoid doing things we ask of them (and, honestly, why shouldn’t they avoid work any less than we do?), it’s not true that they plot and plan ways to get us humans.

Here’s the thing about horses.  As prey animals they want to conserve energy as much as possible so that they have lots available when they need to run away from a predator.  So, a part from the exuberant play that youngsters sometimes indulge in, horses are pretty lazy (to put a label on it).  But, hey – I can relate.  I don’t like to expend any more energy than is absolutely necessary.  That’s why I’m always looking for short cuts to getting chores done around the farm.  One friend says I’m very creative.  I call it laziness.  

But back to the spooking, bolting, bucking horse issue.  So, why does an animal that likes to conserve his energy expend all that excess energy to avoid doing something he doesn’t want to do or just to ‘get the human’?  The answer is – he doesn’t.

There is always a reason for the horse’s behaviour.  Here are 3 possible reasons for that unexplained spook.

  1. Horses see, hear, smell and feel things of which we -mere humans with our different level of senses – are unaware.    Just because you didn’t see or hear anything that you believe would have startled  you horse, doesn’t mean that he didn’t see, hear or even smell something.
  2. Horses learn from repetition and it only takes 3 repetitions for them to see a pattern.  So, it’s really easy to inadvertently teach a horse to be nervous at a certain spot in the arena or on the trail or when asked to perform a particular transition or movement.  And that pattern can be created just as easily for you as it can be for your horse.  So, if your horse has spooked or reacted badly when you ride by a certain area or ask for a transition or movement, your anticipation of a repeat performance can cause you to be tense and nervous which affects how your horse feels physically and mentally.  Vicious cycle created.  
  3. How you sit on your horse affects how he feels.  Whether you’re in a western, english or treeless saddle or riding bareback, you affect (for better or for worse) your horse’s balance, alignment and level of relaxation.  Have you noticed how difficult it is to remain relaxed, supple and balanced when your horse is crooked, off balance and tense?  That works both ways.  So if you’re off balance, crooked or out of alignment in any way the less relaxed  your horse will be and the more reactive he will be to stresses (even little ones) in the environment.  And, you are more likely to give unclear and even conflicting messages to your horse.

Rider misalignment has a huge impact on horses behaviour causing them to exhibit unwanted behaviours or resistance.  You may be familiar with the rider vertical alignment (ear over shoulder over hip over heel) and the horse ‘nose/poll to tail’ alignment.  But are you aware of your alignment to your horse?

Horse and Rider Alignment

Horse and Rider Alignment – My horse is aligned poll to tail (her hind legs track up with her front legs); I am square (hips and shoulders); and we are aligned with each other.

You are sitting on your horse’s spine.  So, if you not aligned with his body and his bend, he will feel at least uncomfortable and at worst pain.  You are aligned with your horse when your belly button aims between his ears; your shoulders mirror his shoulders; and, your hips mirror his hips.  If your horse has a bend to the left (even a slight one), you mirror that bend when you keep your belly button aimed between his ears and your hips and shoulders square.  If your outside shoulder comes forward, his outside shoulder will mirror that and bulge out of the bend.  You’ll both be off balance and you’ll likely be hanging on to the inside rein trying to ‘correct’ him.  And suddenly – out of no where – is that spook or resistance to doing that transition …. 

The first step you can take to helping your horse feel less stressed and therefore less reactive to things in the environment is to improve your alignment.  It will also keep you better balanced and able to deal with any sudden movements that come ‘from no where’.

Your Turn:  Was this post helpful?  Share it with a friend who can benefit from it as well then leave me a comment below and tell me what you are struggling with.

The Bottom Line – The absolute best way to develop a true partnership with your horse is by building your confidence and trust in each other.

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You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you notify me and include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship  

Anne Gage ~ Confident Horsemanship –Putting you and your horse in good hands.
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How Assumptions About Your Horse Affect Your Riding

Change how you look at thingsWhile having coffee with a good friend the other day, the conversation turned to horses and the particular problem she was experiencing with her new riding partner who is a relatively green horse.   She had recently bought him to replace her older, well schooled mare.  She was having problems with the trot to canter transitions.  The transitions were inconsistent.  Sometimes he ran into them.  Sometimes he picked up the wrong lead.  Sometimes they were okay.  Sometimes she couldn’t get them at all.

My friend was not blaming her horse. She sincerely wanted to resolve this problem both for her horse’s sake and her own.  However, she was making an assumption about her horse.  She was assuming that he “knew” what she was asking him to do and that he was capable of just doing it.

At one point she said that she didn’t mind if her horse ran into the canter because a bad transition was better than no transition.  At least she was getting the canter.  Again, she was making an assumption.  She assumed that the transitions would just get better eventually.

What my friend assumed was that her horse understood “exactly” what she wanted him to do.  She assumed that his understanding of her aids and intention was exactly the same as her understanding.

Truth is this young horse doesn’t really know what specifically he is being asked to do.  He has been trained to understand that certain cues or aids mean he should go forward.  But, forward could mean more trot, an extended trot, a collected trot or a canter transition.  He gives a response to a cue.  If his response is what the rider was wanting, he has to be told “yes” in a way that is clear to him.  Removing the pressure of the cue would indicate that he has given the desired response.   If his response is not what the rider wanted, he has to be told “no” in a way that is clear to him.  The rider also has to make sure that the horse is set up properly in order to be able to complete the desired task.  In my friend’s case, for the canter transition, she first must make sure the horse is traveling in a balanced, forward trot with his hind quarter engaged and his back round.  Once that is achieved, she must give the cue for the canter transition.  If the horse responds by “running”, she needs to tell him “no” by bringing him calmly back to the balanced, forward, engaged trot.  Then she must give him the exact same cue for the canter transition.  Every time he responds with anything other than a canter, she must bring him calmly back to the balanced, round, forward trot.

My friend listened, nodded, and replied, “So if I let him run into the transition, he will think that is how he is supposed to do it.”  She would be training him to run into the canter transition rather than smoothly moving into the canter from the trot.

Horses are not mind readers and don’t know what we want.  Here’s an exercise to try with a friend which will give you a better idea of what it is like for the horse.  Stand with your arms stretched out in front of you and hold a lunge line between your hands to simulate the horse having the bit in his mouth.  Your friend stands behind you holding the ends of the lunge line like reins.  You close your eyes.  Have your friend move you around the arena without giving any vocal cues just by moving your body with pressure from the reins.

My friend had been assuming that her horse“knew” what was expected and had been getting frustrated that he wasn’t responding the way she wanted.  Once she changed her thinking and understood her horse’s perspective, she was able to change her training method to help her horse achieve the kind of transition she wanted.

If you assume the horse is just being difficult, or stubborn, or lazy, then you take no responsibility for his behaviour.  The key to good training is not making assumptions, but trying to understand your horse’s perspective to figure out why he is behaving in a certain way and what you need to do to help him understand what he is being asked to do.


Rather than assuming what your horse is thinking or understanding, how can you change your perspective so that you can grow as a rider?  Please  leave a comment or share your thoughts below or through Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

Share this post to spread the word about a better way to work with horses.  Enjoy your journey! 

My book is now available on! “Confident Rider, Confident Horse: Build Your Confidence While Improving Your Partnership with Your Horse from the Ground to the Saddle”.  Click here to order.

Interested in organizing a Confident Horsemanship clinic at your location? Click here for more information.

You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you notify me and include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (  

Confident Horsemanship with Anne Gage – Putting you and your horse in good hands.