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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Horse Training: Evading the Bit – Why A Stronger Bit Isn’t the Answer

Seen on Facebook:  “Anybody know of a good bit to use on a horse that runs through commands and fights the bit? I need to try a new bit because the horse I’m riding has a hard mouth.

Jumble of bits

When your horse runs through or fights the bit, it’s called evasion.  Common bit evasions include:

  • Chomping, opening or crossing his mouth
  • Running away
  • Leaning on the bit
  • Shaking, throwing or tossing his head
  • Going behind the bit (nose to his chest.)
  • Going above the bit (nose straight up)
  • Tongue hanging out

Unfortunately, moving up to a stronger bit or adding a gadget (eg. draw reins) is a common solution.  While it may work in the short term, it doesn’t address the real source of the problem.

If you want to eliminate the problem and build a better,  more trusting and willing partnership with your horse read on.

Following are 3 causes of bit evasions and how to correct them.

Cause #1 – Dental Problems & Poor Bit Fit

Horses run from pain.  Sharp teeth, ulcers inside his mouth or an injury to his tongue will be aggravated by the bit – even in gentle hands.

The Correction – Have your vet or equine dentist check for sharp or broken teeth, ulcers and even damage to his tongue.    Just like you, your horse should have his teeth checked by a professional at least annually and in some cases every 6 months.

Cause #2 – Poor Bit Fit

If the bit is too wide or sits too low in the mouth, it will move around too much.  If it’s too narrow or sits too high, it will pinch and damage the skin and bars in the mouth.  Bits also cause pain if they are too fat, too thin or don’t leave enough room for the tongue or push up into the palate.

The Correction – Check the size of the bit and how it fits the shape of your horse’s mouth.  It should not stick out on either side of the mouth or pinch the corners of his lips.  It should be about ¼” wider than the measurement from lip to lip (corner to corner).  Find the style of bit that works with the shape and size of your horse’s mouth having enough room for the tongue, not pressing on the palate and fitting easily between the bars.

When fitted correctly, the bit sits quietly across the bars without pulling up the lips or moving up and down.  Remember “a wrinkle not a smile“.  For most horses, this means at least one but no more than two wrinkles in the corners of the lips  However, for some horses there may be no wrinkle at all.  Adjust as necessary to ensure the bit fits comfortably without sliding up and down loosely.  

Cause #3 – Busy or Unsteady Hands

Hands that are busy, unsteady, tense, see-saw,  pull or constantly bump the horse’s mouth cause pain and discomfort.  They are also the sign of a tense and unbalanced rider.

The Correction – Develop an independent seat.  You should never use the reins for support, balance or the primary means for controlling your horse.  Your hands must work independently from your seat so that you can influence your horse without creating tension or resistance.  You will be balanced, able to follow and work with your horses movement – applying your aids at the right time, with the least amount of pressure and without tension.

For your horse to be able to perform at his best and be a confident, trusting and willing partner, he needs to be pain free, balanced and relaxed.   You can help him develop this way of going by being a quiet, balanced and relaxed rider.

Your Turn – What do you do when your horse evades the bit or gets strong?  Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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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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Horse Training: Stopping Your Horse from Grabbing Grass


I recently read an article by Julie Goodnight in The Trail Rider magazine in which she gives advice on how to stop a horse from grabbing grass while being ridden.

I took exception to this article right from the 2nd sentence in her reply:

“Snacking on the trail is a rude behavior and may be a sign that he doesn’t accept your authority.”

Far from being rude, “snacking” is a perfectly natural behaviour for a grazing animal.  An animal who is designed to travel long distances to find food and then to eat food whenever he finds it available.   It has very little (if anything at all) to do with the horse accepting “your authority”.

“While some riders allow the behavior and think of it as a horse’s natural instinct to graze constantly, it’s important to think about how horses act when part of a herd—and how they associate food with dominance.” (Julie Goodnight)

In their natural state, horses are grazers.  They DO have a natural instinct to graze constantly.  They DO NOT have a natural instinct to be aggressive and dominant about food – unless food is in short supply.  In the wild, horses travel many miles every day to graze.  They don’t live on lush pastures.  In fact, many wild horses live in areas with very sparse vegetation.  As prey animals, they know that their safety depends upon working collaboratively with their herd mates and that fighting over food is a waste of valuable energy.

“In the herd, horses establish the herd hierarchy by determining who controls food and water. Dominant horses always eat first and will run the subordinate horses away from the food supply until they’ve had their fill.” (Julie Goodnight)

Horses don't waste energy fighting over food when resources are plentiful.

Horses don’t waste energy fighting over food when resources are plentiful.

This behaviour may be seen in domestic herds, but it is created by over crowding and a lack of resources.  When food and water are always available, and the herd hierarchy is well established, this behaviour is not part of the normal herd dynamic.  Bring a special treat into the herd and you will see some pushing and even aggressive behaviour.  But, treats are – well – ‘treats’ because they are not always available.

So, I am disappointed and disturbed by Julie Goodnight’s suggestion that this behaviour is rude, a challenge to the rider’s authority and must be corrected.   Her method of “correction” requires the “domination” of the horse by the rider by whatever amount of pressure is necessary to get the horse to “re-think” his behaviour.

That way of thinking – dominance vs submission – is pretty popular even in so called ‘natural horsemanship’.

I think we can do and be better than that.

For the horse, his behaviour of eating grass that is there on the ground all around him makes sense.   The horse is NOT trying to frustrate and dominate the human who is riding him.  Just the opposite, the horse is an honest, straightforward, and social creature whose nature has been unchanged for tens of thousands of years.

We humans tend to take things personally and interpret the horse’s behaviour from our own self-centered needs and wants to have things done our way – what I want, how I want, when I want.  The horse grabbing grass while being ridden is an inconvenience and a disruption for the rider and so she sees the behaviour as unwanted or ‘bad’ and somethng that must be corrected.

Correcting the horse involves “consequences” (i.e. punishment) of some sort.  For example, the technique suggested by Julie Goodnight in the article:

“No matter what type of pressure you use, the consequences of eating without your authorization need to be harsh enough to overpower your gelding’s urge to eat.”

What happens when we change our perspective so that we see the behaviour as something perfectly natural and normal for the horse?

We train more intelligently and without abuse – that’s what happens.

Here is what I would do to change this behaviour.

First, the rider must be paying attention to the horse and what is in the environment.  When your focus is on your horse, you can feel subtle changes in his movement that signal where his focus is and what he is thinking about doing.  The sooner you notice the horse preparing to reach down for a bite of grass, the more pro-active you can be to prevent him from doing it.

Then, the rider must be ready to prevent the behaviour.  To be effective, the rider must be balanced and supple in the saddle and ride with contact on your reins.  As soon as you feel your horse pull his head down, close your fingers on your reins (to block) pressing your knuckles into his neck if necessary so you don’t get pulled out of your saddle.  At the same time, send him forward from your seat and leg.  A horse who is moving forward from his hindquarters cannot lower his head as easily.

The more consistent you are with your aids, the sooner the horse will give up the behaviour.  If you are re-training a horse who has been allowed to eat while being ridden, be prepared for the horse to look to pull down harder and refuse to move forward.  He will most likely object to this change from being allowed to not being allowed to eat.  It always takes more time to un-train an existing behaviour.  Just think of how difficult it is for any of us to change a habit.

If you enjoy it when your horse has a ‘chew’ while your out for your ride, then teach him a cue that says ‘ok you can eat now’.  I do this by asking my horse to halt and stand quietly for a moment.  Then, I release the reins and gently tap or stroke her shoulder.  When it’s time to move on, I ask her to move forward from my seat and leg taking up my reins again as she lifts her head.

This way, we both enjoy the ride.


What are your specific challenges with your horse?  What training methods have you used?  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! 

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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.

Friday July 1, 2011 Spyder Returns to the Show Ring

Here’s a photo of Spyder (Remember Spyder Man) and me in the Aged Geldings Halter Class at the Summerama Quarter Horse show a few weeks ago. This was a significant event as it marked Spyder’s return to the show ring after 3 years. When I first met Spyder, he was so fearfully aggressive and explosive that he had injured his owner while being walked from the barn to the paddock.

Spyder’s lack of trust in humans and lack of self confidence made him a dangerous horse. Continue reading

A Break Through Day!

Thursday was a great day. The farrier was here. So, what’s the big deal about that, you ask? The big deal is that we were able to trim Tulip’s front feet! Tulip is a 14.3 hh, gray mare that I have been fostering from Heaven Can Wait Equine Rescue since August. (You can read her description and history on their website . Tulip had been at the HCW for quite some time and the only way they could get her feet trimmed was to tranquilize her.

When she arrived at High Point Farm, she was aloof and very pushy. She walked with her head always turned away from people. And, never mind trying to pick up her feet. If I put my hand on her front leg, she would rear and throw her shoulder on me. Ask for the hind leg and she would kick. The lightest pressure – no more than a touch – on her halter and she would violently throw her head up and away from me. You could see in her staring eyes and braced body that she had mentally “gone away” and was ready to defend herself without thinking. She had no trust of humans and yet underneath that defensive behaviour was a kind and sweet horse.

Her re-training started with ground work to establish respect and trust. She has a large lump (calcium deposit) on her left knee and with her feet as long as they were, I had to be careful about how much and how hard she worked in any session so as not to cause her to become lame. Add to that my busy work and travel schedule in the fall and her training sessions were not as regular as I would have liked. I worked with her as much as possible and despite having an irregular training schedule, she did develop trust in me and respect for my space. She was giving her head to me rather than taking it away. She was releasing to to pressure rather than throwing herself into it.

With consistency, calmness and patience, she eventually started to give me her left front foot – actually lifting it up for me to take. Shortly after we achieved this level of trust, she would allow me to pick out her foot . This success took weeks to achieve. We went through the same process on the right front foot. It was now the beginning of December. I went on vacation for a week and thought that she might have regressed while I was away. Happily, we picked up right where we left off.

So, when my farrier arrived on Thursday morning I told him that I had a special project for him. I said I wanted to try to get Tulip’s front feet trimmed as they were terribly overgrown and unbalanced. But, I didn’t want either him or Tulip to get hurt in the process. As soon as she saw the farrier, I could see that she was very stressed – going into that blank stare, braced body, heavy, loud breathing and high head stance. My farrier is a patient guy. He asked for her front left leg and she reacted by rearing. At least she didn’t throw her shoulder on him! We decided to put her back in her stall and do a few more horses. I brought Tulip out later to try again. She was not as stressed by now, but she was definitely not relaxed either. My farrier suggested taking into a large stall where we had some room to move with her. So, with me at her head (keeping her head low) and Mike at her shoulder, we patiently did several circles in the stall until Tulip was able to stand calmly. Then, she gave Mike her foot and stood so quiet and calm while he nipped off almost 2 inches of hoof. she even let him hold her foot between his legs while he did the trimming. Same process for the other front foot. Success!!

I still have alot of work to do with Tulip. Still have to work on those back feet. But, I am thrilled with the progress she has made. I only wish she could speak and tell me what happened to her to give her this fear of having her feet handled. Somewhere in her history, she has had a bad experience – either through human ignorance or human meanness. Her behavioural problems have been human-made. It will take a much longer time to re-train these behaviours out of her than it took to create them. The lesson here … every moment you are with your horse, you are training him or her. Train your horse with empathy, consistency and understanding. Choose to be the better horse rather than the human master and commander of your horse. The results the speak for themselves.

Anne Gage
The Confidence Coach
I teach people how to be the better horse.