De spooking!


When schooling, don’t be tempted to ‘reward’ any spooking by patting and reassuring the horse; this sends mixed messages.

By Jenny Richardson BHSAI

Autumn and winter are prime seasons for hacking, to help keep your horse fit while the competition season has eased off. But is your horse likely to spook you this Halloween – and how safe are you in the saddle? We share our top tips for de-spooking your equine.

If your horse spooks when out hacking, it can be a daunting experience. Persistently shying at flapping carrier bags and road markings may just spoil a nice quiet ride, but spinning round and napping at the sight of a lose dog could leave you too scared to venture out again. In fact, hacking can be a ‘spooking’ minefield; tractors trundling down narrow roads, lorries careering around blind corners and wild-eyed pheasants shooting up from nowhere.

It is naive to think that such problems won’t occur on a ride, so the only way to ensure an enjoyable ride out is to do as much as you can at home to ensure your horse is prepared for most eventualities. Then, you will be confident that your horse will look to you for reassurance in a challenging situation.

There are various reasons that a horse shies, spooks or becomes frightened when hacking, but here are some of the most common:

1. He is not accustomed to different terrains and road types; for example, muddy puddles, soggy ground, raised road markings and uneven, moving surfaces such as shingle or leaves.

2. The horse is not used to sudden movement, common in horses that spend much of their time in a ‘safe’ school environment, working on the bit. They simply aren’t used to a different line of vision, and unexpected things like birds and cars appearing in it.

3. Your horse is a solitary soul and isn’t used to seeing other horses, walkers, dogs etc. The sight and sound of a rustly, coloured jacket and an excitable dog appearing over the horizon is alarming for him!

4. The horse is inexperienced where moving vehicles, noisy machinery and unusual obstacles are concerned, and jumps every time he hears or sees a strange vehicle.

5. He doesn’t trust his rider to make a decision and request something that is actually safe – the horse thinks he knows best. Alternatively, he doesn’t trust himself either, and resorts to fleeing to escape the foe.

A spooky horse may have one or all of these factors in place, but the safest way to overcome them is to practise at home; ideally, before the horse even takes his first step on tarmac, so he is educated and bold. However, all is not lost if you already own a horse that suffers from the above problems, as re-education is possible with patience.

If your horse spooks when out hacking, it can be a daunting experience.

If your horse spooks when out hacking, it can be a daunting experience.

General tips for spook busting

• Hack out in company to get your horse used to sudden movement in the company of another horse – this will hopefully help to reassure him.

• When schooling in an arena, ask friends and family to do things alongside the arena fence like opening umbrellas, rustling bags and flapping their coats – focus on schooling the horse normally and instilling confidence. Pat and praise him when he goes forward quietly – don’t be tempted to ‘reward’ his spooking by patting and reassuring him, as so many of us do, as this sends mixed messages.

• Arrange for vehicles to be started and moved close to the arena as you ride. Things like tractors, dumper trucks, bicycles, lawn mowers and farm machinery are all ideal.

• If your manege floods, use it to your advantage and practise riding through the water.

If you want to hack in a relaxing environment, consider a riding break at Ireland’s Castle Leslie Estate, where Jenny Richardson BHSAI is Equestrian Centre Business Manager. This venue offers luxurious equestrian riding holidays and training breaks in the heart of Ireland. Visit

Author: Features Editor

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