Thursday, January 15, 2009

Let's Talk...

...spooking. I talk about spooking quite a bit on my blog and even have a label for it. Readers often leave comments suggesting or outright saying that my horses spook because they are of the Arabian breed. I have only owned Arabians, though I've ridden plenty of other horses of other breeds through the years that were public or private stable horses. I must admit that I always feel a tinge of frustration when people connect spooking with Arabian horses. It feels like a form of prejudice. We are not supposed to link certain behaviors with certain skin colors or ethnic backgrounds, because even if it is a compliment, people find it offensive to be put into a category based on genetics. Yet we do that with horse breeds, and the poor horses can't exactly protest, defend themselves, or reason with us on it.

A part of me wants to say that all horses spook. A part of me wants to blame it on handling, or a lack of handling. However, when someone who has owned a variety of horse breeds throughout her life tells me that only her Arabs spook, I have to pause. If someone is just regurgitating some line they've heard before, having had no experience with Arabian horses, I don't pay any attention, but if someone is speaking from experience, I have to listen. I'd like to get more feedback on this. These are the types of things I'd like to find out:
  • Have you ever experienced a non-Arabian horse spooking?

  • What usually triggers spooking?

  • What are the ways in which you've experienced horse spooks? (i.e. jumping to the side, bolting, jumping straight up, puffing up, snorting, kicking out...)

  • Do you believe that spooking is really tied into breed?

  • Do you believe that spooking can be worked out of the genes through selective breeding?

  • Do you believe that spooking is connected to the handler's reactions?

  • Do you believe that spooking is tied in with fear associated with abuse from humans or other animals?

  • Do you believe that spooking is a survival instinct?

  • Do you believe that horses learn to spook from their dam and other horses?

  • Percentage-wise, how much of spooking is nature and how much is nurture?

  • If you believe spooking is isolated to Arabians, what is your logic? (i.e. Generations of Arabian horses suffering through sand storms, miles of desert with no exposure to anything but sand somehow got into their bloodline so that they jump at every new object and sound...)

  • Do you believe that a horse can be trained not to spook?

  • Do you believe that a horse can be taught to spook in place?

  • How are some ways that you have taught horses not to spook or to spook in place?

Obviously, you can't answer all of these questions in a comment, so feel free to just answer selective questions or write a post on your own site if you really want to elaborate. I think of myself as a spooky person -- not spooky as in me scaring others, but spooky as in me being jumpy. Sudden, loud noises send me through the roof. A near miss on the highway can cause me to tremble for hours afterward. The phone ringing sets me on edge. I'm probably the most inappropriate person to be working around spooky horses, but I just can't stay away.


Callie said...

To answer your first question, YES! My quarter horse geldong used to spook on trail every now and then and YES, my current spotted saddle horse has the tendency to spook every now and then, but easily settles. My good ole Misty mare has only spooked once and that was on the trail one time when the neighboring town noon whistle went off and she is a morgan/quarter cross! It is not exclusive to Arabs! After all they are "prey" animals.

Anonymous said...

I've got 11 horses. Two SE Arabians, three quarter horses, two Welsh ponies and four half Arabians. I've had spooks with all breeds.

Mine spook at turkeys. We got a lot of those. Mine don't spook at blankets, paper, plastic, etc. I work hard to keep them from spooking at these things, but I can't do anything about the turkeys. The Arabians are much more watchful than the Quarter horses. Ny husband thinks a horse that is alert is less likely to spook than one that just poops along with her head down, not paying attention.

I am not a spooky person. I hate spooks, I'd rather have a buck. At least if you know anything at all you can tell when a buck is coming, but not a spook.

Grey Horse Matters said...

All horses spook at one thing or another. It is not solely the principle behavior of Arabians. Having been around many breeds over the years, I would say you can't judge a book by its cover.

My horse Erik, 17'2 hand Dutch Warmblood, was the spookiest horse I've ever ridden. He would spin and take off away from whatever scared him, or jump sideways there was no limit to what he could do, very inventive spooks. My daughter's horse(warmblood also) likes to stand on his hind legs when he gets scared. One quarter horse we had spooked at anything with wheels, pfft--gone, currently Dusty and Blue our two QH's are very stable, but have been known to jump sideways at times.Donnie our QH/Draft Cross was afraid of his own shadow, we've worked alot of this out with him.

This is just a sampling of some different breeds. So no I don't think it's just Arabians or Thoroughbreds,which we've also worked with.

I do think you can work with spooky horses to a degree, by being calm and persistent in your training and taking them to see new things all the time. So they get used to more stimuli, but I believe the spook is always beneath the surface.

Faith said...

I don't think spooking is tied to a breed. The calmest, most non-spooky horse I ever rode was an Arabian. I've been on more Thoroughbreds and Quarter horses that have spooked then Arabians. I think that handling and training has more to do with it than breed although you might get more energy and stamina with an Arabian, that doesn't need to equal spook-ability.

Breathe said...

I think about this a lot since I have an arabian with spook issues. I know a woman close by that runs a school with nothing but arabians, the calmest group of horses you'd ever meet. But she's a great trainer and rider. They have complete faith in that woman, you can just feel it.

Here's what I think: It's like dogs. Certain breeds of dogs are more personable, better with children, more high energy. That doesn't mean every lab will love kids and every chihuahua will be a trembling mess of nerves.

But the chances are better that they will tie in with their breed characteristics.

Arabians are, generally, more personable. They seem to want to connect. I think the flip side of that coin is sensitivity. They seem more sensitive to things and unless they really trust you, they don't give over to you, so they head for the hills (whether you are coming or not) when something looks iffy.

Canyon now will spook in place. we've been at this pointedly for about 8 months. If I remain calm he will give me a chance to show him that he will not be eaten by the rusted farm implement or charging donkey.

John Lyons Perfect Horse (december issue) has a great article on spooking in place that I highly recommend. I've been doing a good deal of what they describe and we are making progress.

I love my horse, and while he's always more sensitive than the quarter horses (except for one, she was a basket case) his reaction to his own fear is down from a 10 to a 6. YAY

fernvalley01 said...

Any breed of horse can and will spook .I have owned appys for years and while they are tough and stoic they do spook. That being said I think we spook our horses as often as they spook on their own, change in body language, thinking too far ahead, even unconsciously preparing for a spook sets your horse up.

Leah Fry said...

I don't have answers because I can only speak for my own horses. I have an Arabian and an App, and they both spook occasionally.

Flying Lily said...

I like to use the word 'reactive' for a horse that is prone to this. Because I believe it is a natural behavior and in that context it sounds less alarming. I have an OTTB who used to be quite reactive when he was being fed pounds of grain daily at the Boarding Barn From Hell. He could give an 18-feet-sideways reaction on a good day. Now he is less reactive but will always be a watchful horse. I do think we feed into horses' emotions, all of them, and there's a feedback loop. Fun topic. Can't wait to read what others say.

Cas said...

I haven't been a reader for too long, but I enjoy your blog. I have two Arabians. I'd ridden mostly appys and quarters before owning my own horses (how I ended up with Arabians is a looong story). While one of my two tends to spook a little more than the other, my aunts quarter/TB used to spook like crazy! It was well trained, handled regularly, wouldn't spook in stall, arena or round pen...get her out on a trail and she crow hopped at everything.

Vaquerogirl said...

Ok- take a deep breath and relax....there feel better?
Arabians are very high strung- they have an exceptionally high flight response- but I have known some Arabians that did not spook for anything. They were generally of Polish lines.
My non arabian gelding- although he kinda looks like one- used to spook at lots of stuff. He dumped me on more than one occasion. As he is aging and learning to trust me, he is spooking less. I am also more relaxed with him, and that does help. If I'm not freaked, he's not freaked. So Yes, your timid attitude will make him spook more. (sorry).
You can desensitize most horses with a deliberate plan and a relaxed attitude. Look around your area for someone to help you with this. Park Rangers, mounted police and the like are good places to ask around because their horses have to go through all kinds of hell and not be frightened.
I don't think that a spooky mare means a spooky baby- unless their handler is a nervous type and then you go back to the previous sentences.
I think that if you feed your horses hot feed you are going to get a more easily spooked horse if the horse is originally inclined that way. I only feed my darling Desi grass and Oat hay and a supplement that does not promote 'hotness'. He dosen't need it for the work he does. If he was working hard everyday, say like roping and dragging cattle, or long trail rides, then he could tolerate the hot feed. Take a look at your feed and how you ride and perhaps modify things.
I know you don't know me, but I have over fifty years of horse knowledge under my Buckaroo belt... if that makes any difference. I'm interested to know what everyone else has to say.

Katharine Swan said...

What a great topic! I might have to respond at longer length on my own blog. Anyway...

I adore Arabians, both their strong points and their flaws. As a breed I think they happen to have more energy and spirit, which they have been bred for. But I don't think it's that they get startled more easily than other breeds -- I just think because of their energy levels, they react more obviously than other horses when they do get startled.

I've definitely noticed that my horse is more likely to spook at manmade things -- a snake in the brush is much less scary to him than a manhole cover. (He's terrified of the latter.) So yes, I think some of it has to do with survival instincts and fear of humans. We are, after all, their predators in the grand scheme of things.

I do think handling and exposure (and age and experiene) can make spooking less likely, not because it teaches them to react differently to fear, but because it makes them more familiar with things and less likely to get scared.

Katharine Swan said...

Breathe -

Amen! I agree with what you said about breed characteristics being typical but not guaranteed. I also agree with what you said about Arabians' personable side.

Vaquerogirl -

What do you think about the type of feed vs. the calorie intake? I've heard before that it's not necessarily whether the feed is "hot" but whether your horse is getting too many calories for his activity level that makes him act out. It makes sense to me, but what do you think? Panama is on a high energy sweet feed now, but the only time he starts acting "hot" is if I slack off on working him and don't back the grain down at the same time.

Finally, one thing I've noticed with my horse that helps with the spooking is making a game out of it. We play a lot and he's learned that when I laugh it means everything is okay. So I'll try to take him off guard and laugh at him when he jumps. As soon as I laugh, he relaxes visibly, and just stands there and looks at me, like "What next?" It's getting more difficult to surprise him that way. :o)

tangotime said...

I have four horses and one of them is the most spookiest horse if have ever ridden, and he is a pure bred Connemare. I think spooking is pretty much down to the individual horses nature, some are naturally more spooky then others. Although the situation can be modified by appropriate training and handling. My two TB are much sharper then the Connemara but not spooky.
The odd thing about the Connie is, he is not afraid of a lot of things that horses find terrifying lime combined harvesters etc, but a yellow leave amongst green one will have him jump.
Although I have noted that most spooky horses are either sensitive to sights or noise but not often both. Just my 5cents...

Shirley said...

I believe that spookiness can be trained oput of a horse. Like Breathe said, the John Lyons method of spook-in-place works well; and it's a common sense method and simple to do. I also think that our energy is reflected in our horses. You are jumpy so your horses will pick up on every nervous bit of energy you are projecting and start looking for boogey men. The flight instinct takes over when you, their leader, become fearful.
I don't think it is associated with abuse.
The most common spook I've had is the sideways jump. It usually means that my horse saw something close to it that it didn't know was there until it was in the horses personal space. If I get a horse that spooks a lot I have a horse chiropracter check it out; when the neck is out, there can be pressure put on the optical nerve which runs along the spinal column in the neck and that pressure can decrease the horse's vision on one side or the other, or on both. So they can approach something and literally not see it until it "jumps out' at them.

Lulu said...

LOL, of course my non-arabian horses spook!!! One does b/c she's always too busy to notice what is going on around her, and the other becuase she's a giant chicken.

In a John Lyons book that I'm reading, JL covers how to control the reaction your horse has in a spooky situation. I'm not a real big fan of his, but he had some very valid points. You can not teach your horse not to spook, but you can teach him/her what kind of reaction is appropriate.

AnnL said...

I don't think it's tied solely to the breed. Arabians, because they do tend to be more "sensitive" might be a bit more prone to spooking than other breeds, but all breeds spook. Even my big ol' Cleveland Bay will spook on occasion.

I think handling and environment has a lot to do with that. How many of these spooky Arabs are kept in stalls, instead of outside where they can run and play and work their energy off? Does this person who says only her Arabs spook treat them differently than the other breeds beause she "expects" them to spook and thereby ends up creating the spook without meaning to?

Horses can be taught to spook less by exposure to "spooky" things, desensititazion and general confidence building exercises. And, I do think that if you're reactive, some of your jumpiness might rub off on your horses. They look to you as the herd leader to keep them safe, so if something scares you, they're going to be scared. One of the hardest things I had to teach myself when I got involved with horses was to remain calm and not react to things that might scare the horses. It's hard, but if we can teach the horses to spook less, can't we teach ourselves to spook less? :-)

Maybe I'll do a post on this on my blog. Lots of stuff to explore here.

Da Mouse said...

I don't own any horses anymore, but when I did I had a Palamino who had been trained as a barrel racer and she could be pretty spooky sometimes. Now, to be honest, I had these horses about 10 years or so ago when I was a kid and I knew hardly anything about horses. I just knew if they spooked and I fell off or was stepped on, to talk softly and gently to them, gain control back, and keep going. Sometimes she would spook if a twig looked at her wrong, and other times she was as calm as could be. We bred her a couple of times and her fillies were somewhat spooky too.

So, long story short:
1. Yes I have experienced non-Arabian horse spooking.
2. Anything can trigger a spook
3. Yes I believe it can be connected to the handler's reaction/directions
4. Yes I believe spooking is a survival instinct.
5. I think spooking is tied to both nature and nuture.

I know you got a lot of opinions from more experienced riders/owners, but I feel for you about them spooking at things we humans don't even pay any mind to. Good luck!

Jenn said...

I know EXACTLY how you feel about the whole breed prejudice thing. People assume Thoroughbreds are all crazy and hot and Appaloosas are all deadheads. I've been around and ridden just about every breed common in the U.S. (and a few not so common ones) and experienced spookiness, craziness, flakiness, deadheadness, stupidity, bravery and brilliance in ALL breeds.

My daughter rides a few different horses at her lesson barn...the Arab she rides is a saint who puts up with anything. The 16hh off-the-track TB she rides just plods along without a care in the world. She works when she's asked although she'd rather standstill and watch the butterflies. My daughter also rides a paint who is spooky and tends to be a bit stubborn and sometimes flaky.

It's not solely a training issue, either. It's a horse personality issue AND a people issue. I've seen dead quiet schoolies get up and hot when an overly aggressive rider gets on them. I've seen spooky, hot, "Crazy" horses go quietly, calm and relaxed when a quiet, calm, relaxed, confident rider gets on them.

Don't believe it when someone tells you yours are spooky just because they are Arabs. Can they learn to be cautious and react strongly to unknowns? Absolutely. I've been following your blog for awhile and following your training with your horses. You are moving in the right direction and made excellent advances, but I get the feeling they don't all see you as the all-knowing Boss Mare who will protect them from all evil things quite yet. As you become more confident in THEM, they will become more confident in YOU.

You know how "they" say that kids will live up to high expectations and down to low ones? I believe horses are the same. If you expect them to spook and believe they will be spooky, they will fulfill your expectations. If you expect them to be brave and face the scary stuff, they will.

I trained a horse for a friend because she couldn't ride him out of the arena. He spooked at EVERYTHING if he wasn't in the arena. I had him out on the trails, calmly and quietly and enjoying himself, in two rides because I simply expected him to do so and gave him no other options. She expected him to act like a nut and he did. His spookiness was a people problem, not a breed problem.

Reddunappy said...

My Appy is scared of bear eating stumps on the trail! but we get through it!

I left you a glass of lemonade over at by blog, just to show how much I enjoy yours!!

Nor’dzin said...

My Welsh cob mare is rather spooky. She snorts, puts her head down and moves sideways, and occasionally spins on the spot and bolts for a short distance. I think it is a lack of confidence in trusting her rider because she was a riding school horse for 5 years and started to trust the person standing in the middle of the arena more. She has got better over the years I have owned her, as she has come to trust me more, but she will always be spooky. I think any breed can be spooky.

Nor’dzin said...

Forgot to say . . . I cured her of her biggest spooky place in the arena by using a method Carolyn Resnick taught on her blog. This was to work her hard in the 'safe' part of the arena and letting her rest in the 'scary' part. This worked really well.

Victoria Cummings said...

All horses spook, some more than others. When Silk does it occasionally, she's most likely trying to get my attention. The more I keep my awareness on my horse the less likely she is to spook. Usually, she will stiffen and cue me that she's thinking about spooking before she does it, and I can diffuse her anxiety by asking her to pay attention to me.

photogchic said...

One of the nicest horses I ever rode was an Arab schooling horse. I changed my preception of the breed after that. At the same time, most Arabs seem to be right brain extroverts due to their breeding. Nothing wrong w a right brain extrovert...I own one. Just have to know how to properly train them. I think spooking is not about the is about leadership and trust. You can set yourself up for success by exposing your horse to every type of stimuli and work on building your relationship w your horse and the spooking will be a thing of the past whatever breed of horse you have.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

ALL horses have the potential to spook at any time. Some are just more likely to. Some get seasoned more quickly and learn not to. I've ridden horses who bolted into a runaway ride; others wheel around or leap sideways. Some just shrink down in place and then recover.
My method is to try to ALWAYS remain calm, relaxed, and BALANCED. I do not worry about scary things, but I make myself aware of potential hazards just in case. I've developed an intuition of my horse and by keeping a light control on the reins, can usually pull them up quickly, in emergencies. I try to train them to go past scary objects without spooking. I will introduce them to the object but if it really seems to bother them I want them to know they can go past and not have to directly deal with it. I want them to trust me and know that I will get them past the problem unharmed. If they are willing, I will take them up to it to investigate but I don't force the issue. Eventually, they begin to understand that I can and will override their choices. Although some horses never get over the flight reaction, most become better over time and experience. Riding with a calm buddy horse is the best trainer you can have.
Surprisingly, my Arabian mare, Annie, gets trembly, but generally spooks in place on the trails. In the arena, she will repeatedly spook by trying to wheel, bolt or buck off, in places she stands around and rests in, during the day. Crazy, huh? I think that with her arena behavior, she's conditioned herself to be reactive when ridden and, unfortunately, we both expect it.

Leah Fry said...

Totally OT -- I was wondering you's consider allowing me to be a contributor to Healthy As A Horse. As I was saying to Lisa, I'm practically an expert, having spent my entire life from puberty on honing my skills.

C-ingspots said...

Lots of great advice/opinions/ideas here. I just want to say that all horses regardless of their breed spook sometimes - that's just the horse. I LOVE Greyhorsematters comment about the "inventive spook" - classic and perfect - I can relate. :) hee hee!! And I agree wholeheartedly with Jenn's comments - she sums it up in a nutshell for me. Great post!!

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Leah - I meant to answer you earlier but had to race out the door to go to my son's basketball game. Yes, you can be a contributor for "Healthy as a Horse". My posts are so sporadic and Lisa has yet to write one (shame shame - just kidding...).

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

(hiding head in shame) yes, call me slacker! lol!

And I was doing so well this past year...losing 27 lbs! And feeling fit and strong.

Jeez, now that I'm laid up, I'll have to work harder to get all that muscle and fitness back. But being that I'm not very active, my body doesn't have much interest in food, so hopefully I'll be able to keep the weight off.

Hey NM! Maybe I should make a resolution to finally post on HAAH?
Maybe not. I'm not all that good at keeping resolutions. lol!

Sorry my friend :)

Ange said...

Hi! I see a lot of people more qualified than myself have already commented, but I did take your questions and elaborate over at Roughdrafts. Feel free to come take a look! I loved this post, BTW, it brought up some very important points that we as horsemen and women need to remember.

Andrea said...

I was always told that Arabians spooked more than quarter horses because they were just smarter!! They are more observant than like a dull quarter horse. I was always told that a quarter horse is eaiser to break because they are more of a "dead" head. So to speak. Now those are really a big general statement. I know there are super dead head Arabians, I know a lot, and there are some super crazy quarter horses. But I think that is what they are bread for. Arabians are bred to look pretty and make long distant trecks. They need to have more energy. With more energy comes more obserations and more spooking. I think. ??? Just my thoughts.