29 January 2009 Comments

It’s better than a meme… Nuzzling Muzzles has a post on spooking, specifically related to Arabians. I could put my answers in a comment there, but I like to hear myself talk, so I’m putting them here (where I can be verbose without guilt).

Have you ever experienced a non-Arabian horse spooking?
All the time. I’ve only ever ridden three Arabians or part Arabians; most of the other horses I’ve ridden have been TBs or warmbloods. If anything, I’ve experienced more spooking on the non-Arabian horses, but let’s be fair: I’ve spent far more time in the saddle on them than the Arabs, so statistically of course I’ve experienced more spooking with them.
What usually triggers spooking?
In most cases, I think something unexpected happens—a noise or sound or something appears where the horse wasn’t expecting it to be. I sympathize with that, because I’m reactive and jumpy too. Other times, I think the horse is just having fun, looking for a way to evade work, or testing their rider. These spooks disappear quickly once the rider gets the horse’s full attention and directs that energy somewhere else.
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…)
Interesting list. I’ve always considered spooking to be very specific to jumping or bolting to the front or side (never see them go straight up or backwards, although I’m sure some do) or else halting in place. Puffing up and snorting I consider indicators that the horse’s attention is divided (there’s still time to avoid the spook) or else the horse has already spooked and is still reacting to whatever caused the spook in the first place.
Do you believe that spooking is really tied into breed?
I think that breeding for sensitive, reactive horses will, on the balance, produce horses more likely to spook. But I also think that, on the balance, the people breeding for especially sensitive and reactive horses have training plans to channel that sensitivity and reactive tendencies into something more productive than spooking.
Do you believe that spooking can be worked out of the genes through selective breeding?
I think sensitivity and reactive tendencies can be mitigated by breeding (thus the distinction between “amateur-minded horses” and “professional rides”), but spooking is a survival tendency and it’s always a possible reaction to a stressful situation.
Do you believe that spooking is connected to the handler’s reactions?
Yes, of course. Horses and riders feed off each other, so a tense, worried rider will make most horse worried and tense, which is an invitation to spook. It also makes for worse spooks, because the rider has to calm themselves down before they can calm down the horse. A relaxed and confident rider, on the other hand, can ride out the initial spook and get the horse right back into work like nothing happened, which will help reassure the horse that nothing needed to happen. This is why horses who can remain calm even when their rider is a trainwreck are worth their weight in gold to me.
Do you believe that spooking is tied in with fear associated with abuse from humans or other animals?
I’m sure it can be, but I’ve never worked with abused horses and, as a result of limited exposure, never seen this.
Do you believe that spooking is a survival instinct?
Do you believe that horses learn to spook from their dam and other horses?
Yes; you survive in a herd by doing what the herd does. But I think they learn just as much from their handlers.
Percentage-wise, how much of spooking is nature and how much is nurture?
I’d put more weight on nurture/training. A horse may be born with so much tendency to spook, but I think how they are trained to handle new and scary situations—whether by their herd or their owners—makes the most difference in the end.
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…)
I have never, ever heard that spooking was isolated to Arabians.
Do you believe that a horse can be trained not to spook?
No. Notwithstanding that I think training has a huge impact on how much a horse spooks and how a horse handles itself in new/scary situations, I would never bet my life on a horse not spooking. No matter what you do, spooking is a survival instinct and if the situation is bad enough, the horse is going to do what it thinks it has to do to survive.
Do you believe that a horse can be taught to spook in place?
Yes, but I wouldn’t do it. I’d rather the horse keeps moving (forward or sideways - not backwards), because it’s easier to push them right back into work. When you have them stop, to me that reinforces the idea that something significant just happened. I’d rather keep moving and pretend it never happened, wasn’t important, was not worth noticing at all. Then, once the horse is focused and working again, go back to the scary spot and let them check it out.

Tagged: Horses, Horses - Breeds - Arabians, Horses - Breeds - Thoroughbreds, Horses - Breeds - Warmbloods


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