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First Posted: July 16, 2007
Mar 25, 2015

Startling, Shying, Spooking, and Skittishness in Horses

by Debora Johnson

"...What frightens horses and mules is not always obvious. Anything that moves suddenly or makes an unexpected noise can rouse an animal's survival instincts and prime it to bolt. This natural reaction--often referred to as a startle reflex--is the result of remarkably acute senses.

A horse or mule can be said to startle, to shy, to spook, or to be skittish. The terms have similar meanings--a horse is instinctively on alert, assessing the situation for danger. Horses and mules have much faster reflexes than humans and other domesticated animals (Miller 1999). When a horse or mule startles, its response varies according to the stimulus and the animal's personality.

Startle is a generic description for any aroused behavior. Shy and spook are often used interchangeably with startle, but they are not exactly the same. An animal that shies moves swiftly away from the disturbance--sometimes quickly enough to unseat the rider. Spook is a colloquial term for frighten. A skittish horse is one that is nervous or easily alarmed.

Horses and mules have excellent vision, hearing, and tactile senses. They are even capable of feeling vibrations through their hoofs, which often alert them to others long before the rider becomes aware. Horses and mules need a comfortable operating space. When they can see something suspicious from afar, they can more easily evaluate the danger and react accordingly. There is a fine line between what is comfortable for horses and mules and what seems dangerous.

In addition to confined spaces and predators, things that can startle a horse or mule include:

  • Loud or unexpected noises--Buzzing model airplanes, exploding firecrackers, batting practice, or a falling tree
  • Quick or unexpected movements--Fast-moving bicycles, inquisitive children, running animals, or birds rustling in the underbrush
  • Things in unusual combinations--Hikers with large backpacks or vehicles with strange loads
  • Highly contrasting or reflective surfaces--A light colored tread near dark soil, freshly cut logs, black or white rocks, or a manmade object in a natural setting
  • Unfamiliar situations--Activity at a golf driving range or a train nearby
  • Wild or unfamiliar domestic animals--Mountain lions, moose, emus, pigs, or llamas... Narrow or constricted spaces--Bridges, gates, or tight passages
  • Unexpected trail obstacles--Litter, fallen trees, or boulders..."
Equestrian Design Guidebook for Trails, Trailheads and Campgrounds

My husband and I have noticed with all of our horses, that white rocks and white things such as snow banks and ice often scare them. Also anything that comes from on-high such as balloons, waving flags, objects that are used for advertising that are helium filled and on the horizon, balls, Frizbees, etc. Birds can scare the horses. We were actually attacked by flying geese while we were out trail riding. The horses hated it! Plastic bags that move about in the wind and even falling leaves can scare a horse.

It is important to reassure your horse that it is OK and build a trust with your horse. The instinct to survive is a very difficult one to override. In fact, I do not believe that you can override that instinct to survive. However, you can build that trust where your horse will calm and impel forward. Beating your horse or negative reinforcement only makes things worse. Not only does your horse remember that he is scared, but your horse also remembers that pain and negative feelings were also present. Horses have a long memory--for kindness and for abuse!

Just like humans, some horses have a quicker fear response and startle response than others. My husband's horse, Rusty, is always on high alert and shys in an instant at passing molecules! He is mellow one day and quick to respond or take flight the next. You have to have a really good seat and be ever vigilant on Rusty. We have noticed that after he has been out to pasture and has eaten his fill, Rusty is definitely more mellow. My horse does not have a "hair trigger." He is quite steady and rarely shies. However, there is no doubt that he is a horse. I must be ever vigilant for that surprise moment! You will hear people say that their horse is "bombproof." Don't believe it for a second. A horse can be introduced to certain situations, objects, sounds, smells, etc., and be put through a course to that effect; however, a horse is a horse. They are pre programmed, by nature, to survive as they are prey animals. It is no accident that horses are able to use their oxygen more efficiently than any other land mammal. It is no accident that their senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch are excellent. They run fast and far to get away from a precarious situation.

Given sufficient head start, there is not another land animal on the planet that can catch a horse!

For More Information:

Bombproofing, Desensitization and Sacking Out Horses

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