10 Reasons your Horse is Skittish: Handling Horse Spook

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For an experienced rider, a hyper horse can be a welcome challenge. An unfocused or skittish one, however, can be a danger to themselves and everyone around them. I’ve had horses bolt, rear, spin, and buck with me while leading a trail. This resulted in scattering my clients’ horses in the process and upsetting the entire herd. 

How can you calm a skittish horse? Calm a hyper horse by introducing lots of turns and transitions into your training or adjusting his diet. But, understanding what makes him skittish in the first place is key to finding an effective solution.  

Horses are prey animals with a highly developed flight instinct. They have a natural skepticism and are more inclined to run away from a potential danger than calmly approach it. In a way, a certain level of skittishness is innate in every equine. 

Some breeds are notorious for being more hot-blooded than others. My horses all have some Arabian in them, and all have hyper tendencies from time to time. Find out how to train your horse to be scare proof with riding safety for a skittish horse

There are, however, many reasons a horse may become skittish, hot, or hyper. Many of these are related to the environment. We need to resolve any underlying issues before tackling the problem itself. 

Why Is My Horse So Skittish Under Saddle?

Yesterday, your horse was calm, relaxed, and determined to please. Today, it’s like trying to ride a bag full of jumping beans. What’s gone wrong? The answer will likely depend on who you ask. 

Ask a saddle fitter why your horse is too hot to handle, and they’ll probably tell you the saddle doesn’t fit correctly. Ask an equine dentist, and he’ll say it’s the teeth. Therefore, getting to the bottom of your horse’s hyperactivity is going to be a relatively time-consuming process of elimination. 

Let’s start with the most obvious potential causes. 

#1 Diet Impacts Skittish Horses

Feeding horses too many calories will give him more energy than he knows what to do with. A horse who’s only doing a few hours of work a week doesn’t need vast amounts of grain. He may be more comfortable on a higher fiber diet, consisting of hay, sugar beet pulp, legume, and seed hulls. 

Too many calories can increase your horse’s energy levels, especially if they are eating substantial quantities of grain and other concentrates that are high in carbohydrates. 

Another reason your horse could be hyper is that he’s on a diet that contains high glucose and is experiencing a sugar high. Some horses are more sensitive to changes in their blood glucose than others, but all will benefit from a diet that contains minimal grain or concentrate and more roughage in the form of high-quality grass hays.

Similarly, nutrient deficiency or imbalances can cause skittish behavior in the calmest of horses.  

My 17-year-old Anglo Arab mare had the bounciest trot for many years and would buck every time we transitioned into a canter. After a single course of probiotics, both behaviors disappeared, suggesting they were caused by high levels of acidity putting pressure on the liver.

I interviewed Alice Ross, a UK-based certified Masterson Method Practitioner and equine bodyworker. She explained;  “By addressing the acidity level in the gut, we improve the absorption of the nutrients the horse needs and allow more toxins to leave the body. This helps to prevent overloading of the liver, which can lead to ‘hot’ behavior.”

While it may be tempting to reach for a quick-fix in the form of a calming supplement, a better approach would be to get advice from an equine nutritionist who can assess your horse’s diet and establish whether a dietary deficiency or excess is causing their skittish behavior.

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#2 Pain Makes A Horse Skittish

As flight animals, horses try to outrun anything they feel threatened by, including pain. A horse with an ill-fitted saddle or a sharp point on one of its teeth may become skittish as a result. 

Alice’s horse, Tiger, was the epitome of a hyper horse until she realized it was associated with the build of scar tissue around the castration site. Resolving that problem, and correcting his nutritional imbalance, has totally adjusted his mindset,” Alice explained. 

Check your horse thoroughly for any signs of sensitivity, swelling, or heat. This is important, particularly after riding. If you suspect there’s a problem, contact the relevant equine practitioner. This could be anyone from a professional saddle fitter to an equine dentist or chiropractor.

#3 Riders Cause Hyper Horses

A nervous rider can quickly turn a relaxed mount into a hyper horse. A study conducted by researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences found that if a human’s heart rate increased while they were leading or riding a horse, the horse’s heart rate would elevate at the same time. 

Not only that, but a study by Italian researchers revealed that “horses can smell fear and happiness.” 

Dr. Antonio Lanatá, who led the study, suspects “that the olfactory system of horses is likely to enable them to read human emotional states by means of the axial chemosignals humans emit.”

You now understand why our horse may be particularly skittish at a competition or before being loaded into a trailer. It’s not actually him that’s causing the problem but you – the handler. Your anxiety is literally rubbing off on him.

This can happen in any number of situations and you’ll need to find a solution that works for you. I sing to my horses (the poor things) to calm my nerves and regulate my breathing. 

Alice recommends incorporating a simple Masterson Method technique into your grooming regime to “center yourself and your horse” before riding. 

The Masterson Method is a type of bodywork that, unlike massage, requires the horse’s interaction, thereby enabling you to identify and release specific areas of tension. It enables you to bond with your horse, and become aware of any tension he’s carrying so you can adapt your training accordingly.

#4 Training Can Cause Hyper Horses

In our desire to fulfill our equestrian dreams, we sometimes put more pressure on our horses than they’re able to cope with. If we are unclear in our aids or ask our horses to do things they don’t thoroughly understand, they can easily become tense or anxious.

This may manifest itself in displays of hyper or skittish behavior.

Similarly, horses that have been inadvertently rewarded for hot behavior are inclined to repeat it to get the results they want. Say, for example, you mount your horse, but she’s too excitable to ride, so you untack her and put her back in the paddock. The next time you try to ride her, she’ll repeat that same behavior, knowing it will lead to her ducking out of work and getting to relax in the field instead.

I got a horse from a relatively novice owner, and he began every ride spooking at every leaf, jogging, and throwing his head. After a few months of calmly riding him through this behavior, coaxing him past theoretically terrifying objects, and encouraging him to move forward, those behaviors gradually disappeared.  

#5 Overestimating Your Ability In The Saddle

A spirited horse that’s ideal for an advanced rider may, for a less experienced owner, seem hot, skittish, and uncontrollable. If your horse appears relaxed under the saddle when your trainer rides them but turns into a fire-breathing dragon the moment you get on its back, chances are, his spiritedness is currently above your level of riding ability. 

In this situation, it’s the rider that needs to adapt. Preferably take lessons on a horse your feel more comfortable with until your abilities match those of your horse. 

In extreme cases, you may need to consider finding both you and your horse a more suitable match. 

#6 An Excessively Stabled Horse Has Excess Energy

A horse that’s stabled all day and night may well have some excess energy that it’s eager to burn off under the saddle. Some additional turn-out time may be all that’s needed to resolve the problem and calm a hot horse. 

#7 Springtime Skittishness 

Springtime, also known as ‘silly season,’ is one of those periods when the pasture is lush and green and normally calm horses suddenly become excitable or behave erratically. 

This springtime skittishness is once again related to diet. Fresh spring grass has higher levels of sugar, protein, and carbohydrates than your horse’s digestive system is currently used to. As his metabolism attempts to adapt, it produces more lactic acid which can contribute to hot or fizzy behavior. 

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#8 A Change In Routine

Horses rely on a strict daily routine to make them feel safe and overcome their natural flight instincts. A sudden change is disturbing to them and can cause anxiety and jitters. 

Sometimes circumstances force us to change our horse’s routing. This happens because of a change in circumstances or a change in season. The more gradually we make those adjustments, the more assured and comfortable the horse will feel. 

You may find that, when spring comes, with it comes the opportunity to give your horse more turn-out time. Rather than suddenly letting him at 7 am instead of 2 pm, introduce change incrementally. Let him out for an extra 30 minutes to an hour each day until you’ve established the new routine. 

This will give your horse confidence and help reduce any anxiety relating to his changing regime.

#9 Horse Trauma

Previously traumatic experiences can make a horse skittish. 

While out riding the other day, my young mare saw a giraffe for the first time. Fortunately, she was with an older, more experienced horse who helped her deal with her surprise and fear. Although she ran a few strides away from the giraffe, with the help of the older mare, she was able to pass this strange creature and return home safely.

Yesterday, riding alone, I passed the same place where this interaction had occurred. For my mare, that had been a traumatic experience. As soon as we arrived at the same spot, she became tense and nervous. 

Using the advice we covered in this article, I kept calm and rode her through the situation, reassuring her along the way.

The more severe the trauma, the more likely your horse will display hyper behavior. Horses that have been through an emotionally or physically stressful experience may even develop post-traumatic stress disorder. This leads to adrenaline and cortisol flooding their system, making them reactive and anxious.

Traumatized horses can have difficulty learning to trust again. You may need to return to simple groundwork exercises that encourage him to let his guard down and engage with you. Masterson Method techniques can also help him to relax and overcome his skittishness by encouraging him to work through and let go of his tension.

#10 Separation Anxiety Can Cause Hyperness

Separation anxiety is a common cause of hyper behavior. I’ve ridden more than one horse that would rear and balk whenever I tried to take them out alone. The same horse would behave impeccably when ridden with others. 

Horses have a strong social bond and may lack confidence when separated from their herd or stablemate. 

To overcome this problem, you need to become your horse’s best friend and leader. This will instill in him the confidence he needs to work calmly away from the herd. 

I spoke to Stevie Delahunt, a Californian horse trainer and Mongol Derby veteran, to get her input. She’s ridden more skittish horses than most professionals!

Stevie recommends using riding exercises, discussed below, to start building a relationship in a safe environment close to the herd. When it’s time to head out on the trail, she recommends that you stay alert to any changes in your horse’s energy levels. If your horse starts getting worked up, repeat the riding exercises you practiced. Continue until you feel your horse’s energy levels drop and your horse relaxes. 

This gives you a tool you can use to regain your horse’s attention and trust whenever you feel him start to tense up.

Is My Horse Hyper, Stressed, Or Just Quirky?

Some horses aren’t hyper as such – they just have an energetic, mischievous personality. For instance, I have a Percheron cross mare who isn’t hot but is rather quirky. 

What is a quirky horse?”  

To some, quirky means cheeky, whereas to others, it means a horse with poor manners. To me, a quirky horse is an inquisitive one who likes to engage, have fun, and express themselves. This isn’t the same as a hyper horse or a stressed one. 

While a stressed horse may well be skittish, a skittish horse isn’t necessarily stressed. But how can you tell if a horse is stressed or just acting up?

Stress often brings out the worst in a horse, just as it happens in humans. Your horse could be showing hyperactive behavior simply because the excitement of being at a competition has got too much for him. 

A stressed horse will exhibit a range of behaviors, including:

  • Constantly moving and fidgeting
  • Whinnying
  • Widened eyes and nostrils
  • Raised head
  • Taught muscles
  • Frequent defecation
  • Regular yawning
  • Refusing to eat, drink, or rest

If your horse displays any of these behaviors, try using the Masterson Method discussed above to resolve the issue. Take a few deep breaths to center yourself, and ask him to perform some simple turns and transitions to help him focus and take his mind off whatever is causing the anxiety.

How To Calm A Hyper Horse Through Training

Every horse is different, so different exercises will work with individual horses. For Alice’s horse, Tiger, sticking to a ”strict routine settles him.” Alice also combines ridden work with liberty work, groundwork, lunging to keep him fresh.

How Groundwork Can Help Calm A Skittish Horse 

On the ground is the safest place to deal with a skittish horse and allows you to develop his left-brain functions. 

As the British horse trainer Richard Maxwell explains in his book, Unlock Your Horse’s Talent In 20 Minutes A Day, “This will make him think more rationally, stop and analyze instead of bolting off.”

Use this simple groundwork exercise as a starting point for calming your skittish horse:

Using a rope halter and long lead, stand in front of your horse and pull gently on the lead. The moment he starts to move towards you, let the lead slacken, releasing the pressure. This exercise will help him focus on you and use his rational brain to process the information rather than relying on his flight instinct to avoid the situation altogether.

Repeat the exercise until your horse responds to the slightest increase in pressure. At this point you can increase the distance between you and your horse, demanding even more focus from your horse, and repeat the exercise.

How To Calm a Hot Horse Under Saddle

This question was asked in a horse forum a few years ago. The most common solution readers offered was to “Work him until his legs feel like rubber” or “safely help him to run out the adrenaline till he’s sick of it.”

In my experience, a hyper horse that’s allowed to run only gets more excitable as the adrenalin increases. A better approach is to slow things down and get him thinking. Circles, spirals, figure of eights intermingled with frequent transitions engage your horse’s brain without over-stimulating his body. 

Focus on using your seat and position to slow your horse rather than the reins. When my Anglo-Arab was a youngster, she wanted to trot as fast as possible at all times, whether in the arena or out on the trail. Instead of holding her back, I taught myself to slow her down by reducing my posting speed.

I also got her to perform spirals on a circle which encouraged to accept pressure from the leg without running off, and to “engage the inside hind leg and push rather than rush.” It also gave her something else to think about, keeping her mentally as well as physically stimulated.

To perform a serial in a trot, start on a 20m circle and gradually decrease the circumference until you’re riding one that’s around 10m in diameter. Then spiral back out again.

Keep your training varied, introducing lateral work and serpentines, along with regular transitions. This will help to keep your horse focused on you. And, it will also give him less opportunity to get too intense or start increasing the pace. 

Frequently changing the pace also allows you to introduce a couple of canter strides here and there without exciting your horse.

With a hyper horse, it’s crucial to find a balance between “not letting them dictate the session but being willing to dial it down if it looks like things are escalating,” Alice advises. 

“Keeping a calm mind even when they are increasing their energy is the best way to diffuse a situation,” she says, and gives you the chance to “rechannel that energy into a different focus.”

Alice has also noticed Tiger’s behavior improving when she ends her training sessions on a positive note. “So matter how good he feels or how well the session is going, if he’s answered me calmly and correctly, I’ll stop there instead of always taking him to his limit.”

Conclusion

Horses become hyper for several reasons, and pinpointing the cause of your horse’s behavior is the first step towards resolving it. Simple techniques like remembering to breathe can help calm a hyper horse. But, in some instances, the problem may be caused by an underlying problem, like high acidity levels in the gut or just overfeeding. 

It may be that the horse is fine, and the skittish behavior stems from your anxiety rather than his. In this case, you may need to seek help rather than your horse. A few lessons could go a long way to helping you relax and, in turn, calm your horse.

You must resolve any pain-related causes before attempting to calm a skittish horse with groundwork or ridden exercises. Even though the new exercise regime may benefit the horse, it won’t address the root cause. The hyper behavior will, inevitably, return.

A hyper horse can be a fun and challenging ride. But, if it’s hyper because it’s stressed or in pain, there’s little fun to be had by anyone, least of all the horse.  

Special thanks to Alice Ross from Bodywork by Alice and Stevie Delahunt, co-owner of Intergalactic Equine, for their valuable input.

Nicky Hoseck

I’ve been around horses since the age of six and, 15 years ago, leapt at the chance to leave behind my London-based career in journalism and start life on a small-holding in South Africa. Sharing my experiences with horses, goats, and other farm animals allows me to flex my writing skills and help others find their way to a happy, healthy herd.

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