Why Your Horse Spins In Fright And How To Correct It

A spinning horse on the trail is dangerous (1)

In the rodeo arena, a spinning horse is a spectacular thing to behold. Out on the trail, however, it can be unsettling and dangerous. If you have a horse that spins while you are riding it, don’t continue riding it. 

Spinning behavior is not set in stone and the correct groundwork and ridden exercises, along with an improved relationship between you and your horse, can eradicate spinning. But, you may find yourself on a horse that’s spinning unexpectedly.

So, how do you ride a horse that’s spinning? If your horse starts spinning while you are riding it, keep it moving forward. Maintain gentle contact on the reins and use pressure from your legs to stop him from spinning out to the side. Keep still and calm. Settle your weight down into your seat and stirrups so you can maintain your balance during a spin.

You can also stop a spinning horse with a  whip or crop in each hand. If your horse starts to move to the right, tap him lightly on the right shoulder to prevent the spin. If he spins to the left, tap him with the left whip to straighten him up again. 

If the spinning gets out of control or is happening too frequently, dismount, and lead your horse for a short distance. This positions you as the leader and gives your horse confidence. Once you start to calm down and your horse displays signs of relaxation, such as dropping his head or licking and chewing, you can potentially remount and continue your ride. 

Once you know your horse has a tendency to spin, you can train it using groundwork to fix the spinning issues. This article will cover how to train your horse to stop spinning. 

What Makes A Spinning Horse Dangerous? 

A spinning horse stops responding to the rider’s cues. Instead it panics and flees. This is dangerous for both the horse and rider. 

In his over-adrenalized state, a spinning horse may run into worse situations than the one he’s fleeing. The quicker a horse spins, the more likely he is to unseat his rider, throwing you out of the side door as he flips around. 

The more often a horse spins on you, the more anxious you’ll inevitably become and, the more anxious you are, the more nervous your horse becomes, leading to more frequent spins and spooks.

What To Do When A Spinning Horse Sends You Reeling

The more you, the rider, tense up, the more your already anxious horse will pick up on that tension, becoming a nervous wreck. 

Maintaining a calm mind and outlook is key to managing a horse that spins. Keep your contact on the reins, sink your weight deep into the saddle, and apply constant pressure with your legs to keep his focus forward. 

If you find you can’t relax, dismount and lead your horse. This will give you both time to relax and gain confidence. 

Similarly, if you’re approaching a specific point on the trail where your horse has spun before, dismount and lead your horse up to it. This ensures your safety, gives the horse a leader to follow, boosts his confidence, and gives you the opportunity to walk the horse up to the spinning point and stand there with him until he accepts that there’s no reason to spin and run.

If your horse spins, discover why. Your horse is expressing emotions and you can help him overcome his fear. Once you’ve established the cause, you can practice various ground and ridden exercises to correct the problem.

A spinning horse in the rodeo is exciting (1)
A rodeo horse trained to spin

How To Solve The Mystery Of The Spinning Horse

A spinning horse is a spooked horse and lacks the confidence to deal with new stimuli and experiences. Instead of engaging with and exploring a new object or environment, a spooky horse relies on his flight instinct to save him. 

If you’ve ever watched a wild horse confront a potential hazard, you’ll observe them initially approaching the danger. Once it reaches the limit of its comfort zone, however, it will spin and run, putting enough distance between itself and the perceived threat that it feels safe again.

This instinct also drives a spinning horse. To overcome the dangers of spinning, you need to look at developing your horse’s confidence, and his trust in you.

Many unwanted behaviors, including spinning, stem from pain. Have your horse checked out to make sure that it isn’t feeling pain or struggling with other handicaps that can instill fear in a horse. Some of the most common issues are:

  • Needs his teeth checked
  • Needs his tack adjusted
  • Is suffering from stomach ulcers
  • Needs his back checked
  • Has problems with his eyesight

Once you’ve established that physical pain or discomfort isn’t causing the spinning, you can start looking for other possible causes. Many spinning horses lack confidence when ridden alone. Get a friend to join you on an older, more reliable horse, and see if that helps to eradicate the spin. If it does, you can use groundwork to develop his confidence.

A new horse may feel anxious in a new environment and the spinning will gradually disappear as he becomes more familiar with it. Similarly, a new horse may not yet trust you, the rider, as his leader. Work on developing a trusting relationship by using some of the groundwork techniques explained below.

How To Use Groundwork To Fix A Spinning Horse

The best and safest place to start correctly common problems with spinning is on the ground. Groundwork is the best way to develop your horse’s trust in you and introduce him to new stimuli in a controlled and safe environment. 

Groundwork doesn’t have to be complicated to have a positive effect, and you’ll be surprised by how much progress you can make simply by getting your horse to respond to pressure.

While some riders prefer positive reinforcement techniques, like clicker training, I’ve always had the best results performing simple exercises using a pressure halter. In the image below, I’m asking my young horse to walk backward and forwards in response to pressure. 

Groundwork response to a spinning horse (1)
Groundwork Response To Pressure

Once she’s responding instantaneously to the pressure and moving her body in the desired direction, I move onto the hindquarters. 

By twirling a long lead rope next to her hip, I’m asking her to respond to pressure once again, this time by moving her hindquarters away from the rope. 

Moving the hindquarters to train a spinning horse (1)

These exercises have several benefits:

  1. It encourages your horse to engage and use the left side of his brain, rather than relying on the instinctual right side that evokes the natural flight or fight reflex,
  2. The horse recognizes you as the leader which encourages him to respond to and trust your instructions,
  3. It encourages the horse to relax,
  4. It gives you confidence that the horse will respond when given an instruction.

Repeating these exercises in different environments is also advantageous as it teaches the horse to engage his brain and engage with you even if there’s chaos erupting all around him. 

Once you have your horse responding well to pressure, you can start to introduce new objects for him to explore. These stimuli can be anything from a plastic bag to an umbrella, a brightly colored tarpaulin, to an exercise ball. 

At this point, be careful not to overwhelm your horse. Some trainers, for example, recommend tying the plastic bag to the horse’s saddle and then letting him run until he’s so exhausted that he finally relents. 

I don’t recommend that. This practice can lead to flooding. Flooding is the practice of exposing a horse to an object or stimulus they fear until the horse submits to it. The trainer accepts no other reaction except what appears to be relaxation. 

Although many trainers use flooding as a training technique, both intentionally and unintentionally, it’s neither effective nor reliable. A horse that’s been exposed to flooding often freezes when confronted with danger, so, in that respect, he is no longer a spinning horse. 

He is, however, still frightened but he’s bottling up his fear so he can present the response his owner, trainer, or rider desires. That means his fear could reappear or even explode at any time. Flooding doesn’t deal with the underlying mystery of the spinning horse – it merely glosses over it.

Desensitization Training To Overcome Fear

Successful desensitization training stimulates a horse’s interest and natural curiosity. It is done incrementally, with each step focused on getting the horse to investigate the object of his own accord. This allows the horse to process his fear and overcome it. 

It takes longer and requires trust between the trainer and the horse. It’s also more difficult to teach the novice rider how to do because of the greater bond between trainer and horse. These simple steps will help you embark on a journey towards desensitization and spin-free outrides:

Step One

Introduce the object in its least threatening form. If it’s an umbrella, present it closed; if it’s a plastic bag, keep it screwed up so that it doesn’t flap. 

Step Two

Offer it to your horse to sniff and investigate but allow him to spin and run if that’s what he feels he needs to do. 

Step Three 

As soon as the initial flight response has passed, turn him to face the object and repeat the initial introduction. 

Step Four

Repetition is your secret weapon when it comes to desensitization, and you should repeat this exercise until your horse can approach the object without spooking or bolting.

Step Five

Once the horse has accepted the object in its least threatening form, you can start to unravel its mysteries bit by bit. With an umbrella, open it just an inch or two and watch your horse’s reaction. 

Step Six 

If he remains relaxed, keep going. If he attempts to flee, go back to the first step until you see signs of relaxation. These signs will often include mouthing, licking, chewing, sighing, ear wiggling, and head shaking. 

Step Seven

Repeat this exercise with different objects, teaching your horse that if you say it’s harmless, he can trust you and be safe. 

Step Eight

Once you’ve established trust and have a calm horse that’s listening to you in the field or arena that you use for groundwork, it’s time to take him out of his comfort zone and into the big, wide world. 

Again, the safest way is on the ground. Taking your horse out in hand also gives him confidence. When you’re riding, your horse effectively takes the lead, but in hand, you are the leader, and as such, you can help him overcome his fears. 

If you’ve noticed that your horse always spins at the same object or point on the ride, try to lead him as far as that and repeat the desensitization exercises explained above. You should feel more confident and less anxious on the ground than you would on the back of your spinning horse, and that will enable you to install more confidence in him. 

How To Help A Spinning Horse Overcome His Fears Under Saddle 

Once your horse is going out confidently in hand, it might be tempting to start hacking out again immediately. I would advise against this and recommend you perform some ridden desensitization exercises in a safe environment first. 

Small steps are far more effective when it comes to training a horse than giant leaps. By repeating the groundwork exercises you did earlier under saddle, you will enable your horse to more easily apply the knowledge he acquired in hand to a ridden context.

Start by tying some plastic bags, or an open umbrella to the fence and then ride your horse up to and past these obstacles. Take him for a stroll around the yard where he can experience wheelie bins, wheelbarrows, and other objects. Ask a friend to cycle past or wheel her bicycle into the arena for your horse to explore.

If, at any point, you feel your horse tense, stay calm, let him stop, reassure him, and breathe! If you feel your anxiety getting out of control, dismount and continue the exercises on the ground until that feeling has passed.

While taking your horse out of his comfort zone is essential to his training, if you’re also feeling uncomfortable and communicating that discomfort to your horse, you’ll be taking a step backward. If you want your horse to trust you, it’s crucial that you feel comfortable and confident. 

How To Ride A Spinning Horse With Confidence

Don’t stress about whether it takes a week or six months to complete these exercises. It’s more important that your horse gains confidence in the face of unexpected stimuli. Your goal is to reach a point where your horse does little more than flick an ear when he sees an unusual object. At that point, you’re ready to start hacking out. 

It’s a good idea to get a friend to join you when you first ride out again. An older, calmer horse is a great teacher for a spinning horse, giving him additional confidence and setting a good example of how to respond to a potential hazard. 

If, at any point on your out-ride, you feel your horse tense up, stay calm, but maintain steady contact on the reins. At the same time, apply gentle leg pressure to keep your horse’s focus forward and keep breathing. Although we may not be aware of it, when we become anxious, we tend to hold our breath. Our horses pick up on this and tense up in response so, the deeper you breathe, the calmer your horse will be. 

Once you’ve identified the stimulus that’s causing your horse’s anxiety, you can use the same techniques you developed during your groundwork to encourage him to engage with the object rather than flee from it. 

If you’re unsure as to what his next move is going to be, dismount and lead him until he starts to show signs of relaxation. You can then remount and continue your ride, knowing you’ve just overcome a major obstacle. Every time you get to that point in the future, your horse will be cognizant of the fact that he’s passed it before without incident and will become increasingly confident.

If you’ve established a good foundation through your groundwork and ridden exercises, your horse will be able to apply his newfound knowledge and confidence to every object and environment he encounters.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean if a horse naps? 

When a horse naps, he stops or tries to return home and becomes unresponsive to your aids. To get him to move forward, you need to disengage the hindquarters by asking him to move his hind legs around his front legs. This will start him moving and, with a little pressure from the inside leg, can be converted into a forward movement. 

Napping is often a precursor to spinning and the two behaviors share similar underlying causes, namely physical pain, lack of trust in the rider, or a lack of self-confidence.

How do you sit a spook?

Keep your weight down in your heels and maintain a deep seat by leaning back slightly. Use your legs to gently hug the horses’ sides as this will keep you balanced and encourage him to move forward rather than sideways. Stay relaxed and move with the horse – tensing up or tugging on the reins will only make the situation worse. 

Once the horse has stopped spooking, turn him to face the cause of his distress. Encourage him to go up the object that frightened him, and familiarise himself with it. This will build his confidence and help reduce the frequency with which he spooks.

What happens when a horse bolts?

A bolting horse tenses his whole body, grabs the bit, and runs away. In doing so, your horse is responding to his flight instinct and fleeing from whatever danger he perceives. This can happen under saddle and in harness and, as the horse is usually in a state of panic, can be extremely dangerous for both horse and handler. 

Most riders’ initial response is to try and stop the horse, but this rarely works. A one-reined stop is more effective as, once the horse’s head is turned to the side, he’ll struggle to maintain his forward momentum. This needs to be done gradually to ensure you don’t pull the horse off balance.

Rather than fighting a bolting horse, you should ride the gallop, keeping a deep seat so you maintain your balance. Guide your horse with the reins as best as you can to avoid potential hazards, while gradually increasing the pressure on one rein. 

As your horse starts to respond to the cue, ride him in ever-decreasing circles until he shows signs of slowing down. Maintain the single rein pressure until he stops completely, then regroup and continue your ride. 

Conclusion

No horse or human wants to spend an out-ride constantly on edge. By building up your horse’s confidence, you can transform your trail ride from one littered with potential dangers to a relaxed and enjoyable experience for you both. 

 

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.

Recent Posts