Dealing with a reactive/spooky horse – aggression vs mental obedience

Tilly eye

One of the most common rider frustrations is a horse that would not go in the corner of the arena or a particular spot when out hacking, not wanting to jump a particular jump, go into the water, or one that spooks a lot when fresh, or always “over-reacts” to various objects whether he has seen them before or not.

The most common ways of dealing with those issues that I observe as a teacher, are variety of aggressive aids from low to high intensity – from “encouraging kicking” until horse passes the offending object/area through shouting, growling to spurring and hitting with a whip.

Apparently, people who believe in smacking a child and generally submitting children through scaring them, are more likely to also have similar tendency when dealing with “disobedience” of animals too. In fact, there is quite a bit of research out there that analyses different behaviour patterns depending on person’s personality, temperament, upbringing and personal beliefs and if you have a good think about your own, you can probably figure out your natural tendencies too.


I think teaching riders gives a very good training in why fear driven methods and aggression in a trainer (of any kind) are not ideal educational tools. For sure, there will be some riders who do prefer being shouted at and “made do” what needs to be done and perhaps if we follow that logic there will be some horse personalities out there that pick up on a confident, aggressive style of a rider and draws some confidence out of that. However, try to shout at the rider to sit straight or stop fiddling with the hands or stop collapsing in the hip or look up etc (i.e. shout to create some change of behaviour in the body) and create a lasting, comfortable, sustainable effect…Unlikely to happen.  Most of the time, not only are the riders not aware of what they are doing or not doing but they might also often feel a bit resentful or upset that they can’t quite get it right. Until they get their head around what they are doing, then figure out how to deal with corrections and only then how to make it sustainable without contorting oneself into another pattern of crookedness (i.e. start learning not reacting), they won’t be able to change.

I see similar process in horses and they seem to also exhibit emotional responses like upset or resent. Since they don’t know they are “going wrong” or understand the need of being bent in the corner to the inside or that their legs don’t quite cross enough in a leg yield, punishment makes very little sense to them. Reactiveness and spookiness are very much temperament or previous experiences related for sure but regardless the horse’s personality, the more we allow them to learn, the more “riding intelligence” they acquire.

Learning only happens when thinking isn’t over-ridden by stress…

Rushing the horse to do something when he is apprehensive about it or hitting him because he doesn’t “want to pass that mounting block/leaf/a tree” can actually produce a long lasting issue and years of frustrations as it creates more insecurities and doubts in the long run, saddest one being a lack of confidence in the rider’s actions. This is most often seen when a rider who uses fear training, sells a horse to a rider who does not use that pattern of training. The horse might then tends to show “disobedience”, “dirty stops” that seem “out of character” but they make sense if we realise previous performance was not motivated by desire to figure things out but by avoiding more unpleasant consequences.

Fear and aggression trains more of a trick horse than an educated horse. Sadly, the blame usually falls onto a new rider who is branded un-confident or wussy and a horse is a bugger who takes the mickey and needs a good “telling to”.

It goes without saying I am not advocating praising dangerous behaviours or ignoring them, that’s another subject altogether.

Mental Obedience

There are many alternative ways of training horses than a fear based training and here are a few thoughts on dealing with situations the educational way. I do think many aggressive behaviours I see in riders are simply caused by feeling powerless and not knowing of any alternate way of dealing with an issue at hand. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments too so we can all learn from each other.

Some ideas to consider if you find yourself angry or frustrated with spooky/resistant behaviour: 

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  • let a horse think. This can be anything from taking a deep breath out in a moment of a well prepared canter transition instead of pushing the horse suddenly into it with strong aids “because it is known not to go” to asking the horse to stand immobile for 20 seconds or so the moment you feel it is about to explode into a jolly bucking round. The latter gives the rider mental control over the horse’s arousal rather than physical control that is rarely effective…
  • If you can control horse’s mind you can control his body in a way that makes him think it was his idea.
  • Calming a horse from point of high level of excitement is a skill in itself – spooking horse is a reactive horse. In that state, it doesn’t really learn, it reacts. Instead of adding to arousal by kicking or hitting with a whip, try bringing the horse’s mind into “learning zone” i.e. calm enough to listen and process information rather than simply react upon what it sees. Again this can mean literally stopping for a moment, wait for signs of relaxation (normal breathing, lowered neck, “softer” ears expression) and then attempt to address the issue by letting the horse investigate and learn.
  • Think about trying something new that worries you a bit. Like getting in a narrow kayak and going down a raging waterfall with boulders every 2m…you want to ask how to turn around the boulders and how to make sure the kayak doesn’t overturn but the instructor just whacks a life vest onto you, pushes you into the next kayak  and shouts at you to “get on with it!!!!” 😉



You have very limited information and experience but a hell of a lot of perceived danger and that’s how animals feel about many questions we ask them. If we let them learn according to their own learning patterns, we can end up with a dependable friend instead of an unpredictable partner…

  • Question instead of punishment. If a horse eyes up a piece of sand that’s been there for a century but right now turned into a dragon, instead of punishing it for creativity and brain power, ask a question (a leg yield, a small circle, a change of direction, a flexion etc) to put the brain cells back into more down to earth action.
  • Recognise your own frustration and underlying reasons for it. Don’t take horse’s  worry or fear or playfulness personally as then you will unnecessary pressure that is bound to make you want to rush to some result. Don’t involve yourself in horse’s problem, involve yourself in finding a clever solution.
  • Many crooked horses are also very reactive horses. This applies to horses in rehab from injuries. Sometimes what seems like a silly spooking behaviour is just a way of protecting what feels weak in the body of a pray animal…
  • Think like a horse, not like an army general 😉

What are your views? Do you think aggressive spectrums like stronger kicking when presented with a worry and/or using a whip to gain obedience are educational or not? Do they create lasting results? 




5 thoughts on “Dealing with a reactive/spooky horse – aggression vs mental obedience

  1. Wow so true!! I have been told to “avoid” spooky behavior as this is not “acceptable” in an intermediary level horse. But he is very observant and reactive to his environment and the more I worried about him possibly coming above the bit the more tense I got the more tense he got and yes, I could muscle him by the spooky door but it was not fun. I am slowly learning to stay calm and the more supple and relaxed I can stay the quicker he comes back to me. And yes, I am one of those students that feels pressured when I am told what I do wrong or that I should know better than what I am able to do at that moment. I constantly pressure myself to be the best I can be and telling me I am not doing it right is not helpful. Tell me instead how to do it right this moment even though I should already know it. Apparently I am not able to resolve the issue by myself and need help not pressure. Thank you so much for your wonderful post!!!

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