Horse spooking and refusing - opinion on her eyes?

Sorry this is going to be a long and a bit of a vent…

I started a half-lease on a (very nice) school horse about 6 weeks ago. She is a 15 year old Belgian warmblood (mostly Welsh and New Forest Pony though nearly 15.2 hh). I had ridden her many times before I started the lease. Honestly when I started the half-lease I thought I would be bored as she was pretty much perfect every time I rode her but that ended up not being the case. She had spooked with me once before when a parade of shetland ponies went by but other than that she was always sensitive but very manageable and did well on cross country, trails, arenas, etc.

When I started my half-lease with her she was not the horse I was expecting from the first ride. In our past 30 rides or so, we have had two rides where there were no spooks. She spooks mostly in corners and mostly at the canter. We ride in lessons two hours per week and then half and hour to one hour on an easy ride (trail ride, short WTC session, etc) and usually about 30 minutes of groundwork per week too. Until this week I have blamed the spooks on abnormal cold, lack of turnout due to flooded pastures, hormones, scary new indoor arena, young horse on the trail ride was nervous, the birds were legit scary, etc. And of course - myself. I’m not a nervous or timid rider by any means, but I do admit I can get frustrated towards the end of a session with lots of stupid spooks and I am working on this as it does not help anything - but I think I make the problem worse in most cases, not that I’m necessarily the cause.

Also this week she had the first refusal I’ve ever had on her and I ended up in the dirt. I watched her in a lesson before my ride and she spooked in the corner with that rider too. I have heard she has been very ‘nervous and tense’ (aka spooking) during her other lessons as well.

It’s a bit delicate as she is not my horse and she belongs to the barn. I currently have her leased until the end of March and, since I do actually like this mare and have made a ton of progress with her already, I would like to continue IF she can get a clean bill of health. However going about this is a bit awkward. My first suspicion is her eyes. She also has benign windpuffs and scratches that I am treating. Her shoulder muscle was twitching yesterday in the lesson before mine and she had a large knot near her shoulder blade as well which was not there today.

Today we rode for 20 mins and she was very good, but after went to graze and she spooked at some jumps outside the arena (that she had just ridden by numerous times). She spooked so hard she hit my foot which now hurts. My ass also hurts from hitting the sand for the first time in 17 years yesterday. My heart hurts too thinking that I am either riding a mare in pain or I am incompetent myself.

So I managed to take some photos of her eyes today and I’m curious what you think. I’m a little concerned about the cloudiness and the light ring around the edge. I was going to bring up the topic of her health/eyes either way but would like to not sound so much like the total idiot I am when broaching the subject.

Any other advice welcome too. But disclaimer about the barn as it really is a wonderful place: in the past three weeks we had 3/4 trainers out with Covid, national curfew messing up the schedules, historic floods preventing turn out followed by historic cold which froze the floods. So they are all a little overwhelmed at the moment but the horses are still well taken care of in general.

TLDR: do these eyes look OK to you?

Last four with flash

I can’t comment on the eyes as I’m not an expert BUT, the muscle spasm to me could be an easy fix. Something to try is a magnesium supplement, like Remission, since mg. affects the
muscles and nervous system. Hay nowadays seems to be depleted of mg. because the soils
are depleted. Mg. supplementation could be great for the spookiness also.

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It would certainly be worth looking at her eyes. I would also question if anything else in her life has changed. You mention that the horses did not get turn out recently - that could certainly cause a problem. Has she changed stalls? Changed pastures? Changed pasturemates? She could be stressed. She could also have ulcers.

I would also say that if she is a super sensitive type and you lose patience with her then that could cause her some anxiety. I am not trying to blame this on you - just throwing it out there. I believe that some horses are confidence givers and some are confidence takers. If you have a horse that lacks confidence they need a very confident and patient rider.

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OP it sounds like there is at least one other rider besides you who is taking lessons on this horse.

When you say “we have 2 hour lessons once a week” does that you and the mare, or do you mean that you and the other rider both have an hour lesson 2 days per week?

Do you know how often the other rider is riding?
Does this other rider ride as often as you do? Does the other rider have the same kind of lease?

If my inference is correct, this horse is being ridden quite a lot.

There are reasons why the mare may be spooky.

  1. Ulcers
  2. Lyme disease. I dont know what area you are in but it may be a possibility
  3. PSSM 1 or 2 there are some very useful threads in the Horse Care forum that you can read about symptoms and treatment.
  4. Arthritic changes in the back, stifles, hocks, neck. At 15 years I wouldn’t be surprised if the mare needed some kind of medication for arthritis.
  5. Ovarian Cysts or some other reproductive issues. Ovarian Cysts can be quite painful.

Since you only have a half lease you may want to read your contract with the owner and see what you are obligated to pay when it comes to your lease.

You really should consult a vet before you try adding supplements or medications.

Since this horse is begin ridden by someone else and not just you, it would be difficult to say that it something you are doing that is making the mare spook.

I dont mean that the other rider is making her spook, but sometimes having multiple riders can be confusing for a horse.

I would definitely be talking to the BM or BO or the owner of the horse about this situation at any rate.

In your situation, I would have a vet out for a workup before renewing your lease.

I commend you for trying to find out what is going on.

If the horse owner won’t pay for the vet , maybe the other rider will go in with you. It’s worth asking.

Hope you find an answer.

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This horse does not belong to the OP. She should not be having a vet examine this horse or feed it any supplements or medications without knowledge and consent of the owner IMO.

I would agree time for a chat with the barn as it sounds like they own the mare to discuss the issues and a possible vet visit for diagnostics.

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I have a horse with vision issues. The posted photos look bright, clear and healthy. Nothing like uveitis, cataracts or other vision issues. Most present in cloudiness in the

Have you spoken to the owner about it? I would document all of this and present it to the owner. Usually acute behavioral changes are medically induced or induced by lifestyle changes like too much stalling time, too many calories for their workload, mineral/vitamin imbalances.

I wouldn’t do anything else until you have a talk with the owner. Since you can’t make decisions for her, it’s incredibly important that you go to someone who can.

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This is unfortunate for you as well as the horse, because there are so many potential variables at play here that it’s going to be very difficult for YOU to suss this out, given you don’t own the mare.

How many people are riding this horse right now? Who WAS riding her prior to you? As quickly as most of us tend to go to physical reasons for spooking, I tend first to think about what has changed for the horse in the past X amount of time. Going from one consistent rider to multiple riders/lessons a week, for example, can really eat at some horses’ confidence and can cause them to start getting anxious under saddle.

And you are right - while this may not have originated with you, getting frustrated at the mare for “numerous stupid spooks” is not going to solve your problems and will erode her confidence in YOU over time. If you cannot stay calm and patient while riding her, you should opt to either get off when you feel yourself getting frustrated or not ride her until things get figured out. Anything else isn’t fair to her.

But regardless, you likely don’t have much standing here to have anything done as you don’t own the horse. You need to bring this to the owner of the mare and go from there.

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Thanks for everyone’s responses so far, they are helpful. To answer some questions:

@Marla_100 she does tick pretty much every box for magnesium deficiency, but as someone said below I don’t own her so can’t make any changes to her feed. Also for context, I’m in Europe and supplements aren’t really a thing at my barn - all horses get the same grain, I don’t think supplements are given to any of the horses, even the private boarders. So I’m not too optimistic on this front though it does sound like it would help.

@stb the turn out situation has changed and the pastures are still half-flooded so the horses will most likely be stalled for another week or two. They haven’t been turned out since December so one of my thoughts is to wait it out until turn out resumes and see if this improves the situation as it sounds logical that it would. However the horses are normally stalled every winter and I didn’t have this problem with her in past winters (but didn’t ride her then as much either). I don’t think it’s ulcers as her weight is good, she’s not girthy, poop is good, but it could be an option but see comment above. She most likely is stressed though especially with all of the chaos at the barn these past few months with the Covid, the floods, the cold, etc. I’m sure she picks up on this but she is the only barn horse having this type of behavior at the time…

I’ve been thinking about your confidence givers and takers comment however. She is used regularly in lower level lessons too (hence why I am feeling super incompetent as I’m supposed to be one of the advanced riders…). I think she might be happier giving confidence and having her easy rides with the lower level riders and being in charge. But this doesn’t explain the spooks on the ground or on the trail…

I’ve lost my patience with her twice but it was not an all out brawl by any means - it was more like a growl and a tap with the crop when she refused a tiny jump (after refusing larger jumps, after I fell and calmly got back on and tried three more times) and once after a lesson where she had spooked multiple times and I had spent an hour riding her every step, inside bend/shoulder-ins past the spooky parts (aka everywhere), lots of long and low circles, trying to keep her busy and relaxed. After an hour of this she spooked again and I growled again and made her work in smaller circles moving her hind. I do think that now I am anticipating her spooking which might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Otherwise I’m very patient and probably too confident if anything.

I’m also on the fence of thinking she is spooking to get out of work and when she spooks I see it as an invitation to work more. But I think with the lower level riders she might have learned that a spook means less work so I’m trying to cover my bases with this approach, but if she’s in pain I’m not sure it’s the right one.

@AnastasiaBeaverhousen Yes you are right, she is being ridden a lot which is usual for her. I think it might be not enough right now because she has no turn out (only turned out in the arena a few times a week right now). I have 2 hour-long lessons per week and she is ridden in probably 3 other lessons per week by lower level riders. I’m the only leaser so she is only ridden in lessons, I can also hack her or do groundwork which I do weekly. Her job is easier in these lessons but from what I have heard she is still spooky and nervous, but so far the trainers have blamed the riders on being nervous causing that. The trainers are now blaming me for the same thing and I have always agreed with them until now…

But she is ridden 2-3 days a week by me (plus groundwork) and 3-4 lessons with other lower level riders, which gets her out of the stall at least. Turn out should resume in the upcoming weeks. The barn horses get two weeks off every six weeks (light work and turn out) and usually have 50/50 turn out 10 months of the year.

Since she has had this lifestyle for 10 years, I am thinking arthritis is a possibility too but I’m not sure multiple riders is confusing for her - if anything, having me as a regular rider could be what’s throwing things off for her.

I’m definitely going to talk to the main trainer next week, I have been practising in my head how it could go (I have to have this delicate conversation in a foreign language so wish me luck…). I don’t want to come off as the “I’m perfect and this horse is broken” kind of rider or the “The horse is perfect and I’m ruining it” kind of rider but I’m also genuinely worried about the mare’s health.

I do pay for one chiropractor session in my lease so I think I am going to ask if I can start there since it’s on my contract and a good transition…sorry a lot of this post is me thinking out loud but as you can see I have been thinking myself in circles with this case and everyone’s advice is greatly appreciated!

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Ahhh…but “ regular rider” does not describe what you are here. You might ride her regularly but to her you are a bit part in a large cast of other riders. And Im still confused the “ 2 hour sessions”. Is that riding twice a week for 1 hour each session or 1 session that lasts 2 hours?

Does she have any new riders using her for lessons that might be timid? How many riders does she carry each week? Has that number increased or decreased lately?

Has she passed her 15th birthday or is she soon to be 16? Either way, shes had years as a hard working school horse and its normal for the body to start wearing out in mid teens. joints,back and/or feet might be bothering her. That can lead to erratic behavior.

Plus that, mares start to cycle back in thus time of year and that transitional estrus can be an ugly one, rather like bad PMS in us humans.

IMO, most likely temporary issues with her are raging hormones and no turnout which should resolve shortly. But keep in mind her age and workload and listen to what she may be trying to tell you. Shes not being stupid.

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Please let go of the idea that horses intentionally spook to “get out of work”. It’s a toxic (but common) belief that just fuels ill will between the horse and rider.

Horses spook because there is a conflict between what you are asking and what they are thinking about. It really is that simple. What isn’t always simple is figuring out what that conflict is, but they don’t have the ability to create agendas in the way you describe. If her spooking is increasing, it is because something is going on and she either feels she physically cannot meet your demands on her or she is having trouble getting her mind where you need it to be. Demanding she work HARDER when she spooks is punishment, and horses don’t understand punishment. It does nothing to address the reason for the spook, just tells the horse you don’t understand or aren’t listening to what she is saying and at that point she’ll have two choices: spook “louder” to see if that helps you understand, or shut down mentally. The latter can look a lot like “compliance”, but learned helplessness is a very real state of being for many, many horses because they’ve voiced concerns over and over and realized no one cares.

If she has no access to turnout and hasn’t for a couple months, I’d certainly say it is fair to assume that may be a contributing factor but count me as another who still thinks there is something to this multiple riders thing.

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Some weeks it’s 1 hour lessons on 2 days, some weeks 2 hours back-to-back and some weeks 1 hour one day and 2 hours another day (because of make-up lessons rescheduled).

I’m not sure if any of her riders are new but I’m sure a few a timid, especially when she’s feeling peppy or spooks with them. On average she probably has 3-4 riders per week including me. The number has decreased because I now ride her 50% of the time, whereas before she wasn’t leased and would have a new rider pretty much every ride of the week.

She’ll be 15 this spring.

Can you go into excess vitamin E more? I wasn’t aware that supplementing vitamin E above average amounts might be cause for concern. Currently giving a horse with EPM more E than usual. Thanks!

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A short update: I do track all of our sessions and how it goes, so I went through and marked the dates of her worst sessions:
8 + 9 January
30 + 31 January
19 + 20 February

So…I am thinking she is actually more predictable than I thought since these sessions tend to be very punctual and every 21 days :smiley: I have seen more concrete signs of her being in heat this year so I think her cycle has already begun (I know it’s the case for some of the other mares at the barn too). As a precaution I am expecting the worst come March 13th or so and will see if my data holds…

In between the above sessions there were some small spooks but not nearly as extreme or as many as the above dates. I also noticed she is much better in lessons with one trainer (all of our “5 star” rides have been with this trainer) and tends to be way more nervous in sessions with another trainer. I have my suspicions on this but that’s perhaps another post entirely.

My first thought is that YOU ride better with one trainer versus the other.

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Could you elaborate on the excess vitamin E and acute behavioral changes?

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Unusual spookiness can also be a sign of EPM. I recently euthanized a horse due to EPM. Before I purchased him he was not known to be a spooky horse, after bringing him home he had a lot of behavioral issues and minor balance issues. It was easy to think it was all training related …in hindsight I believe it was the EPM that caused the minor changes initially.

OP is in Europe, so EPM is probably a low probability.

Good…it is such a terrible disease!

I believe now, that I had it backwards. That, if your horse is deficient, adding it may help calm, like B vitamins or Magnesium. I’ll edit my original comment to reflect this!

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I might be misunderstanding much of this post (likely am!!), but I disagree that horses aren’t capable of developing an agenda.

Horses do spook to get out of work or because they are paying attention to exogenous things that aren’t part of the ride and aren’t focusing on the rider. Virtually all trainers I have ridden spooky horses with had me up the work in the spooky spot so they had to pay attention to the work at hand and it works. It’s not punishment, it can redirect the horse’s mind to their work. This is especially important if the other riders let the horse focus on other things outside of the ring.

We have a trainer working out of the barn that specializes in young and problem horses. 98% of the time, the horse learned to take advantage of the rider or owner. I’ve watched many, many horses overcome their agenda with proper training, timing of aids, and riding. Some come back for similar issues because the rider doesn’t keep up with the training and the horse knows it.

Of course, there are horses who behave as you describe as well.

Horses can spook when they are in pain to avoid jumping. Or burnt out on the situation. This horse is 15 and sometimes does back - to - back lessons.

In my experience with spooking or sensitive horses, there is potentially so much going on and you have to work to weed out the issues and formulate a plan. The OP has her hands tied a bit because she isn’t the only rider and is not the owner.

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