Young horse, sudden select spookiness

I have a rising 5yo TB cross mare. She was broken in back in March, I’ve had her since last December and she has by and large proven herself to be a very level headed, sensible sort. About 6 weeks ago, she developed a sudden spookiness, mostly in one corner of the arena.

The logical explanation of course, is something scary in that corner…but I can’t see any reason for it. Nothing about the arena has changed, I’ve checked it for any creepy crawlies, the other horse isn’t bothered, and it might only be once or twice per ride, at a random point. There is none of your typical ear pricking, arched neck type thing that might precede her seeing something scary, and once she’s had her spook she carries on like it didn’t happen.

Nothing about her routine changed. Feed has since slightly changed, but this behaviour preceded that. All the usual suspects ie feet, saddle, back etc have been checked, teeth are scheduled in for a couple weeks time. My working theory is that she’s just trying something on now that she’s built up some strength under saddle, just to see what happens (we’re also working through a bit of pushiness on the ground atm). The first time she did it, she did succeed in dumping my ass (although I did get back on). She’s got a nice little duck and scoot sideways, and whilst it’s not thaaat big a deal in reality, I know don’t quite trust I can sit it, and now don’t quite trust her either. It’s leading me to instinctively ride very defensively down that end which is of course counter productive.

Any suggestions? Is she just going through a bit of a young horse phase? It is spring here…so that’s a possible factor too. She lives out 24/7.

And since I know ya’ll like pics…here is the horse in question, and the corner of the arena in question. Again, it’s been the same since she was broken in, and we stay a good 15 feet from that tree.


2 Likes

I would say she is just testing you a bit. (BTW she is gorgeous). But is that corner the furthest from the barn? I would make most of the work happen at the end closest to the barn and let her take her walk breaks in that corner. My tb mare also had a “scary” corner and this took care of it after a few weeks.

7 Likes

Well it is a scary corner from a horse’s perspective, who knows what might be lurking in the tall grass. Maybe she heard something rustling one time she passed by and now is suspicious.

8 Likes

She’s a very attractive, athletic horse, and the two of you make a lovely picture!

I will say, though, that the corner isn’t completely “stimulation free” from a horse’s perspective, and I’m glad you provided a photo. With all the grass, I can definitely see how wind and sunlight might make it look different, every time she passes. Sometimes horses are more apt to spook at a familiar thing that looks different than a weird-looking unfamiliar thing. So a horse that doesn’t spook on trails might spook at what looks like strangely rustling grass outside the arena or winter sunlight making an arena jump look shiny.

7 Likes

We have a very similar end to our outdoor arena that maybe 30% of the horses spook at. In your situation, it looks like a broken branch is hanging down? That can make creaking sounds - not a visual spook scenario. The back corner of our indoor arena is where rain/snow runoff drain off outside. Many horses spook there during certain weather due to the sounds it makes. I can’t hear it, but once I went outside to look when an older horse kept spooking. There was a puddle and I could see what was happening out there. No way I’d ever suspect anything from the inside. Why only a minority of horses react and some don’t…go figure!

2 Likes

Horses don’t just “try stuff” to see if it works…unless there is a reason they need to “try something”. There is always a reason, it’s just often that we humans can’t figure out what it is or aren’t looking at things from the horse’s perspective.

I meet a lot of young horses who at some point early in their riding career develop a habit of spooking, seemingly at random. It is often, IME, the result of the riding not addressing tension that has been building over time, and they are now seeing the cup finally start to overflow. It’s actually helpful to see a picture of you riding her: what I am seeing is a nice young horse that is very heavy on the forehand with quite a bit of tension through her topline. Her stride is shorter behind than in front and she is leaning quite heavily on the hand. She’s not strong or properly muscled enough to carry herself for any length of time, but no one would expect that at this point in her development. However, that means it’s all the more important that when she is being ridden, she is being asked to carry correctly for as much of the time as possible, even if that means you’re only getting a few strides at a time and doing a lot of transitions or keeping the rides shorter. She is perfectly capable of that, but may need a lot of support to keep her motivated to keep searching for that option of total release from pressure when she’s in balance, as she’ll need to find that place many times before it comes habit.

That tension, if not addressed, will eventually come out, and it often comes out in the form of spooking or shying. The horse has reached a point where the tension has become bothersome enough that they cannot bear it anymore and so they look for alternatives to get rid of it. That tension may be tolerable under some circumstances but not others, and may be prompted by things that before seemed totally innocuous but are now the thing that caused the tension cup to overflow. That corner you posted the picture of sounds like it’s 1) the furthest from the place your mare knows as home base, and 2) definitely not without distractions or concerning features. Both of those aspects could tip the scale enough to cause her to feel the need to get rid of her tension by spooking. The “one and done” is classic for horses carrying tension - the spook allowed them to release the tension, the cup has been at least partially emptied, and they can go on until the tension gets to great and they need to open the release valve again.

I would be evaluating how you ride her and how much tension you are allowing her to carry - or asking her to carry by virtue of not helping her handle it as soon as possible - in these next few weeks. Don’t worry about the “spooky spot” or avoiding it - it’s not about the spot itself, it’s about how she feels long before she ever gets to that spot.

9 Likes

Shes still awfully Green and spring/fall is notorious for temp changes and, for mares, transitional estrus and its nightmareish hormonal swings. Most Green horses are just not going to be consistent. Thats why they enjoy the Green tag. Working alone in an undeveloped area surrounded by foliage can also create challenges she doesn’t have enough experience to deal with or tools to help her work through it.

Try to stay consistent on your work schedule, more, shorter sessions during the week. Use common sense, don’t be afraid to modify your schooling plan- meaning if you think going near a corner will upset her? Dont go near the corner, do something else. Develop your basics with as few challenges as possible. Keep it very simple, quit while you are ahead. Always set her up for success with exercises you know she will be successful at and you know will end on a positive note. Might be a good idea to pick out a smaller area with fewer distractions until she progresses more.

When she gets more miles on her, you can increase the challenges. No shame at all doing this. Spooking is a failure to go forward, a disobedience and is no surprise with just 6 months under saddle. Shes distracted and not reacting to the aids, that goes right back to basics. Probably basics for both of you.

Is somebody helping you with her? This isn’t tragic, very common in early stages of training and a point where some quality, in person help can make a huge difference.

2 Likes

You don’t mention having her eyes checked? Spring means very new grass which can give some that extra fresh feeling and we all know that horses are good at spooking at nothing at all.

I would ride large circles in that corner over and over and over as part of her daily training rides and make it so boring she finds something else to draw her attention?

Horses don’t really “plot” like this. They don’t have the ability to plan “ok if I can act spooky here I’ll get out of work.” They don’t “test”. We just like to anthropomorphize them when we don’t have another explanation but horses don’t have a developed prefrontal cortex so it’s literally impossible for them to have complex thought processes.

When we anthropomorphize we stop trying to figure out what’s really going on. “She’s just testing you.” “She’s being disrespectful” “She’s trying to get out of work” I’m sorry but they cannot fake a fear response.

The corner is genuinely scary to her. We don’t know why, but that’s ok. My question is, what do you do when you’re in the corner?

7 Likes

Have you ever done a all-groundwork session near the corner of doom? That at least takes out the “I don’t want my ass to hit dirt” tentativeness it’s hard to get rid of.

I’m going to admit…I have ridden a horse that did on rare occasions play a little “I’m gonna spook at that corner” game that I thought was avoidant rather than fear-related. But it was very easy to sit, and didn’t really make me nervous. Also, the horse didn’t seem to have that tense, flight reaction that comes from a fear-based spook.

In contrast, I also rode a pony that would have an absolute “spook meltdown” (do a complete duck and spin, and you could feel her heart practically hammering through your legs). She had a good work ethic but certain things like snow falling off the roof, shiny winter sun flickering through an indoor would seem to trigger it. Sometimes it was hard to get her to walk near the spooky thing even if you were on the ground trying to lead her past the area.

Warwick Schiller’s Destination Addiction work would be super helpful here. I believe a lot of that material can be accessed for free on his YouTube channel

4 Likes

Thanks all!

She’s really a very lovely mare with an extremely sensible head on her, and frankly if this is the worst thing we’ve dealt with so far in the very green phase, I count myself pretty lucky!

I agree that its definitely a corner that “could” be spooky for a number of horses, it was just a total non issue for the first 6 months. Yes, it is the furthest from all the paddocks, and the furthest from our tack up area. The “arena” (god I wish it were a real one) is only about 60 x 110, so not alot of space to work with!

She’s far more likely to spook walking on a loose rein, less likely when I really ride her forwards through it. We are definitely still working on the basics, and as someone mentioned, yup she’s absolutely still very much on the forehand. Getting her properly forwards is still very much a work in progress! We do lots of transitions, a little basic leg yielding etc. My weekly aim is 3-4 sessions, usually 20-30mins in length (although the weather is playing havoc with that at the moment). One session a week is usually long lining/groundwork.

I’ve had a trainer a bit here and there who was invaluable especially right at the start, unfortunately she’s gone interstate until next year and $$ are a bit of an issue right now. I’m fairly confident that I can work through it, the spook really isn’t that big, the ducking down took me by surprise as I’m used to my other horse’s “jump upwards” type of spook. I’m happy for it to take all the time it needs to, I’m in no rush. I’ll have a trailer in February which will allow us to utilise some better arenas nearby.

2 Likes

I agree that horses don’t fake being afraid or “try us” the way some people like to imagine. They aren’t wired to do that. It’s impossible.

Your mare is genuinely spooked by that corner for whatever reason. The fact that she wasn’t before is of no consequence. Something has changed her mind about the corner, and she’s now wary of it. Maybe she saw, heard, or smelled something in that corner that you did not.

I also think that with young ones, when they’re first being ridden they have most of their attention on the rider and what’s happening on their backs. Likewise, because the rider is very focused on the horse, she is more likely to do things to keep the horse’s attention focused on her instead of allowing the horse too much time to look around and get spooked. So, what may have seemed like the horse not caring about the corner at first could have been that the horse was just more focused on the rider on her back. Now that she’s kind of got that figured out, she can look around (and is allowed to relax and look around), and suddenly she’s noticing things that she didn’t notice before because she was so focused on being ridden.

Whatever the cause, trust that she’s being honest in her fear of the corner. Horses don’t lie.

7 Likes

If this were me and my horse, i’d take her over to that corner on a halter and lead and let her graze around that brush for about a half hour …wait a day, and do it again. and then the next day. three times a half hour each.

4 Likes

Oh… I’m not sure they can’t plan a little bit. Consider one old mare who, on finding 3 coiled hoses on the trail, got rather snorty about it all, though she did ooze past them eventually. I turned her around and approached them again, she was snorting and sniffing at them… And then started nibbling on the grass right next to one.

2 Likes

I’m quite certain the first one was a genuine spook at something. The only reason I say maybe she’s trying something on, is that’s the one that got me off and I’m sure we’ve all come across a horse or two that after learning a particular thing could get the rider off…would try again (I once knew a pony with a whole bag of tricks for such things). Of course as mentioned, it’s also just as likely that the first one changed her view of that corner.

I got her for a few hundred bucks late last year, after she was pulled off a slaughter truck so I’ve truly got no idea what the first 4 years of her life was like! I don’t think there was any mistreatment given how trusting and easy going she is. She came from out west where there’s been years of severe drought and unfortunately sending livestock off to slaughter hasn’t been uncommon. I think I really lucked out on a horse who was a such a stab in the dark. She will hopefully do a bit of everything at the low levels.

3 Likes

the horse may have smelled danger, a horse’s range of smell is more acute than that of humans but less sensitive than that of dogs. Horses use their sense of smell to identify other horses, people, predators

Our dog was trained in scent work, we noticed one gelding watching her work so started training him then afterwards did find that some horses are used in finding lost riders by finding them by scent

3 Likes

i trained one of my mules for Search and Rescue to actually actively search himself! I played hide’n go seek in the woods…then hid friends to hide from him. Because he’d put his nose to the ground and track a hider to their spot, i would have to drive a ‘victim’ aalllll the way to the opposite side of a pasture from where i would be riding my mule so he wouldn’t track and would instead airscent. Ollie always finds. He is very good and loves to play this game. Hardest to teach him was to look up when i’d have someone climb a tree or go up in one of the old deer stands.

6 Likes

Most likely the first spook was real - there was something there that scared her. A deer, something in the bushes, or just noises/rustling or scent.

Then she remembered that that corner was scary and may have overreacted - if the wind blew and the leaves fluttered, she might have pre-emptively decided to turn and run.

I would definitely try to do some other things in that corner; some ground work, or some lateral work from different angles. But I would also think proactively and take control when you ride her through it rather than let her decide how to manage the corner.

3 Likes

A great post.

After seeing pics of the spooky corner, OP, I’m with your filly. That’s an awfully looky area for a baby and exactly where a predator would hide… And if it the furthest spot from things babies get confidence in (other friends, the barn, their paddock) well, it’s no wonder she’s unsure of it. See if you can have a baby sitter horse chill in that corner for a few sessions to give her confidence.

I’m all for pursuing physical reasons a horse might have a change in demeanor… and I think you’re down the right path to ask the question ‘why’ she is spooking. For a young baby like your filly, I’d think the corner is genuinely scary versus a physical issue.

Another poster had the right idea, when you are working alone I would make the scary corner the break room, and the not-scary corner where she gets put to work.

And with babies… don’t make a big deal out of them being scared. They are scared, that’s okay. It’s where you come in. :smile:

Lovely little horse. Good luck on your journey OP.

5 Likes