Why Did My Horse Start Spooking on Trail Rides?

What to do about a once-brave horse who has started spooking on the trail.


Q: I am a very timid adult rider. Last year I bought a bombproof trail horse. At first he was extremely brave and quiet. But over time he started spooking. Now he’ll refuse to go past anything that looks a little bit odd. My friends tell me to push him forward, but I’m scared of what he might do because I’ve been dumped before. I’m afraid to ride by myself or away from home. Why did my horse change? How can I make him brave again?

Trail riding downhill


A: As you’ve come to realize, a horse depends on its rider for leadership and direction. Since your timid approach to riding prevents you from assuming that role, your horse has lost his own courage. Over time, your horse has begun to think, “Wait a second. If she’s scared, maybe I should be worried, too.”

From your horse’s viewpoint, there’s a big payoff for this behavior. He gets to stay home or, if he does venture out, it’s only with his buddies. On top of that, your reluctance to take your friends’ advice and push him forward past scary objects—for fear he’ll buck, bolt or spin around—only reinforces his behavior. If he balks at going past something remotely suspicious you do nothing. Now he’s in control of the ride, not you.

It’s time for your horse to have some schooling sessions with a confident, forward-thinking rider. Beware of someone whose technique is nothing more than beating your horse down the trail. Instead, enlist the services of a professional who understands your dilemma and is willing to work with both you and your horse.

Since your horse was “bombproof” when you bought him, he should return to his former self with a short series of good rides. Yet that’s not enough to fix this problem. You have to also undergo some training, preferably on a trusty school horse. This is your opportunity to master using your seat and aids to communicate effectively with your horse. Eventually your instructor will put you back on your horse and teach you as a team. When your horse balks, he or she will be there, giving you tips on how to ride like the leader you need to be.

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Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.


  1. if you are scared or tense, the horse may know it before you do. that tells them that there may be something scary up ahead. if you are calm, the horse can sense that to and trusts you to lead him forward.that is my experience with horses.

  2. I know that I tense up even if I try my best not to, when riding on the road and and meeting a car. Because of a bad experience meeting a car once before.

  3. Also, is it possible you are petting your horse when he balks or spooks, thus inadvertently rewarding and reinforcing his negative behaviors? It’s easy to think we’re being encouraging and reassuring without recognizing that the reward needs to happen after the horse finds the right solution which is to pass the object calmly.


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