What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Fearful, Flighty or Spooky Under Saddle


Spookiness is a behavioral trait that should be expected of a prey animal like a horse. But spookiness under saddle interferes with performance, and is also dangerous to the rider. Spookiness can be minimized through selective breeding for calm natures, consistent and calm handling, experience under saddle in a variety of situations (wet saddle blankets) and desensitization to particular stimuli. Spookiness can also be caused by physical issues such as partial blindness, deafness or even discomfort. Work with your vet to rule these problems out.

  • Code Yellow

    Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment
    • If you have questions about how management or feeding might affect this.
    • If you want to rule out any physical issue being a factor in the behavior.
  • Code Green

    Contact Your Vet to Obtain Useful Advice & Resources
    • Some vets have valuable advice regarding behavioral and training issues.

your role


What To Do

Recognize that physical problems can contribute to spookiness and flightiness. Look at the horse, especially their eyes, and general demeanor. Consider the nature of the behavior. Do you notice anything wrong? To rule out physical problems, have your vet examine the horse and the behavior.

Once a physical problem has been ruled out, work on the specifics of your own interaction with the horse, (both on the ground and in the saddle), to help work through this problem. Be a confident leader, stay relaxed, and work on your riding skills to simply ride through spooks without tensing up or pulling on the horse's mouth. Recognize that even if you can do these things, it will take significant time and patience to work through this. Seek out the situations that cause the behavior and repeatedly expose the horse to the situation, demonstrating consistently that calmness and tolerance is more profitable to the horse than spooking.

Recognize that management, especially nutrition, can contribute to this problem. Talk to your vet or trainer about nutrition and its role in excitability. High carbohydrate diets usually do cause increased excitability. A high fat/low carb diet can be helpful. Stabling management can contribute too. If horses are very herd-bound, they tend to be more spooky when they are alone. You may be able to change these management factors to improve the situation. There are many other factors to consider too.

What Not To Do

Do not worsen spookiness by tensing up or pulling on the horse's mouth, a reflexive action for many riders when a horse spooks. Stay calm, and focus on staying seated and balanced in the saddle.

Do not look to medications as the solution to this problem as in most cases, this problem is one of horsemanship, training and management.

your vet's role

Your vet will consider whether pain, lameness, poor vision, deafness or any other illness might be contributing to the problem. They will likely rule these things out through physical and lameness evaluation and possibly other diagnostics. They may want to examine the horse under saddle to see the behavior for themselves. They might examine tack fit. They will want to witness interaction between horse and rider under different circumstances, in order to better understand the problem and to reach a diagnosis. They may want to review nutrition and management to better understand the role these factors may play. Once the causes for the behavior are understood, they can help you formulate a plan to deal with it.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • How old is the horse?
  • What is the horse's experience level and level of training?
  • What is your experience level?
  • What is the horse's age, sex, breed and history?
  • When was the last time the horse performed to your expectations, or has he ever?
  • Describe the problem to me in greater detail?
  • What breed is the horse?
  • What is the horse currently being fed?
  • Is the horse an Appaloosa or have Appaloosa bloodlines?

Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

Very Common
Less Common
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Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP