Spook at the Different, Not the New

By Terry Golson

Since clearing the downed trees and opening up the trail, Tonka and I have gone through this verdant, narrow path and over this bridge several times (three over, three back.) Tonka has remained careful, but when we traversed it the sixth time he was matter-of-fact, which I was quite proud of. This trail is definitely a challenging question to ask of a horse; a mare at the barn has refused to go anywhere near the bridge.


Because I want my barn friends to join us, I went out with loppers to open the view and make it more inviting. Now you can see the whole span and where the sides are. That makes it safer, as a horse is less likely to step off of it.


So, guess what happened the first time that I took Tonka  down this newly widened trail?

He said No way. No how.


Because it was different. A horse as steady, sane and trusting as Tonka is takes new things in stride.

But, when something or someplace that he knows changes, then that’s cause for concern. This makes sense. Horses in their natural environment travel vast distances and go into the unknown. They learn not to worry about unfamiliar landscapes. But they’re smart to think twice if something that they know well is different. If something changes, that could mean danger.

The rider who, with exasperation, says to her horse, You’ve been down this trail a zillion times, what the heck is wrong with you? is probably missing something. It’s best to put the frustration aside and look at it from your horse’s point of view – although you might not be able to actually see it. Awhile back, I couldn’t figure out why Tonka was spooky along a trail he’d never before had issues with. To me, his behavior seemed out of the blue. Instead of calmly walking, he danced past a stone wall and nothing I did, over the course of several rides, convinced him that it was safe. Finally, during one ride, I saw a coyote’s tail disappearing into that stone wall, where she likely had made a den. I’m sure Tonka was able to smell that predator’s presence well before I saw her.

So where did that leave us at the wooden bridge? As Tonka came down the hill to it, he tried to turn around to go home. I didn’t allow that. This is where riding skill comes in. I kept him from wheeling around with my seat, legs and reins. As soon as I felt him relax – even just a second – I relaxed, too. A basic tenet of good training is to break down behavior to the smallest doable moment. When a horse is scared, being able to respond to the slightest unclenching of bunched muscles, deescalates the tension. I could compel Tonka to go where I want to go, with constant, driving pressure, heels and whip, but that only stokes the horse’s fear, and I don’t like the having a scared powder keg under me. I’d rather have a conversation. Some people are proponents of making a horse circle around until they give in and go where you want. I don’t agree. Firstly, circling on a narrow trail is dangerous. Secondly, that simply convinces the horse that what is on their back (you) is worse than what’s up ahead.

In this situation, with Tonka sure that something bad must be lurking that had caused this landscape to change, I stopped him, and asked him to take a look. I told him, It’s not as scary as you think. I breathed. He breathed. Using my legs and seat I said, I know it’s different, but I also know it’s safe. Go forward. Tonka took another big look and then I swear he said in response, You think so? He walked a stride and then stopped again. Really? Are you sure?  I said I was, and he believed me.

On the other side of the bridge he snorted, This looks different, too. I agreed, and pointed his nose down the trail.

Let’s go that way, I said. We’ve been there before and it’s still the same.

Tonka walked on. Aren’t I a brave horse? he said.

Yes, you are.

What has your horse spooked at that you thought he was fine with, but then wasn’t? Tell me in the comments!

9 thoughts on “Spook at the Different, Not the New

  • Shaste

    Oh goodness, the overturned leaf, a fern illuminated by a shaft of sun, a log across the trail that had been cut so you didn’t have to jump it … you name it!

    My wonderful Arab gelding (recently passed) would spook at anything that changed on the trail. I always said he was the bravest horse alive though because he would trust in my guidance and go through anything given the time to give it a good look and smell. He was the horse that always got called up to lead the group when every other ‘non-spooky’ horse was wheeling around and refusing.

    It took a lot of trust building to get there though!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I so appreciate you sharing my post. I almost got better photos – I stopped Tonka on the bridge and pulled out my iPhone, but… that gave him time to look for trolls under the bridge, so I decided it was best to pay attention to him and not get more photos!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      We humans often don’t see the “different” and it makes us frustrated, and that increases the fear for the horses. When that (finally!) dawned on me, I became more patient. I’m glad you’re enjoying this discussion 🙂

  • Gin

    You sure did make that bridge look a lot better.
    I ride on several conservation areas nearby, and sometimes they have their large equipment such as dozers parked near the trails. My mare doesn’t bother with them unless they show up parked in a different place, then it’s like she never saw them before. Like you said, different.

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