Spooking Is Communication. Listen!

By Terry Golson

Behavior doesn’t happen out of the blue. Spooks don’t happen for no reason. You – the rider – might not see, hear, smell, or otherwise notice what your horse is reacting to, but it’s there. Sometimes what the horse is worried about is something harmless. If you have a good relationship with your horse, you can tell them there’s nothing to be alarmed about, and they’ll believe you, and you’ll both go on safely and without drama.

Last week Tonka and I joined Denver and Kim for a ride in the woods. We started out relaxed and eager.


Do you see the little white shed in the above photo? Just before we got to it, Kim warned me that there was a culvert to cross. At that spot, Tonka and Denver did this:


I had this conversation with Tonka.

It’s no big deal. There’s barely a dip in the trail. I see the shadow to the right. There’s nothing in it.
Tonka said, There’s something to worry about.
I said, Nah, just shadows.
Tonka said, It’s more than shadows.

I didn’t want to force things, so I asked Kim to take the lead with Denver.

Tonka said, Well, if you and my new friend both say this place is okay to travel through, I will. But please note my vote of no confidence.

Although Tonka kept going, I was surprised that he didn’t immediately settle. In fact, a half-minute later, when we got to the white shed, he was even more on alert and tried to veer widely around it. I couldn’t see anything to alarm Tonka. Maybe it was the contrast of bright white and shadows. Maybe it was that the shed blocked his view of what was up ahead. Kim said that Denver had also been wary of this stretch of the trail. Using my seat and legs, I kept Tonka on the path, and with the shed behind us, he continued on. A minute later, he was back to his relaxed self.

After an uneventful ride through the woods, we came back to the little outbuilding. Tonka’s head went up. Once again, both he and Denver gave it a wide berth.

As we passed the shed, I saw what was worrying the horses. Wasps. Dozens of wasps were flying in and out of the eaves. Paper nests hung in the shadows.

I’m severely allergic to wasp stings. One reason I always wear a fanny pack is that I carry medicine, just in case I get stung. Riding by the shed, I was ever so grateful for my horse’s fine-tuned senses and how he kept us at a prudent distance from the wasps.

Denver and Tonka had let us know that there was danger on the trail. They did it while still staying sane and keeping us safe. Because Kim and I didn’t punish them when they hesitated, they’ll continue to communicate to us when they know something that we don’t. At the same time, they’ll accept our guidance, because we haven’t steered them into trouble yet.

I’ve written several variations on this theme in this blog, (click on the “spooking” category to the right to find more) but I don’t think it’s repetitive, at least it doesn’t feel that way to me. Each time there’s a dialog like this with my horse, it feels like I’ve gone through a portal to a special place where I really can talk with the animals.

My friend, Karen Pryor, has told me that although she has trained many species to do many behaviors, that that was never the point. Training, for her, has always been about communication that goes both ways. It’s a conversation that leads to understanding each other. Intelligence, personality, and thought processes are revealed and shared through training. So, yes, when Tonka stops or spooks, I use training to get Tonka to go in the direction and at the speed that I want him to. A lot of my time in the saddle is spent training Tonka to do such things with finesse. But that’s not the point. The point is that we listen to what each other is saying. It’s a conversation that is always interesting and that I never tire of.

13 thoughts on “Spooking Is Communication. Listen!

  • Gin

    I pretty much do what you do when my horse gets worried, sometimes it turkeys I don’t hear or see, or other wildlife, or a white sunny spot on a rock, and sometimes I never know what it is. The other day at a turn in the trail she went on alert looking left as I was turning right, I let her look a little as did I. Told her it was OK (I hoped, I have seen bear sign in this area) and we were going away from whatever it was. Wasn’t sure how she would react when I turned her away from IT, but she walked away calmly and kept looking back for a while, but then settled down. We’ve been through a lot together.

  • Gin

    Just thought of something on the subject of wasps. When you do your before loading trailer check, do you check for wasps nests hiding up in there somewhere? Just a thought.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I’ve heard horrific stories of horses closed into a trailer with wasps. I keep my trailer closed up when not in use, so I know they’re not inside. It also has screens. I always look inside before reloading my horse to make sure that nothing has flown in. What I have to worry about is my cloth hitch cover – I always shake it before removing. Have found wasps, and massively huge spiders, hiding out in it.

  • Shaste

    Great post and so true!! My new(ish) gelding does something unusual when he smells something on the trail .. he puts his nose to the ground and follows the scent like a dog! We came upon bear sign the last time we were out, a large ant nest torn apart, and he was all over the area snuffling like crazy. I’ve never experienced that with another horse. It’s a little nerve wracking to completely give over the reins in that situation and I feel conflicted about doing it but he seems to need to process the scene by smelling. He does pick up and move on when asked. Funny horse!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Tonka once told me which trail to take (I was lost, of course) by sniffing the ground and being adamant that he knew the way. He also once found someone’s phone – under leaves on a trail- he made sure I stopped to get it. It turned out there were riders ahead of it who’d lost it!
      I didn’t know that bears tore up anthills. We haven’t come across bear sign yet (at least I’ve not been aware of it) but I’m sure we will!

    • Elsie Nickell

      My new gelding has this smell sensory dominance too. First horse I have had that uses smell as their barometer. Very interesting. Equestrians never stop learning!

      • Terry Golson Post author

        I wonder if their sense of smell isn’t suppressed by how we manage them. Perhaps horses that are in environments where they’re able to investigate, use, and think through what they’re smelling tune into it more? Just a thought.

  • Trina

    Great blog. I trust Cider that he sees, hears or smells things I am not aware of. I greatly respect his senses and have a conversation as well when something is scary to him. By the way, I was walking on a path yesterday with my husband and there was a huge wasp nest hanging above our heads. (Mike noticed it, I never would of seen it being 5′). It’s on our high school’s cross country race course too so I contacted a coach today!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      This time of year you can sometimes see the nest, which is still active. I don’t envy the guys who are going to have to knock that down 🙂 I’ve read that in recent years wasps in our area have become more aggressive. There’s an environmental reason (something about population pressure). I’ve certainly noticed the change in behavior.

  • Kim

    There have been so many times when I have said to my horses “There’s nothing there.”, and there has been! They are astute creatures for sure.

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