Fear of the Unkown- Why do some horses spook?

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

This week we caught up with Mohamed Al Serkal, a dressage rider and competitor, and an ambassador for Dressage within the UAE. Mohamed Al Serkal is UAE national Dressage rider based between the Netherlands and Dubai. Currently he trains with Academy Bartels, but also he trains with Albert Van Schie and Joyce Van Opbergen in Holland. Mohamed is getting ready to represent the UAE at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China 2022. He started his journey with horses at the age of 9 and was introduced to Dressage at the age of 14, he then paused riding for 6 years to focus on university and work, but returned back in summer of 2016 with a focus on a professional career in Dressage. 

Mohamed strongly advocates the importance of Dressage to be developed in the UAE. It has helped him understand the communicational and behavioural value of the sport. He is working with different clubs to develop programs to include the young riders as well as children and invite them to love the sport for its value and what it offers. Mohamed's goals is to be more active in the international Dressage scene.

Mohamed and his horse Eroza

Now dressage horses have a bit of a reputation for being spooky, here Mohammed talks to us about dressage and how he deals with, and rides these very specialised and powerful horses.

As part of my continued training to improve my knowledge and establish a better understanding of the sport of Dressage, I regularly watch current National and International Dressage competitions from around the world, but primarily focused on the European circuit. I believe It is important to understand rankings of different Athletes as well as horses, and if there are any news about changes in tests or international programs. On one particular occasion I was watching a competition from Germany, observing the talented young horses and the well-known athletes compete. In the M Level class test which is equivalent to an Elementary test, a horse was approaching the corner doing its extended walk on the diagonal, suddenly he spooked and bolted to the left, however the rider remained calm and corrected it and the next time the horse went through that corner with ease.

I was asked “Why are all dressage horses spooky?” On Instagram. I have come to know that this is a widely popular opinion from many riders of other disciplines, based I think on the fact that they see dressage horses showing signs of being nervous in shows or in busy arenas. There is no truth that Dressage horses are in fact more nervous than other horses in other disciplines.

Mohamed riding his horse in dressage

Dressage is the only equestrian sport where the horse is judged on all three gaits, competing in either a 20 x 40 meter area or a 20 x 60 meter arena, that has no obstacles or objects which could interfere with the horse’s ability to divert its fear or nerves to something else, completing and focusing on a test that can be as long as 6 minutes! Every horse reacts to nerves differently, some horses spin, or bolt to find comfort. It is flight response to their

immediate fear, it could be of an object but mainly it is because they find the situation uncomfortable.

Horses can be uncomfortable too!

Horses exhibit signs of being uncomfortable and activate a flight response in all disciplines differently, whether it is refusing to jump in show jumping, or avoiding a puddle in cross country, or bolting from a corner in Dressage. Being uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily mean pain, the most common reason for a horse to spook is that the horse doesn’t know what that object means to them, it could be another animal, a tree or even a small ball. This fear of the unknown is a puzzle for every horse, but the rider has the ability to always either make this habit worse, by enforcing the behaviour or to help the horse to be conscious of its surroundings and its behavior, ultimately helping the horse to understand and find the correction easier and quicker.

How do our bodies affect out horses?

As humans, we exhibit same symptoms of nerves when we compete for the first time, or when we are in a huge international arena, or riding in front of our idols, or for example in Dressage being judged by almost 8 people. Our hands tend to tighten up, knees frozen, and our diaphragm becomes smaller as every minute feels like an hour went by, although we are conscious at that moment of our fear, our horses do not understand what is going on? They’re now being ridden differently than for example in the warm up arena just moments ago, our nerves now are starting to make our horse feel uncomfortable and this is where horses will exhibit its flight response. On the other hand, if a horse is aware and conscious in a stressful situation then it will know how to manipulate its body and avoid a flight response.

There are other factors that can lead up to a horse being more nervous:

- Horses moving to a new barn

- Not having a balanced and nutritional diet

- Being in the stable or box all day

- Riders who are not able to understand or how to deal with horses being uncomfortable.

- Being abusive to the horse

Mohamed and Eroza doing half pass.

How can we reinforce a positive response?

We should always remember to take small steps to deal with our horses in general by understanding their behaviors. When we know what is affecting our horse’s nerves we will be able to turn the button that gives the horse a sign to be able to resolve the solution by itself, not by fleeing but by confidently taking control of its body towards that response.

Take time to understand your body as well, how it reacts to uncomfortable situations and fear. There are many exercises to do to divert and handle fear, for example but not limited to:

- Understand different breathing techniques

- Posture and spine relaxation

- Exercises you can do before or after riding (Like, running, swimming or just walking)

- Strengthening or conditioning exercises to keep your body fit

- Find a nutrition plan that will fit with your diet and help with your stress.

Horses are prey animals which make them inherently alert, and mostly curious, they will always have an element of being inquisitive. None the less it is our responsibility to turn this reaction to a positive response and find a solution that will avoid it being a negative habit.

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