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The Horse’s Fear Response

The horse’s fear response has been an important survival mechanism for them. But when riding and training our horses, fear is one of our biggest adversaries. The vast majority of accidents with horses are due to the horse being afraid and responding to that fear through bolting, bucking, jumping to the side, leaping forward, kicking, striking, rearing, etc. Horses are hard-wired for fear, they evolved to either run from predators, throw them from their backs with a strong buck, or stand and fight them through striking and kicking.

As riders and horse owners, we may have many questions about handling this emotional response from our horses. What causes fear? How do I know if my horse is afraid before it escalates to dangerous levels? How can I calm him? Is there a way to prevent unpredictable behaviors resulting from fear? If I am a better leader will my horse will my horse recognize there is nothing to be afraid of?

When a horse acts in fear, they become very unpredictable. They may run into their handler, ignore the rider’s aids, and in cases of complete panic may even run through fences or crash into jumps as their brain is under the control of stress chemicals and the horse’s perception of other things in the environment is diminished. In order to keep ourselves and our horses safe, understanding fear, recognizing it, and looking to reduce or eliminate the fear while controlling the movement of the horse is critical.

What is a Fear Response?

The flight response is variable.

The characteristics of a fear response are fight, flight, or freeze. In the horse, flight is the most readily used response. Flight does not always mean bolting away in complete panic, however. As Dr. Andrew Mclean states in his article Fear Principle, “the flight response is extremely variable… it can be fully on or partially on.” Flight can be as simple as attempting to increase the distance between the horse and the object of fear. It may be a head shy horse raising their head, or a horse jumping to the side in a spook. Flight can be a horse constantly going too fast, or rushing towards jumps.

Other signs of fear or tension include tail swishing, high head carriage, a hollow back, teeth grinding, or refusal to move – known as freezing.

Prevent the Horse from Practicing Fear

We know that learning is much stronger when emotion is involved, and fear is one of the strongest emotions that we, and our horses, can experience. For survival reasons, fear responses are learned very quickly. If a horse learns that flight in any form can remove him from the source of fear he will continue to repeat the behavior and may use the flight behavior in more situations. This is why, in our training and riding, it is important to first, not use fear as a training tactic, and two, not allow repetition of fear responses removing the horse from the source of his fear, whether that is spooking, running forwards, rushing fences, or even jumping sideways away from fly spray or a water hose.

Allowing repeated fear responses essentially practices these behaviors. Instead, when we notice the horse becoming more worried, we should use a method of desensitization or habituation to ease the fear while controlling the horse. This requires both a knowledge of desensitization techniques as well as skill from the handler or rider. (In next week’s article, we will discuss desensitization.)

Many of us who own horses have limited knowledge of their lives and behavior before we came to know them. This means we may not fully understand the source of some of their behaviors because when a horse learns a fear response, it is always there. We may train new behaviors in its place and desensitize the horse to what initially caused his fear, but we cannot undue the response he learned and we can never be sure that it will not come back. This extra quick learning of fear responses is called “one-trial learning” and is another important survival mechanism for the horse. However, dealing with these responses is the reality of riding on the back of a large animal with a brain that stores memories and processes emotion in ways not that different from us.

If Our Horse Trusts Us as a Leader, Will They Learn Not to be Afraid?

I have often overheard or been asked the question, “if I am a good enough leader for my horse, will he no longer be afraid in new or frightening situations as long as I am present and calm?”

Horses can learn to trust us if we are consistent and fair, and our relationship will certainly be much better if they form good associations with our presence, instead of associating us with fear, pain, or tension.

I believe we do have to be careful how we think about “leadership” when handling our horses, and you can read more about that here. Our ability to stay calm will help our horse to be more calm as well, but more importantly, staying calm allows us to assess the situation and respond appropriately. However, the expectation that our calm presence alone will always keep our horse relaxed and quiet is bound to set us up for disappointment.

How do we Prevent Fear Responses?

There are three basic steps we need to take in order to help our horses perform the correct behaviors and avoid inadvertently teaching the horse to use his fear responses. These are:

  1. Train the correct response to all the aids, so that each part of the horse’s body is under control from cues by the rider
  2. Build repetition and value for performing these correct responses
  3. Do not allow successful reinforcement of fear behaviors, especially flight behaviors

Understanding desensitization, or the process of helping a horse get used to things that scare him, is also an important part of training and preventing dangerous fear responses. We will discuss four methods of desensitization in next week’s article.



Mclean, Andew. Fear Principle.


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17 Responses

  1. Miss Callie very good explanation, clear and concise. I really like your videos explain and more, if you show sympathy, candor and extensive knowledge in their videos. I love seeing and hearing, I hope not bother you my comments to you, but you really like.with all due respect.
    Have a nice weekend.
    Best regards.
    Rogelio Monroy

  2. Very informative. I would like to add a little about a trusted trainer easing a horses fear. I like to think of it as a parent and child. Picture them walking hand in hand. All of a sudden, the child notices a spider crawling up their shirt. Their fear reaction is immediate. They may scream and jump. But the parent quickly reassures the child that everything is ok and the child calms down. You will never get rid of that initial fear response completely. But you want the horse to look to you as his leader to tell him what to do next

  3. I am looking forward to your desensitization article. Spooking is a big issue with my 2 year old filly, and I hope to work through this in the next year before we start riding.

  4. great article thank you. I have seen this with a horse that got hit by his gate closing. Now he likes to rush past. I will remember to practice having him slowly walk in.

  5. My not spooky horse took one of those sideways jumps and I was unseated 2 years ago. Broke my knee into 12 pieces. He was nervous and I saw it but was too relaxed and thought I had sufficiently calmed him. And that was at a walk in the arena!! Now when I trail ride I keep my weight way down in my heels to give me better leverage if thrown sideways off balance.

  6. I believe horses are like kids- you can demand or earn their respect. Earning it you become a trusted leader. Allowing them to get away with stuff only makes them unruly. And there will be the occasions they need to be reminded to pay attention.

  7. Yes yes yes. 🙂 what you write is so true. Horses need us to learn our lessons well so we can help and teach them well and deeply. It is so helpful to understand the fear response and how training helps to provide alternative responses. I too think you are, as Nancy says, spot on for us and the horses. Thank you for helping to spread great knowledge, skills and a thoughtful attitude.

  8. wonderful article, Callie. I prefer ‘partner’ to ‘leader’. Let’s face it, we may have the brains (usually LOL) but they certainly have the brawn. we need to be equal collaborators. I firmly believe that horses ‘speak’ much better human than we ‘speak’ horse most of the time. It behooves us to try to understand the world from their viewpoint and not anthropomorphize and extrapolate everything through our own human senses. They are NOT humans…so don’t expect them to act, react or behave like a human. We expect our horses to understand our aids, but shouldn’t we spend just as much time understanding our horses signals to us?
    That was very insightful. I am so happy that I found your sight and I’m very happy to be working with you.

  9. Hi Callie unfortunately my TB horse has taken to bolting when out hacking if things get to stressful, i don’t have a sand school and the most id be able to box out to hire one would be once a week or ever other week, I really could do with some advice on how to Work through this and rebuild our confidence, as I really don’t want to sell her she’s such a wonderful horse other than loosing her mind with fear.
    I hope asking in a comment is ok. All your videos are so amazing, feel like your input would be good to hear

    1. Hi Carly, thanks for your comment and question! While it goes without saying I still feel obligated to say be very careful here. Bolting is extremely dangerous as the horse looses his ability to even think in a way to protect himself. Horses can run through fences, into wire, or even fall, I have personally experienced each of these. Bolting is reinforcing for the horse because it effectively takes them further from what they are afraid of. This means the more they do it the more likely they are to do it again. I would go back to working in the safest area you can. Perhaps it’s just around the barn. Practice your basic responses, work on being able to bend your horse and move her off leg. Keeping a horse in bending is one of the best ways to prevent bolting. Only begin working out when her responses in a calmer area are reliable and consistent. Hope this helps and be careful!

  10. I rally need to learn how to handle my horse when she spooks or just doesn’t want to slow down bolt or just not listen I love this challenge I feel when I finally master her I’ll be able to call myself a real rider so I’m up for the challenge though at times I’m scared to death looking forward to this video

    1. My mare cannot be let off the lead in the arena to stretch her legs, or roll. In Canada when the wintery paddocks turn to ice, I have always had horses I can put in the arena and let them stretch, run, and play indoors, safe from the icy paddocks. But not this mare. Off lead she will roll and usually get up and get very excitable so that I think she is a danger to herself, bucking and running back and forth on the short end of the arena or haphazardly that looks hard on her joints. Her head is up, her eyes are wild. I did get her relaxedly strolling the arena during the summers when the heat basically tranquilized her, but as soon as the mercury dropped, she ran again. I never hold a whip to free lunge, but she seems scared and overwhelmed with what to do with her freedom and just runs. But not joyfully or playfully. She seems unhappy. She is fine in her paddock alone. I have desensitized her to the whip touching her all over with it. I dont know what to do next. She was found abandoned one winter with 2 other ponies in an indoor arena so I dont know if it is PTSD. She is otherwise a very happy mare who is confident and a good partner. She is not a total pushover and does have some self expression, for instance she doesnt like all trailers, and will sometimes play buck after a big jump, or balk on the lunge line at canter.

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