To spook or not to spook? That is the question.

by Vanessa Bee – Founder of Horse Agility and The Horse Agility Club

The one thing that horses can be relied upon to add to our lives is a bit of unexpected excitement!

Last year I ran a clinic for a jolly crowd of experienced horse people who just wanted to have a go at something a bit different. We were standing in a group discussing each obstacle in turn when a gust of wind grabbed at the corner off the tarpaulin and with a twist and a roll the whole thing set off across the arena in a wild tumble towards the gate.
Instantly the horses shot into a massive spook. Some leapt back ready to turn and run, others took a couple of canter strides around their handler, one just leapt skywards eyes bulging!

All were ready to run…all except one.

A little skewbald pony stood immobile throughout the chaos. He wasn’t rigid with fear, aware of what was happening but too scared to move, he didn’t do anything. He behaved as if nothing had happened at all.
In a minute or two everyone had calmed down, the tarpaulin had stopped trying to escape and got itself lodged under the fence and no harm was done, they all had a good laugh and repositioned their horses.
Except the owner of the skewbald. Leaning nonchalantly on her pony she said proudly,
‘My pony didn’t move an inch, he’s desensitized you see.’
I glanced at the pony, noted his glazed eye, his saggy lips, the resting leg and I didn’t like it. As I walked over to retrieve the tarpaulin I heard the lady continue her explanation,
‘It took a long time to get that spook out of him but it was worth it. He’ll be great at Horse Agility’
It wasn’t the time or the place to say a word but inside I was screaming:

‘Why, oh why would you want to take the spook out of a horse?’

Taking the spook out of a horse is like taking the song out of a bird, like telling a dancer they cannot dance, telling a horse he cannot spook takes the horse right out of him and it’s not what Horse Agility is about.

Horse Agility allows the horse to think about the spook and whether he needs to go into flight.

No spook is more than two strides (hence the long leadrope) the horse then makes a snap decision,
‘Do I run or do I stay?’
No horse is going to waste energy running if he doesn’t need to.
That’s the moment we want to prepare him for, to give him the life skills to make a decision that keeps us all safe.
A horse that doesn’t spook is a horse that isn’t a horse anymore.
He’s become a machine.
You might as well get a bicycle!


  1. Pamela Argo

    This is great so helpful. One day my guy will spook at a leaf falling and another day not a problem its all how we work together as a
    trusting team.

  2. Ev Nusic

    Colby came to me 8 years ago as a “quiet, no spook” trail horse. It turns out that he was the classic “quiet horse that isn’t safe.” He was quiet (now I recognize it as dull and shut-down) until he wasn’t and then there would be a lightning-fast spin, rear, bolt that left me on the ground more than once. I finally connected with a couple of great trainers and restarted him. The result is the lovely, connected horse I now have. It’s been a lot of work and we’re not there yet, but he is so much more fun now that he will show his emotions and give small honest spooks rather than internalizing until he explodes.

  3. Mark Belshaw

    A few years ago out on hack with Wilfy, my traditional piebald cob, we rounded a bend to meet a large jcb digger coming straight towards us taking the whole width of the lane. Not a flinch, we calmly stood on the verge as it rumbled noisily by.
    Later on, as we were coming down the hill back home, a dandelion seed head floated over the hedge to our left. You would have thought the world was about to end!

    A while later, I was speaking with a friend and neighbour who had been riding the same place when his horse spooked and flatly refused to pass a single Brussel sprout lying in the middle of the road!

    You won’t get that on a bicycle.