Question: I know a horse that I would typically call brave. The mare is excellent at horse shows, on roads, in parades, and most other settings. However, she is petrified of one spot at the far end of the indoor arena. It isn’t by a door and doesn’t have a funny shadow—I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is. I have seen this phenomenon in other horses too, what causes this and what can I do to fix it?

Renate Larssen: This is a common problem for many riders, and both the explanation and the solution can be found in the horse’s behavioral biology. 

Horses perceive the world differently from us—just because we can’t see something spook-worthy in a corner doesn’t mean the horse feels the same way. As prey animals they are highly attuned to potential threats in the environment. Their senses evolved to identify these threats, their behaviour evolved to escape from them, and their memory evolved to avoid them in the future.

Horses have a visual field that covers almost 360 degrees and a horizontal pupil, which means that they pick up details over a wide area around them. They are particularly sensitive to signs of movement, because in their natural habitat, any movement on the horizon could be an early warning sign of an approaching predator.

As many horses are ridden with their nasal plane in a vertical or behind-vertical position, their visual field will be oriented at a slight angle to the horizon, meaning they will be seeing things that are behind and above the rider. It’s therefore possible that your mare reacts to something that you don’t even see.

Horses also have a well-developed sense of hearing. They can pick up sounds from well over a mile away and hear high-pitched noises that we can’t. So, it’s also quite possible that she reacts to something she hears, rather than something she sees—or to a combination. 

In addition to great senses, horses also have great memory and will quickly form an association between a particular place and an unpleasant event. If the unpleasant experience is repeated a few times, the horse can quickly become hyperreactive.

It may be that your mare saw, heard, or experienced something frightening or painful in that corner at some point—or in a similar corner in another arena—and is expecting that same experience every time she passes it. When she spooks, she adds distance between herself and the area that frightens her, making her feel safer again and so reinforcing the behavior.

The way the rider responds to a spook plays an important part in creating this association, too.

If the rider tenses up and pulls on the reins, loses their balance, or loses their temper and corrects the horse, for example, it amplifies the unpleasant experience. The horse will likely tense up in expectation the next time they pass the same place, and this can quickly become a downward spiral.

Fear-based reactions can be difficult to re-train, as they are an evolutionary survival strategy. However, there are ways to replace your mare’s fear-based reactions with different responses.

First, we need to set her up for success. Make sure she gets her basic behavioral needs fulfilled: daily free movement in a field with at least one other horse she likes and access to forage for at least 10 hours a day, evenly distributed over the full 24 hours. Many behavioral issues go away on their own once behavioral needs are met, so this is an important part of any training program.

Once your mare’s behavioral needs have been addressed, the first step is to stop triggering her fear, because every time she becomes frightened and spooks, the behavior is reinforced. An easy solution is to simply avoid the corner altogether—find a distance from the corner where the mare is comfortable and doesn’t display any fear-related behaviors, and simply make that your new “imaginary corner” for a while.

Work on passing the “imaginary corner” in a controlled but relaxed way, avoiding a tight contact on the reins or driving leg aids that she may perceive as unpleasant. Do it at the walk first, and make walk-halt-walk transitions, circles, and other exercises that she is familiar with and can perform without physical or mental effort. Be very particular about releasing the pressure from rein and leg aids as soon as she responds the way you want her to. If you can give her a scratch on the withers or a carrot slice in the “imaginary corner,” that’s an added bonus!

Over time, progress to passing the “imaginary corner” at a trot and canter, but keep the focus on relaxation. Once she’s comfortable doing that over multiple sessions, bring the “imaginary corner” a bit closer to the real corner, and go back to working at the walk again. Keep building on the exercise like this by either adding more effort OR decreasing the distance to the real corner—never both at the same time, to avoid putting too much pressure on her.

For extra credit and faster progress you can yo-yo a bit between where the “imaginary corner” is located by backing up to a previous location every time you’ve progressed closer to the real corner. Always pay attention to your mare’s behavior, particularly her facial expressions (hard to do from the saddle, I know…) and overall body tension, as they will give you an indication of her emotional state. If you notice her getting tense, just back up a bit again to an earlier stage for a few sessions and then try advancing again.

Remember to be patient and trust the process—this won’t happen over the course of one training session, but rather over several weeks, maybe even months. The only one who can set the pace is your mare.

Finally, don’t hesitate to reach out to an ethologist or qualified behaviorist if you want on-site help with a behavioral issue.

Do you have a horse behavior question for equine ethologist Renate Larssen? Send it to for consideration in a future column.

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