What Do Horses Do When They Are Scared?

Horses, as prey animals, have evolved to have strong fear responses to perceived threats in their environment. Their natural instincts drive them to react quickly to potential dangers to ensure their survival. It is crucial for horse owners, riders, and trainers to understand these fear responses to manage and handle horses safely and effectively.

Furthermore, acknowledging and addressing a horse’s fear can lead to improved communication, better training outcomes, and a more enjoyable experience for both the horse and its handler. So, What Do Horses Do When They Are Scared?

When horses are scared, they may exhibit various fear responses such as bucking, kicking, leaping, bolting, rearing, or freezing. Additionally, they might display signs of fear like high head carriage, tail swishing, teeth grinding, and tense muscles. Recognizing these behaviors is crucial for maintaining safety and building trust with the horse.

Common Fear Responses in Horses

What Do Horses Do When They Are Scared?

Bucking, kicking, and leaping

Horses exhibit a variety of fear responses when they feel threatened or insecure. One of the most common reactions is bucking, which involves the horse arching its back and kicking its hind legs into the air. This behavior can be a way for the horse to dislodge a perceived threat, such as an unfamiliar object or even a rider.

Kicking is another fear response that horses may display when they are scared. They may kick out with their hind legs to protect themselves from a perceived danger. This can be directed towards other horses, animals, or even humans who are too close and make the horse feel threatened.

Leaping, also known as spooking or bolting, is another common fear response in horses. In this reaction, the horse suddenly jumps to the side or moves forward rapidly to avoid a perceived threat. This behavior can be dangerous for both the horse and its handler, as it can lead to accidents or injuries.

Bolting, rearing, and freezing

Bolting is a sudden, uncontrolled forward movement by a scared horse. This rapid acceleration can be challenging to control and dangerous for the rider and the horse. When a horse bolts, it is trying to escape a perceived threat as quickly as possible.

This behavior may occur when the horse is startled by a sudden noise, movement, or unfamiliar object.

Rearing is another fear response that involves the horse lifting its front legs off the ground and standing on its hind legs. This behavior can be a reaction to a perceived threat, a way for the horse to gain a better view of its surroundings, or an attempt to escape a frightening situation.

Rearing can be dangerous for both the horse and its handler, as the horse can lose its balance and fall backward.

Freezing is a less obvious fear response in horses. When a horse freezes, it becomes immobile and refuses to move. This can be a way for the horse to avoid drawing attention to itself when it perceives a threat.

Freezing can also be an indication of extreme stress or anxiety in the horse and may be accompanied by other signs of tension, such as tail swishing, high head carriage, and teeth grinding.

Head shy behavior and tail swishing

Head shy behavior in horses is characterized by the animal raising its head, avoiding contact, or showing signs of fear or anxiety when a person attempts to touch its head or face. This response can be the result of past trauma, negative experiences, or pain in the head area.

Horses exhibiting head-shy behavior may become difficult to handle, especially during grooming or when fitting a bridle. Building trust and approaching the horse with patience can help alleviate head-shy behavior over time.

Tail swishing is another fear response in horses, which involves the animal moving its tail back and forth quickly. This behavior can be a sign of agitation, discomfort, or annoyance, and may be exhibited when a horse is exposed to a stressful or frightening situation.

Tail swishing can also be an indication of physical discomforts, such as irritation from insects or pain in the horse’s hindquarters

Recognizing Signs of Fear

High head carriage and hollow back

High head carriage is a sign that a horse may be frightened or tense. When a horse raises its head suddenly, it may be trying to get a better view of a potential threat or preparing to bolt or shy away from something it perceives as dangerous. A horse with a high-head carriage may also exhibit tense muscles and be less responsive to a rider’s cues.

Paying attention to changes in head carriage can help handlers and riders identify situations where a horse may be feeling scared or anxious, allowing them to address the issue and help the horse feel more comfortable.

A hollow back is another sign of fear in horses. When a horse is frightened, it may hollow its back as part of its fear response, which can be accompanied by other behaviors such as teeth grinding or refusal to move.

A hollow back may also be an indication of physical discomfort or pain, so it is important for handlers and riders to be aware of this sign and take steps to determine the cause and help the horse feel more secure and relaxed.

Teeth grinding and refusal to move

Teeth grinding is another sign of fear or stress in horses. When a horse feels threatened or anxious, it may grind its teeth as a way of coping with the situation. In addition to being a sign of fear, teeth grinding can also cause dental problems if it becomes a chronic habit.

Refusal to move, also known as freezing, can be a fear response in horses. When a horse feels threatened, it may refuse to move or progress forward, effectively freezing in place as a way of avoiding potential danger.

This behavior can be challenging for handlers and riders, as it can be difficult to determine whether the horse is genuinely afraid or simply stubborn.

Tense muscles and loss of focus

Tense muscles are another indicator of fear or anxiety in horses. When a horse feels threatened, its muscles may become tense and rigid, signaling that it is preparing for a fight or flight response.

This can make it more difficult for a rider to communicate effectively with the horse and may lead to a breakdown in the partnership between horse and rider.

A loss of focus can also be a sign of fear in horses. When a horse suddenly stops paying attention to its handler or rider and becomes fixated on something else, it may be because the horse is frightened or nervous about the situation.

Building Trust and Reducing Fear in Horses

Approaching and handling horses calmly

One of the most important aspects of building trust and reducing fear in horses is to approach and handle them calmly and confidently. Horses are sensitive to the energy and emotions of their handlers and riders, so maintaining a calm demeanor can help a horse feel more at ease.

By being mindful of your own energy and body language when interacting with a horse, you can create a positive and reassuring atmosphere that fosters trust and reduces fear.

Gradual desensitization to new stimuli

Gradual desensitization is an effective technique for helping horses overcome the fear of new or unfamiliar stimuli. This process involves slowly and systematically introducing the horse to the source of its fear in a controlled and non-threatening manner, allowing the horse to become more comfortable and confident with the new stimulus over time.

By using this approach, handlers and riders can help their horses overcome fear and anxiety related to specific objects, situations, or environments, leading to a more trusting and secure relationship.

Consistent and gentle training methods

Using consistent and gentle training methods is crucial for building trust and reducing fear in horses. By establishing clear expectations and using positive reinforcement techniques, handlers, and riders can encourage their horses to learn and grow in a safe and supportive environment.

Consistency in training helps horses understand what is expected of them, which can reduce anxiety and fear related to uncertainty. Additionally, using gentle and non-threatening training techniques can help foster a strong bond between horse and handler, leading to a more trusting and confident partnership.

Safety Considerations When Handling Scared Horses

Recognizing when a horse is about to bolt or shy away

To ensure the safety of both horse and handler, it’s crucial to recognize the signs that a horse is about to bolt or shy away. These signs may include high head carriage, tense muscles, and loss of focus on the handler or rider. By paying close attention to these signs, you can take appropriate action to prevent accidents or injuries.

Maintaining control and staying safe

Maintaining control and staying safe while handling a scared horse requires a combination of confidence, skill, and knowledge. Handlers and riders should be familiar with basic horse handling techniques and be prepared to react calmly and decisively in the event of a fearful response.

It’s also important to use appropriate safety equipment, such as helmets and sturdy footwear, to protect yourself from potential injury.

Knowing when to give the horse space and time to calm down

Sometimes, the best course of action when handling a scared horse is to give the horse space and time to calm down. By recognizing when a horse is too frightened or agitated to respond to your cues, you can avoid escalating the situation and give the horse the opportunity to regain its composure.

By giving a scared horse space and time, you are also demonstrating your understanding of its needs, which can help build trust and strengthen your bond with the horse.


Understanding and managing fear in horses is an essential skill for any horse handler or rider. By recognizing the signs of fear, employing gentle and consistent training methods, and prioritizing safety, you can build trust with your horse and create a strong, confident partnership.

With patience, persistence, and empathy, it is possible to help your horse overcome its fears and develop into a more secure and trusting companion.

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