What to do when your horse’s spooking is (nearly) killing you?
Normal spook response
The horse’s spook response is his brain’s idea of saving his life. It’s part of his “fight-or-flight” response to a potential threat. It is designed to keep the horse alive.
We, however, would much rather have a horse that doesn’t spook. It’s so much safer for us. Not being stepped on, thrown, pulled down the aisle (or road), etc. is much more fun.
We do our best to “despook” or “desensitive” our horses for the safety of all involved. This often works well and there is a lot of online info available on despoiling also called “sacking-out”).
Some people believe that horses get to a point where they won’t ever spook. This is not true. While the automatic spook response can be calmed significantly by familiarity, it is never completely eliminated. Even with the “bomb-proof” horse: try showing him a mountain lion—you’ll see the spooking response return.
Not-so-normal spook response
There are some horses, however, that are more spooky than others. These not-so-normal spookers may spook at lots of things (seems like everything!), or their spooking may be WAY over-dramatic (flipping over backwards when a mouse runs by)
There are also horses that spook at only one thing—even a blue flower, for example. And no matter how much or what kind of desensitization you do, it doesn’t reduce the spooking. In the horses mind, a blue flower = horse eating monster.
So besides the automatic fight-or-flight response, what else can spooking be caused by?
“Not normal” causes of spooking
- Chiropractic issues
- Vision problems
- Teeth and sinus problems
- Gutteral pouch infection
- Rabies vaccine
1) Chiropractic causes of spooking
The brainstem runs through the atlas (or poll.) When the atlas is subluxated, this can put pressure on the brainstem and cause problems. In people, atlas subluxation can cause headaches and even migraines. It absolutely can increase horse spooking. I have adjusted many horses whose excessive “spookiness” was eliminated after their atlas was adjusted.
You can check your own horse to find out if his or her atlas (poll) is subluxated by using Body Checkups. The Atlas Checkup is available for FREE here on this website: Atlas Checkup. The video is here.
If the Atlas Checkup results are “probable subluxation,” then call your certified equine chiropractor. If your Atlas Checkup results are “normal”, the occiput and TMJ may also be involved with spooking. (Please consult my book, Where Does My Horse Hurt?, for further information on occiput and TMJ Body Checkups.)
2) Vision problems
If you have a horse that seems to spook too much, be sure to have its eyesight examined. Some horses have vision difficulties (such as cataracts, corneal scarring, uveal cysts, or retinal damage) that may be causing the spooking. Be sure to have the horse’s eyes dilated to enable full examination of the interior of the eye. You may need a referral to a veterinary opthalmologist for a complete exam.
If your horse only spooks at one specific thing, however, it is not likely that eyesight is the problem.
3) Teeth or sinus problems
How can teeth or sinus problems possibly cause spooking? Nerves. Nerves that connect to the brain to be more specific.
The teeth of the upper jawbone (maxilla) have tooth roots that extend in the frontal sinus (front of the face.) Nerve pain in the frontal sinus can radiate near the eyes, TMJ, and brain.
Sinus infection can also cause sinus pressure. Sinus pressure can cause pain and dysfunction in the nerves near the eyes, TMJ, and brain.
Nerve pain and/or nerve pressure effectively cause nerves in the brain to be “hyperactive,” and thereby cause spooking.
4) Gutteral pouch infection
The gutteral pouch lies to the inside of the horse’s throatlatch area. There is one gutteral pouch on the right side and one on the left side. With gutteral pouch infection, there is often nasal discharge that is usually chronic, and usually only on one side. However, sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Again, spooking is all about nerves. Gutteral pouch infection can cause extra pressure on internal nerves that lead to the brain, possibly causing horse spooking.
5) Rabies vaccine
The rabies virus targets nerves. All nerves, including the ones in the face and brain. Sometimes the rabies vaccine can cause “super-spooking” in horses.
By “super-spooking”, I’m referring to horses who spook and it’s as if:
- “The brain has left the body”
- “They’re no longer there” (even though the horse is still there physically)
- You can’t communicate with them at all
- They’re not seeing anything even though their eyes are open
This side effect of the rabies vaccine can be cleared with the help of a homeopathic professional.
So if you’ve already tried numerous desensitization techniques, be sure to give your horse the benefit of the doubt and check the other five possible causes of excessive spooking.
Best of luck,
Renee Tucker, DVM