Sunspot Spooking

Find out why horses spook at sunspots on the ground and what you can do to correct this behavior.
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Sunspot Spooking
Horses might spook at sun spots or shadows on the ground because they look like a change in terrain. | Photo: Keith Larson
Q: I ride inside during most of the winter months. However, my horse constantly spooks at sun spots in the indoor arena that come in through the windows. Why does she do this, and how can I help her overcome her fear?

A: I think one reason horses spook at sun spots or shadows on the ground is because these things look like a change in terrain. If left on his own, a horse would probably slow up, put his head down on approach, and perhaps even use his muzzle to investigate or assess it. When he is at work, a horse is not completely free to do so. The tricky thing about sun spots or shadows is they will change position depending upon the time of day, so they might be coming up in unexpected places as you ride on different schedules.

I don’t have one pat answer to address this problem, but I do have a number of suggestions. I would really like to know if this mare is generally a spooky type horse or if it’s just this one thing that disturbs her. Does she just shy and move on or does she act terrified to some degree? Has she had a good ophthalmic exam by your veterinarian to look for defects in the cornea, subtle signs of uveitis, “floaters,” or any other number of things that could be hampering her vision?

As a means of just avoiding the situation, one aid that can be used is the shadow roll. This is a large rounded piece of foam covered in fleece that looks like a big fluffy noseband and is positioned usually somewhat above where the regular noseband sits. What it does is physically interferes with the horse’s line of sight towards the ground. It not only hides things from view, it also tends to encourage the horse to put her head down, in order to try to see over it. So this might work, however I don’t think it’s as satisfying as trying to actually solve the underlying problem. Also, practically speaking, you might not be able to use it in competition, and as with any tack change, there might be unintended consequences in how your horse responds and it just might not work out well

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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