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Let Go and Hold On: Why Horses Spook and People Attack

equine therapyRiding can teach a person many things. Proprioception, neuromuscular control and balance all are demanded when we sit on the back of a horse. But certainly there is a vibrant emotional contagion occurring separately between the horse and rider.

Shared between a rider and his/her horse is a communication that is exclusive to only them. While others can guess what a horse may be sensing or feeling, only his rider truly knows. And conversely, only a horse truly knows what his rider is feeling.

Unlike many human social exchanges, that which is shared between the horse and rider is never manufactured, artificial, or forged in any way. Instead, what is thought by the rider is transmitted on a physiological level immediately to the horse, and immediately, the horse reacts.

For example, if the rider has a thought that the horse is going to spook at a corner of the arena, and then without even being aware of it, tensed her thigh muscles to prepare for the horse’s potential sideways maneuver, the horse, unaware as to why the rider is tensing, will likely spook.

Spooking, in horses, for this reason, can be one of the most challenging problems to fix.  While the advanced rider’s response may be to tighten up and force the horse to go past the scary object, the tightening itself may cause a spook that would not have otherwise occurred. Interesting, the same thing happens with people. When we tense, preparing to defend ourselves against a perceived attack, the other person is immediately also put on the defensive, and now also, much more likely to attack.

But what if right in the moment where the rider thinks the horse is going to spook, she can let go? Instead of tightening for the possible spook, she relaxes her muscles and decides if anything she will simply go with the horse’s movement. Well, an interesting thing happens here. The horse, naturally a flight animal, and very sensitive to physiology will interpret his rider’s change in physiology (from tense to calm) as a reason to not worry. And then, whatever potential spook would have occurred either does not, or is now lessened.

Not surprisingly, the same thing happens with people. When, in the face of an attack, instead of becoming defensive, we just let go, and join them in their feelings — “Yes it is bad. You have been hurt, and treated quite unfairly.” — people recoil from their defensiveness, and the attack stops.

An attacking person, after all, isn’t much different from a spooking horse, and although an attack can seem much more threatening than a spook, at the heart of things, both the spooking horse and the attacking person are terribly frightened.

Spooked horse photo available from Shutterstock

Let Go and Hold On: Why Horses Spook and People Attack

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2012). Let Go and Hold On: Why Horses Spook and People Attack. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Aug 2012
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