FIGHT vs FLIGHT - What does this mean for you and your horse?

FIGHT vs FLIGHT - What does this mean for you and your horse?

February 15, 2023

It's generally accepted that we have two key reactions in a horse; fight or flight.

But, what does this mean for you and your horse?

Can we use his natural instincts to enhance rather than destroy your partnership?


As with everything, there's a spectrum of horse behaviour; some have a tendency towards FIGHT, others towards FLIGHT, and some horses will employ one reaction in one situation, and the opposite, when presented with a different set of circumstances.

We've got some examples below - and some reminders of the value of having a Click & Connect Neck Strap in bold! 

"He saw that yesterday - why is he scared of it today?!"

"He spooked at the flowerpot every day for a year - now I've moved it and he's spooking because it isn't there!"

"We've just been past that object on one rein with no problem - why is he suddenly scared of it from the other direction?"

I don't believe horses think up these things - snoozing in their stable thinking, next time I go on a ride, I'm going to spook at the postbox - that'll make my rider laugh ... or not! 

While we find our horses have tendencies - some are more fearful of noise, of weather, of natural objects, of man-made objects, of things that move, of things that stay still, of things up high, of things on the ground, of things from in front, from the side or from behind - trying to puzzle the horse out is part of what makes riding, and horse owning, so addictive. 

It's in the moment and every day gives us opportunities to turn these frightening things into partnership-forming bonds.

The get out here is that we don't always get our timing or actions right. 

We don't have much up our sleeve as a rider - we really can only change direction, change speed, or change our own energy level.

At most basic level, we want the horse to focus on us, the rider, trust us far more than he's scared of the spook. 

For some horses that's us giving him a nudge and daring him past the spook.  Or using a firm voice to take his attention away from the spook and onto us for a treat.  Sometimes those backfire.  The horse wasn't ready or able to be dared - he'll get cross with us for asking him to do so - don't we realise he's terrified ... and worse-case-scenario, he'd be better off without us!  Had we placated and soothed, he'd have trusted us and gone by.

Sometimes you'll placate and soothe and the horse gets more anxious.  Why? Well, he now thinks, "Golly this must be really scary - even mum thinks it's scary!  Whereas a quick, "Come on" and he would've be inspired by your confidence.

That said, I always prefer to go for the pat then push option.  I'd rather he thought I was scared, then realised I wasn't, than he thought eek, that thing ahead is scary, now my rider is being scary and a bully too.. I've nowhere to go!I

And, as I get to know my horse, and he me, so I think he'll trust me quicker, fear less and those situations where you wonder if you'll get yourself or your horse home will become things of the past.

Be clear; Be positive; Be kind and Believe.

But what kind of behaviour might my horse demonstrate if he's in Fight vs Flight mode, and what tricks can you employ to help us build our partnership in these situations.

Note one of our favourite quotes from our clients are from one who said, "The Click & Connect Neck Strap has been a gamechanger for me and my spooky horse", and another who said, "My horse is a saint, but I won't ride without my Click & Connect Neck Strap as we all know, anything can happen!"



For the horse that has a tendency towards fight, he'll actually try to defend or attack a situation.  Fight traits might be to  buck, kick, bite, rear.  He want's to stop, stick around and fight. 


If he's in FIGHT mode, you actually want to vere him towards FLIGHT mode.  Because he's feeling like a fighter, your 14.2hh might feel 18.2hh as he grows to defend himself. 

This is great - it gives you the cue he's gearing up for attack. 

For you to join your horse on this enterprise, it may mean donning your brave pants too. 

While patience is a virtue, taking the lead often gives the 'FIGHT' horse confidence to get the job sorted. 

Left alone, he might use what he considers the best tactic in the situation - his rear may be to try to protect you, and himself!   

However, it's rare this behaviour is appreciated.

Rather than reprimand him for his behaviour, consider how to get him from his defensive stance, into an attacking stance;

  • There's a 'killer' filler in the arena.  He's stretching his neck forward to look, sniff, or touch that scary filler.  Go on you say - dare him!  Grab your Click & Connect Neck Strap to keep you with him.  Pat him.  If he strikes out at it or treads on it, his fight is evident.  Let him use his inquisitiveness to overcome his fear.
  • Give him a positive cue - a click or a kick - to go past or over the filler.  If he's a fighter, he'll likely grow tall, snort, leap or charge past.  What a brave horse! Grab your Click & Connect Neck Strap to go with him!  Note if he reacts negatively to the cue - ie gets cross with you, perhaps he's a Flight Horse after all so see below!)
  • You've got a horse who's on the warpath in the warm up arena. The horse you are riding is giving the other horses the evil eye, trying to squirm to potentially even bite or kick them.  Your horse is definitely feeling like a fight.  To ease this situation, try following another horse - consider yourself as 'chasing it down' and if in it's slipstream,  that lead horse will be something your fight horse can focus on - even if your horse thinks that lead horse is your target.  The bonus here is that the lead horse will also act as a shield between your horse and any coming in the opposite direction - giving your horse confidence and protecting other horses.  Note, it is polite to ask the lead horse if they'd join you in this exercise - else you could be accused of stalking! 
  • Think of your fight horse as one preparing for battle.  There's a lorry (army) approaching.  As the lorry to stop and then you want to 'charge' that lorry.  If the lorry is stopped, your charge might be at walk.  If the lorry is crawling, your charge might need to be at a strong trot.  Grab your Click & Connect Neck Strap, go into forward seat and get attacking.  Your positive (and safe) riding position will give your horse more confidence too.

The key thing is, you join him in his 'fight' and then take the lead. 




For the horse that has a tendency towards flight, he'll want to run away and get you out of a fearful or uncertain situation as quickly as possible.  The focus word here is away. As a result, the flight horse is often associated with spinning, turning, as well as bolting.  He might also be quite bargy and rude - even mowing you down as he tries to get out of the situation.  He'll not like to feel trapped so must always feel he has the option to move away.  If you do want to encourage him past the object, he might fear this as trapping him and his best option then is to get rid of you (buck you off!) so he CAN run away. 



Horses in flight mode often react very quickly and the trick here is to try and buy time to work out the situation and keep his focus on you and away from his fear.  

Initially don't try and vere your flight horse into fight mode - it's unlikely making you hold a tarantula is going to cure you of arachnophobia in one go.  

  • If there's something spooky at the side of the arena, don't force him to stop - he wants to move!  Don't force him to go up to it, touch it or past it.  Keep his focus on you - you are his leader and supporter.  Circle past it - even if 'past it' is actually 30m away!  When he works without tension past it, the next time take your line a metre closer. But if he gets worried again, take him back into his comfort zone and try again when he's more settled.  Grab your Click & Connect Neck Strap to keep you secure, helping you keep his balance without catching him in the mouth, or inadvertently balancing on the reins.  He'll tricked into thinking he's always moving 'away' from the object - even if he's actually going past or over it.  And better yet, you are coming with him.  Phew.  He has a friend. 
  • There's something spooky on the path up ahead.  He goes to spin and run.  Hold onto your Click & Connect Neck Strap, and let the connectors to the girth help balance his shoulders (if he doesn’t drop a shoulder there’s less chance you’ll fall off).  Pat him, turn him back, pat again, and try again.  The connectors are fabulous as often horses will actually have a hissy fit, not just at the spook, but at the fact they, and you, lost your balance - now they are scared of the spook, of their own ability to balance, and whether or not the rider will stay on board!  Because you and he have a better chance of keeping your balance, you are in a much better position to tackle the spook.  Praise him for bravery, be patient to let you both relax, and then try and face the spook again - he doesn't need to look at it though!  Keep him bent towards you or focused on you by distracting him with bending left and right, or employ some shoulder in or leg-yield so it's not his face that's facing the spook.  You might find he's best approaching the spook in reverse! Having a lead horse to show him the way is great but mostly you need to get him to think of you first.
  • Yikes, the pony has been spooked, shot forward, bucked to deposit his rider and done a runner! Bucking can be through joy or fear and can be both an attacking (kicking out) tactic but, when employed to deliberately deposit the rider, is usually through flight.  Grab your Click & Connect Neck Strap.  The neck strap is positioned so it helps you lift the base of his neck so his bucks are hopefully less high; it gives you a chance at a taller upper body position that is more secure so his bottom doesn't eject you and so you can actually try and encourage him forwards, and the connectors help stabilise his shoulders - it's his drop of a shoulder or twist in his back that usually means we've little hope of staying on.  As a rule, try and watch his ears - that'll help you stay on too.  Staying on will help his confidence - as well as your own!   We've an entire blog on bucking so, check that out! 
  • There's a noise and it's setting your horse off! Stopping, patting and praising might work, but your other option is to keep the horse moving - he's in flight mode after all.  You might find trotting or cantering and also singing or talking and trying to drown out the noise is far better.  As a trick to helping horses who are fretful in the horsebox where they are trapped and anxious from the noises around them, having a loud radio can help - just make sure you set it on to a talking station  - not rock music! 

The important thing to learn is why the horse has reacted as it has and how you, and he, can stay together and form a partnership.  

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