Ways Horses Show Fear

As horseback riders, you can probably agree with me that most horses are “fraidy-cats,” meaning that they’re scared of a lot of things. Horses are flight animals, which means that they will actually look for things to be afraid of.

Being a flight animal also means that it will be quite obvious when they’ve found something to be afraid of, as their reaction will be to flee or get as far away from that thing as possible.

So, how do horses show fear? Depending on the situation, horses can show fear physically as their eyes will widen, their nostrils will flare, and their necks will brace upward. Sometimes horses will physically shake out of fear or chew their bit to help ease their anxiety. Another way horses demonstrate fear is by trying to stay as far away from something as they can. A horse that is afraid will have a hard time standing still and calm.

Learning how to recognize the signs of a horse that is afraid can help you handle the situation in an appropriate manner. Depending on the situation, a horse’s expression of fear may look different.

A horse that’s in a stall and scared of human reaction will stand at the other end of the stall and stay away while a horse that’s afraid of a certain object may prance about and bolt. Understanding what your horse is trying to communicate in these situations can help you to become a better and more compassionate trainer.

How To Tell If Your Horse is Afraid

As mentioned above, your horse will demonstrate certain behavior and exhibit physical aspects that can help you understand whether or not they’re afraid. Here’s a list of some ways your horse is trying to communicate that they’re afraid.

Widened Eyes

Someone once told me “if you want to know what your horse is feeling, look at their eyes.” Much like with any other animal, the eyes of horses do a great job in revealing their mental state. If you want to know if your horse is feeling nervous or afraid, I’d first say try to notice the expression in his eyes.

I have a POA who has very expressive eyes. It’s very easy to tell when he’s getting nervous or when he may be afraid because he starts to get this worried look on his face.

Learning to read a horse’s eye is very helpful, to say the least. The entire reason I bought my horse in the first place was based on the look in his eye. If you want to get familiar with a horse’s expression, the best thing you can do is spend as much time as you can around your horse. You’ll soon learn to read what’s on their mind.

If you want to know how you can get to know your horse better, check out our article Bonding With Your Horse: 8 Simple Tips That Actually Work.

Flared Nostrils

Have you ever noticed when you introduce your horse to a new object or animal, their nostrils tend to flare and they breathe heavily? This behavior is usually how horses approach anything that they’re new to or unsure of.

Why do horses flare their nostrils? Horses flare their nostrils and breathe heavily when introduced to something new due to the new and unusual scent that the object has. If they’re unsure of an object or animal, they may do this in order to see if the scent means a threat or a friend.

You’ll notice that the first reaction your horse will have with a new object is to sniff it. From there, the horse usually makes up their mind whether to continue to be unsure or to relax.

Tail Carriage

As discussed in this article by Rutgers University, another way your horse may demonstrate fear is by the way they carry their tail. Have you ever seen a dog that was afraid? The dog’s tail hung low and it seems as if it tucked it’s butt as it ran away. A horse that is afraid may demonstrate the same type of behavior.

A horse will tuck it’s hind-end so that it can move more quickly if there is any danger. This can make them look like a scared dog. If your horse is more anxious and alert, they’ll carry their tail up in the air.

Shying Away

A horse that is afraid of something will want to move away from it. This can look like a horse shying away quickly or simply taking a step back when you introduce them to something new.

If your horse tends to shy away to the point that it’s become a habit, try desensitizing training with them. Desensitizing your horse helps them to learn to accept the object they may be afraid of. You desensitize them by teaching them that the object isn’t anything to fear.

To learn my step-by-step desensitizing techniques, check out our article Bombproof and Desensitize a Horse: The Ultimate Guide.


Like many other types of animals, another way a horse can demonstrate that they’re afraid is by shivering. I’ve seen a horse that was neglected and abused shiver when humans tried to approach it. This behavior not only is caused by fear, but also by stress.

Why Is My Horse So Afraid?

Now that you know how to recognize when your horse is afraid, you may ask why is my horse so afraid? Besides their flight instincts, there’s an infinite number of reasons your horse may demonstrate such behavior.

A Previous Bad Experience

One reason your horse may be so afraid about a certain task or object is that they’ve had a bad experience with said task or object. I had a horse who was backing off of a horse trailer and somehow managed to fall over and out of the trailer. This made her afraid to try and back out of a trailer again.

This is the case with many rescue horses that have been neglected or abused. They’ve had bad experiences with humans in the past, so it’s very easy for them to become afraid around humans.

No Trust

Another reason why your horse may seem very skittish and easily afraid is that they don’t trust you and look to you as a leader. As herd animals, horses automatically want someone to look to as a leader.

In a herd, a horse can trust the other horses to look out for them. That’s why you’ll see most horses laying down asleep in the pasture while one horse stands watch. This means that if your horse doesn’t feel as if you’re part of the herd, they’ll be more nervous when taken away from their pasture.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

I’ve noticed that if one horse starts acting scared of something in the pasture, all the other horses will soon mimic the same behavior. This is due to the behavior mentioned above in the previous point; horses trust their herd to warn them of danger, so if one horse is afraid of something, the others will be as well.

How to Teach Your Horse Not to Be Afraid

When it comes to helping your horse get over being afraid, I’ve mentioned some points above. Here’s a list for review:

Create a Calm and Relaxing Environment

When your horse is scared, the worst thing you can do is create a stressful environment. This will teach your horse that they’re right for being afraid. Instead, you’ll want to create a calm and relaxing environment to demonstrate that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

When working with a scared horse, work at their pace. Pressuring the do more than they’re ready for can create a worst situation. Be patient and rewarding when the horse has taken even the smallest step in the right direction.

Create Trust

If your horse trusts you, it will be much easier for them to overcome a scary situation. I’ve noticed this with my own horse; when I purchased him and we weren’t familiar with each other, he was much more skittish and easily frightened than he is now. Today, we quickly overcome fears by teamwork.

Before you even try to help your horse overcome fear, take time to build a bond with your horse. Check out our article Bonding With Your Horse: 8 Simple Tips That Actually Work.

Desensitize Your Horse

A great way to help your horse get over their fears is by desensitizing them to a bunch of different objects and situations. Even if your desensitizing training doesn’t even seem to relate to what your horse is afraid of, experiencing many different situations and learning to accept them will help your horse become more confident and brave.

Here’s our article outlining a number of desensitizing techniques to help you in any situation: Bombproof and Desensitize a Horse: The Ultimate Guide.

I hope this article was helpful to you and your horse! Now that you know when your horse is afraid, let’s learn how to tell if your horse is bored! Check out our article How to Tell If Your Horse is Bored.

P.S. Save this article to your “Horse Behavior” Pinterest Board!


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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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