Holle is an expert in all things dogs, gardening, and horses. She is a professional writer by trade.
How much experience do you have with horse training? If you’ve ever ridden or handled a horse, you’ve been part of its informal training, whether you realize it or not. Every experience an equine has can leave a mark on its behavior—for good or for bad.
Think about that for a moment. When you stop a horse, you pull back on the reins, placing pressure on the animal’s mouth. When the horse submits and stops, you loosen the reins, relieving the pressure. The horse is rewarded for good behavior. On the other hand, if the horse bucks, causing you to dismount and turn the horse out to pasture because you’re afraid to ride, the horse is rewarded for bad behavior.
Horses aren’t stupid, and they often know how to get out of work. They can be confused fairly easily, however. Equines have natural instincts that have allowed the species to survive for many, many years—long before man had a hand in it. The best horse training methods usually work with natural horse behavior—not against it. Some of the behavior problems seen in equines are directly due to improper training or mismanagement by humans. One such problem that’s often seen is a nervous horse. If you have a hot horse, I’ve provided some horse training tips and other remedies that you might find useful.
If you own, work with, or ride enough horses, sooner or later you’re going to encounter a nervous horse, sometimes called a hot horse. Nervous horses are no fun to ride. Unless you can get the animal to settle down, it’s going to be so busy with being nervous that it won’t pay much attention to your cues or to the business of working or trail riding, no matter what sort of horse training techniques you use.
Some horse breeds are naturally more high strung than others, and some individual equines are more prone to nervousness than others. Any horse, however, can feel nervous or fearful from time to time, regardless of how much horse training it has received.
Of course, older, well-trained mounts that have experienced lots of different situations are less likely to become suddenly nervous or afraid, but it can still happen. If you know the horse well and are alert while handling and riding the animal, you can often prevent “spooks” from happening.
To be effective with horse training, you need to understand the basics of horse behavior. In other words, you need to understand how most horses think in a variety of situations and how they’re most likely to react based on their natural instincts. Much of equine behavior was shaped by the fact that for thousands of years, horses were prey to large animals and to humans. Thus, they’re generally considered to be flight-or-fight animals, and they’d much rather escape than fight, if given the opportunity.
Many horses feel safer when they’re moving than when they’re standing still. And for such horses, this preference or need to move comes out when the animal is fearful. Modern equines don’t understand that there aren’t saber-tooth tigers and hunters with spears around every corner, so they might always feel the need to be ready to escape.
A horse can get hot or nervous for reasons other than fear, too. Think about a horse that’s cooped up in a stall most of the time with little or no exercise. That’s unnatural for an equine, so you can understand why such a horse might be overly excited about finally escaping its prison-stall. Frustration and confusion can also create a hot horse. When your animal doesn’t understand what it’s supposed to do, it can show signs of nervousness.
This paint is totally laid back.
One way to assess horse behavior is to learn to understand horse body language. Most nervous horses are easy to spot, so it’s not usually difficult to know whether or not you have a hot horse. The animal usually acts “hyper” and is unwilling to give to the bit. When you stop the mount, it wants to keep moving.
Those are the most obvious signs and behaviors of a hot horse, but they’re not the only way to tell if a horse is nervous, upset, or anxious. Another sign is tail wringing or tail swishing. Of course, horses swish their tails to remove flies, but when a horse twitches or wrings its tail in the absence of insects, the action reveals nervousness, or even anger.
A nervous or annoyed horse might also stamp its feet or paw with a front hoof. The neck might be stretched out, too, and the animal might toss its head and/or chew on the bit. If the horse is frightened or extremely nervous, it might tremble and snort. The whites of the eyes might be readily visible, and the ears might be pinned back.
A calm, submissive animal that’s ready and willing to obey your commands exhibits certain horse behavior, too. The head is usually down, and the muscles are relaxed. The ears will be in a neutral position, or, if the animal is expecting a signal or command from you, the ears might be pricked forward. The tail will be relaxed, and the eyes will be diverted. Most of all, the horse will be able to stand still, without fidgeting.
Believe it or not, your horse feed might be at least partially to blame for your nervous horse. Horses are natural grazers. They’re meant to spend a significant amount of their time each day chewing roughage. The problem is that many owners have taken this away from their animals and have replaced large amounts of low calorie, high fiber roughage for smaller amounts of high calorie, concentrated horse feed. Corn and barley are often the worst culprits here. Both are high in calories and carbohydrates, yet they’re lower in fiber than oats. Think about how human children act after eating high sugar snacks. They can practically “bounce off the walls,” right? Horses are no different. When you give your equine horse feed that’s high in carbohydrates, the animal is going to have a lot of energy. If this extra energy isn’t allowed an outlet, behavior problems can easily occur.
Chewing is calming for equines, so you need to make sure your horse gets in enough chewing time with forage. Make sure your equine gets plenty of roughage in its diet, through grazing and eating good quality horse hay. In my opinion, grazing is usually preferable, as it kills two birds with one metaphorical stone, so to speak. The animal gets plenty of chew time, and it also gets to walk around a pasture in the sunshine and fresh air. Talk to your veterinarian about a sensible, healthy feeding program for your equine. You might be surprised to learn that some horses do well on forage only, with no grains or other concentrated horse feeds at all.
Have you tried equine calming supplements? They’ve become pretty popular in the past few years. Most horse calming supplements contain one or more of the following ingredients: thiamine, licorice extract, L-tryptophan, taurine, valerian root, black cohosh, raspberry leaf, hops, passion flower, ramisol, inositol, ginger root, wood betony, or magnesium. Some also contain omega-3, omega-6, and/or omega-9 fatty acids. Supplements are available in pastes, wafers, liquids, pellets, and powders.
Some calming supplements for horses use what are referred to as “adaptogens.” These are substances believed to enhance an individual’s ability to adapt to its environment without causing undue stress or excitement. The concept of adaptogens was first conceived by a pharmacist in 1947. Since then, veterinarians and horse trainers have endeavored to find the right combination to use with equines. Some horse trainers and owners report many benefits from using these supplements, while some saw no benefits at all. I suggest talking to an equine veterinarian before using such supplements.
I’m going to share some basic horse training tips here with you for how to calm a nervous horse. These horse training methods are especially helpful to beginners, and practically anyone can use them. First, you’ll need to decide how often your equine is nervous or fidgety. Does it happen on a regular basis? Is the horse nervous only at the beginning of a riding or working period? What stressors seem to make the problem worse?
Any horse can have occasional nervous moments. For example, a calm, gentle mare I had once would always get a little nervous whenever there was a strange dog around. That’s understandable. Once the dog was removed, the horse settled down immediately. I’m talking here more about horses that are nervous for no apparent external cause.
If your steed is nervous when first being removed from its stall, give it a chance to stretch its legs a little. A good way to do this is on a longe line. If you’re not familiar with longeing, or horse lungeing, click the highlighted link for an article and videos on the subject. Some horsemen refer to this as “taking the edge off.” We’ve had a few equines that needed this activity before being ridden by kids or novice adults. They simply had too much energy, making them more difficult to handle. Once these same horses were lunged or “ridden down” some, however, they were safe for beginning riders to take on trail rides.
If your horse is nervous once you’re in the saddle, force it to travel in circles or in figure eights. This makes the mount pay more attention to you and to what it’s doing instead of concentrating on its fear alone. When the horse seems to have settled down and is giving to the bit, try stopping the animal. If it stands still, the nervous spell is probably over. If the horse refuses to stand, continue working it. After a few more minutes, try stopping again. Loosen the reins and praise the horse with a pat on the neck and a soft word or two.
Horse training methods that lower the head can also be very effective for calming a nervous horse. Horses with lowered heads are relaxed and unafraid. When an equine drops its head, the animal is unable to flee, and trust and compliance usually follow. You don’t want the head to be dragging the ground. The poll, the area at the top of the head between the ears, should be just a tad lower than the withers. Apply pressure to the poll and nose to teach the horse to lower its head. Gently stroke the horse as a reward for dropping its head.
Something you definitely want to avoid is reinforcing bad horse behavior. Some horses will “try” their riders by acting nervous in order to get the rider to give up. When that happens, the bad behavior is rewarded because the horse got its way and doesn’t have to work. Don’t allow this to happen. If the animal is so nervous that it’s unsafe to remain in the saddle, get off, but don’t stop working. Put the horse in a round pen or on a longe line and continue working it.
It’s a lot easier and more effective to prevent a horse from becoming nervous than it is to cure the problem once it has developed. Calming a nervous horse isn’t always easy, and it can escalate to a situation that’s dangerous for both horse and human. Equines are big and powerful, and it’s important for the human to be in charge at all times. If you have a hot horse, closely examine what you’re doing that might be contributing to the problem. Assess the horse feed you’re using, and give some honest thought to how much forage your animal is receiving. Also, examine the amount of exercise and “down time” your mount gets every day. If your animal spends a lot of time in a stall or stable, buy it some horse toys. You, and not the horse, could very well be the main source of the nervous behavior. Before you turn to a professional horse trainer, try some of the management and horse training tips provided in this article.
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on July 31, 2019:
Hi, Audrey. The paint belongs to a friend, and he's perfectly healthy. I think he'd just finished urinating when I shot this pic. I understand what you're saying, though. I've seen horses with colic stand like this.
Audrey Pavia on July 29, 2019:
The photo of the Paint described as “laid back” actually shows a horse in pain. Horses do not normally stand in a stretched out position like that unless they are feeling abdominal or hoof pain. Please correct!
DuchessDuCaffeine from United States of America on February 03, 2013:
Great article and you really hit the nail on the head: every ride is a training session! :)
Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on December 27, 2012:
My son says he is getting a horse - so I will be learning more about the ins and outs very soon, I think. Great tips!
amandaines on December 23, 2012:
really good article. Have a good Christmas
Ibrahim Kamrul Shafin from Dhaka, Bangladesh & Washington DC, USA on December 23, 2012:
I have ridden on a horse only once.
Now our blog HelpSleep.org is like a horse, on which I ride on everyday.
Very informative hub, thumbs up :)
I am your follower and I reached this hub right from my inbox.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 23, 2012:
I thought you were going to suggest calling in Robert Redford to whisper to the horses. LOL Great suggestions and I do love working with horses.
Merry Christmas to you and yours!
Aimee Williams is a trainer who runs Flying A Barrel Horses in Stephenville, Texas. She raises and trains futurity-age barrel horses. We asked Aimee to share some insight about what typically causes anxiety in horses and how we can help them stay calm, relaxed, and focused.
Horses are prone to worry, and worry is prone to cause gastric ulcers—which leads to more anxiety and worsening health.
“If your horse is showing signs of anxiety, digestive disorders or ulcers are the first thing to rule out,” Williams said. “When your horse is in any type of pain, they’re going to be apprehensive about doing their job.”
If you suspect your horse has ulcers, a checkup by your vet is always the first step. Williams also recommends and uses all-natural Redmond Daily Gold Stress Relief to prevent and heal gastric ulcers in her horses.
Our goal as riders is to have our horses feel confident and understand their jobs well. When they don’t, it causes confusion.
“When a horse is confused about what we’re asking them to do, they’re going to get stressed and become anxious,” Williams said.
Many problems of horses misbehaving or exhibiting anxiety arise from training a horse before they’re well-broke. If steps have been skipped during training, it will manifest as confusion and anxiety later.
“Slowing down and going back to the basics is always a great thing to do,” said Williams. “Fixing any steps that were missed in the training process will help your horse become calmer and more confident in their job and in themselves.”
Do you get riding jitters? You’re not alone. Many riders experience nerves before climbing on a horse. Unfortunately, if you’re uneasy in the saddle, you’re likely adding to your horse’s anxiety.
“Horses notice even the slightest difference in their rider’s behavior,” Williams said. “When a rider is nervous, they usually tense up, holding the reins tighter, stiffening their back and legs. As the trainer, it’s your job to reassure your horse that there is nothing to be concerned about.”
Which is why keeping relaxed and calm is critical. So take a deep breath and remind yourself and your horse that everything’s okay. And if finding your zen in the saddle isn’t that simple, one of these 33 suggestions on how to ease riding nerves may help.
It’s hard to stand still when you’re anxious. The same is true for horses. Letting your horse move in a controlled pattern can help them work off some nervous energy.
“Keeping your horse’s feet moving by walking circles or figure eights is a great way to keep them focused and calm,” Williams said.
If walking isn’t an option, then practicing a small movement like lateral flexion can help.
“Flexing a horse laterally while standing still can help your horse stay calm and soft in the bridle by keeping their attention on the rider rather than new or stressful surroundings,” Williams said.
Horses experience apprehension when leaving home and hauling to new places. Arena anxiety is especially probable, where noise and lots of distractions are the norm.
“If a horse isn’t used to loud noises, bright lights, banners, et cetera, they may get nervous, anxious or spooky,” Williams said. “It’s up to us to keep them feeling safe.”
She gives these suggestions to ease stress and help your horse feel safe on the road:
Take breaks every two to three hours when hauling.
Bring along a travel buddy for your horse to provide companionship.
Bring things that are familiar—like your horse’s favorite lick on a rope or water flavor.
Talk to your horse and reassure them by giving them some extra attention.
Keep your horse focused on the task at hand instead of the distractions around them.
There are several common symptoms of horse anxiety that you can learn to watch for and address.
It's a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky. You saddle up at the trailhead where your trail buddies have just arrived. You've been planning this ride for weeks you're excited to explore a new trail and are looking forward to a picnic afterwards.?
Unfortunately, your horse is anxious, which was obvious from the moment he stepped out of the trailer. He has a tendency to be nervous. Plus, he was pawing and swinging his hindquarters from side-to-side while you saddled him while he was tied at the trailer.?
Now that you've mounted up, you can literally feel his anxiety through the reins as he mouths and chews the bit, and through your seat as he begins an anxious jig.?
It feels like you're riding a coiled spring, ready to explode.?
A tense, anxious horse can take all the joy out of a ride. It's impossible to relax and enjoy yourself when your horse is fretting and you're worried he may be "uptight" the whole time: bolt, buck, whirl around, jig incessantly or hurry at all gaits, crowd other horses, or even rear. Equally important, you worry about your own safety.?
"There's a big difference between a horse that's anxious or tense and one who's spooky," notes top trainer Linda Tellington-Jones. "The tense horse is often wary of contact with the mouth, flanks, or hindquarters, and is over-reactive to leg aids.?
"He may be ?touchy' all over the body and tight in the abdominal muscles. Tense, anxious horses tend to be that way all the time, unlike spooky horses that can shy from fear, or as the result of playfulness or habit."?
"When riding your anxious or flighty horse, you might inadvertently worsen the problem," says Tellington-Jones. "You'll have a tendency to ride ?defensively' with shorter reins, but when you tighten up on those reins, you create additional tension in the horse's neck and may even cause him to raise his head high, which may click him into flight mode," she says.?
"This tension affects the horse's breathing and can create more trouble because it actually makes the horse more tense. His tense muscles impair the blood flow to his brain and he can't think clearly. The neuro-impulses are inhibited, which makes him less able to feel his limbs."?
The solution is to teach your horse to come into a more grounded, connected form of mental, physical, and emotional balance. This can be done with Tellington TTouches (a form of bodywork comprised of a variety of circles, lifts, and slides done with the hands and fingertips), Tellington ground-work exercises, and under-saddle work.?
Here, Tellington-Jones gives you three TTouches and one ground/under-saddle exercise designed to calm your nervous horse.?
Coiled Python Lift?
Overview: This TTouch is excellent for releasing muscle tension in the back and increasing blood flow. It relaxes the nervous horse, increases confidence and awareness, and helps "de-spook" the flighty horse.?
Key spots: Legs, back, inside thigh.?
How to perform: Begin at the top of your horse's forearm, placing both hands lightly on either side of his leg. Start the movement with "two pressure." (For an explanation of the TTouch pressure scale, see "How Much Pressure?" below.)?
Make a circle-and-a-quarter with one hand, then lift the skin upward with both hands with just enough contact that your hands don't slip over your horse's skin. Hold for several seconds, supporting the skin as it returns slowly to its normal position.?
Note: On most parts of your horse's leg, you'll see very little movement. Your touches simply stretch the skin upward, increasing circulation and minimizing the effects of gravity for those few moments.?
Slide your hands down several inches, and repeat the circle and lift. Work from top of your horse's legs all the way down to his fetlocks. If your horse shifts away from the touch, you're squeezing too hard or pushing the skin up too much.?
Lick of the Cow's Tongue?
Overview: Named for its long, smooth sliding strokes from mid-belly to mid-back, this TTouch improves your horse's flexibility, enhances coordination, and helps calm a tense or "goosey" horse who dislikes leg pressure.?
How to perform: To calm a tense horse, use a flat hand, as curved fingers will stimulate and energize. Stand near the girth area. Place one hand on your horse's back and the other at the belly's midline, just behind the elbows.?
Draw the hand toward you, across your horse's hair, in a long, soft, continuous stroke. As you approach his mid-barrel, rotate your hand so your fingers point upward toward the horse's topline.?
Continue the stroke smoothly upward until you reach the middle of your horse's topline. Finish the stroke when you cross over his spine.?
Start your next stroke on your horse's belly one hand's width behind the first stroke. Position the strokes about six inches apart so you cover his entire belly-barrel-back area from behind the elbows back to the flanks.?
Try different pressures and speeds as you work on both sides of your horse.?
Overview: Named for the way chimpanzees lightly curve their hands, this TTouch is easy to do and is ideal for enhancing the connection with your horse. It's also less threatening to him when working on sensitive areas. This TTouch will enhance your horse's awareness of his whole body, something tense horses often lack.?
Key spots: Anywhere on your horse's body.?
How to perform: Hold your hand softly curled, with your fingers gently folded in, toward your palm. Touch your horse using the flat surface on the back of your fingers between the second and third phalange. Move your hand in this position making circles and connecting lines using "two pressure" to "three pressure" all over his body.?
Lower His Head
A nervous or anxious horse is often high-headed (as you see in the "flight mode"), meaning his carriage is such that he carries his head high most all the time, and not just because he's of a particular breed.?
By teaching your horse to lower his head, it makes a huge difference in his anxiety level. A lowered head is a sign of relaxation and trust, but more important, it puts him in a different mind-set than when he's anxious and high-headed.?
This may be one of the most important lessons you can teach your horse, especially if you have a tense or anxious horse. Lowering the head overrides the flight instinct and helps "de-spook" the flighty, high-headed, unpredictable horse. Not only does it relieve muscle tension in the horse's neck and back, but it encourages relaxation, trust, and cooperation.?
Ideally, you want the horse to lower the head so the poll is slightly lower than the withers, with the nose no lower than knee level. Lower than that and horses tend to "shut down," which is not the response you're looking for. ?
You'll need: A halter a chain lead-shank and a Tellington Wand (a four-foot long stiff, white dressage whip with a plastic "button" on the end the Wand acts as an extension of your arm.) If you don't have a Wand, use a dressage whip.
Before you begin: Thread the chain up through the bottom left halter ring, along the left cheek piece and snap to the top ring. Attach the snap to a link in the chain just below the lower halter ring. (This configuration will encourage your horse to lower his head more readily than if you place the chain over his nose.)
Once your horse responds to your requests to lower his head, you can shorten the chain by threading through the top left ring, then back through the bottom left ring.
Step 1: Apply downward pressure. Stand on the left side of your horse, and cue him to lower his head: Hold the end of the lead in your left hand, and make a sliding motion down the lead shank with your right hand. (Do not shank your horse! The chain is meant to give a subtle, light signal.) This downward pressure should be brief, but encouraging.
Step 2: Stroke. At the same time, use the Wand (or dressage whip) to lightly stroke your horse's neck, chest, and legs down to the ground (Photo 1). The stroking is a calming form of reward, and also keeps him from stepping forward. It may be helpful to bend your upper body forward, but be sure to stay to the side of your horse, not in front of him.
Step 3: Apply nose pressure. Once your horse accepts lowering his head using the above cues, stand in front of him. Place one hand lightly on the halter's noseband and the other on the chain to ask him to lower his head (Photo 2).
Step 4: Apply crest pressure. After your horse willingly lowers his head using the above cues, ask for lowering by placing one hand on the noseband and the other on his horse's crest near his poll. With your hand gently curved and fingers together, use the pads of your fingers to make small circular touches on the crest. (This is called the Clouded Leopard TTouch.) The first time, it may help to gently rock your horse's head from side-to-side with the hand that's on the noseband.
Step 5: Mount up. Once your horse has learned to lower his head when you place your hand on his crest, mount up. While mounted, reinforce this cue by sliding your hand forward and TTouching his crest. How Much Pressure?
TTouch pressures range on a scale from one to nine. A "one pressure" is the lightest contact you can make with your fingertips to move the skin in a circle-and-a-quarter without sliding over the surface.
ellington-Jones recommends a "three pressure" for most parts of the horse's body to reduce tension and promote relaxation. TTouch isn't a form of massage. The intent is to communicate with the body at the cellular level. To learn the scale, begin with the "one pressure" as a guideline.
To establish this criterion, place your thumb against your cheek. With the tip of your middle finger, push the skin on your eyelid in a circle and a quarter with the lightest possible contact. (Be sure to move the skin rather than just sliding over it.) Take your finger away, and repeat this movement on your forearm to get a sense of the pressure. Observe how little of an indentation you make in the skin. This is a "one pressure" TTouch.
You’re hacking peacefully along when you feel a tremor go through your horse’s body. His previously floppy ears snap forward, and his head rises up. As you wonder when your horse turned into a giraffe, his steps become slower and shorter, his back drops, and he emits the emphatic horse-in-jeopardy snort.
You look left and right, desperately trying to see the flesh-eating monster that must have just emerged from the bushes. But you see nothing. Nothing but rocks, trees and grass. The same rocks, trees and grass that have always been there.
But wait, what’s that? There, in the tree, a tiny shimmer of white. It looks like a piece of a grocery bag, caught on one of the branches. And just as you think, well, it can’t be that, your horse wheels, leaving you hanging in space for a moment as he hightails it back to the barn, not noticing whether you’re still attached to him.
Every person who rides encounters something they dread while they’re working with their horse. Maybe Dobbin has a thing about the trash truck. Maybe he’s convinced that whitetail deer are masquerading as peaceful, grass-eating creatures but are really waiting for the chance to pounce on a delicious meal. Or perhaps what really unhinges your horse is being alone.
Whatever your particular issue, equine anxiety is the No. 1 training and management issue for every rider and trainer.
No matter what the cause or expression of your horse’s anxiety, all riders need to accept that all horses will be afraid of something periodically. It’s the nature of a prey animal to always be “on the lookout,” and it’s a behavior we must accept.
The first step-and this often harder than you would think it should be-is to determine what’s causing your horse to be anxious and thus unruly or disobedient. The very thing that makes horses such fabulous animals to train, their incredible memories and ability to extrapolate from previous experiences, also causes them to hold on to negative memories and makes them difficult to convince that future situations won’t be negative.
Seven Types Of Fear
The causes of equine anxiety usually fit one of seven categories:
1. Objects. The objects that horses most commonly find terrifying include: rocks, farm equipment, cars, buildings, jumps, garbage cans and pretty much anything they consider out of the ordinary.
2. Situations. Many horses are uncertain about dark or enclosed places (like an indoor arena), and even more are genuinely scared of being alone (they are herd animals). Often this fear will be expressed by being buddy-sour or barn-sour, and sometimes they don’t want to go in a ring, either at home or in a competition.
3. Sounds. Highly strung horses are easily unglued by loud, unexpected noises (a car back-firing, a garbage can falling over). Others can’t stand hissing noises (like from a leaky hose coupling), and others don’t like rustling noises (in leaves or under something). Both probably sound like a snake.
4. Clipping or other grooming/handling. Some horses are genuinely afraid of clippers, either the sound or the sensation. Some don’t like to receive shots, and others are anxious about being shod.
5. New places. This can be as obvious as moving to a new home or going to a competition. Or it could just be moving to a new stall or riding in a new trailer. Anxiety could even be caused by more subtle changes around the barn (the jumps were moved in the ring, for instance).
6. Type of work/type of rider. Horses often prefer a certain type of rider. And often horses with a strong desire to please become anxious because they don’t understand what’s being asked of them, either because the exercise isn’t clear to them or the rider’s aids are confusing.
7. Other animals. Horses are often afraid of birds, cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, deer or other wildlife. And some are afraid of other horses.
The only way to deal with most things that cause equine anxiety is repetition, because they're things you just can't change or that your horse just has to deal with. | Photo Courtesy of EQUUS
Remove The Cause?
Once you’ve isolated the cause of your horse’s consternation, the big question is what can you do about it? And that’s where you have to be creative, confident and even willing to do an unusual thing or two.
The first thing to determine is the degree of your horse’s fear. Is he genuinely terrified? Can you feel his heart pounding? Is he shaking? Does he bolt blindly away? Or is he really using the object, which startled or unsettled him, as an excuse to produce bad behavior or get out of work? We know a horse who’ll walk past about anything on the buckle, but when you pick up the reins to work, the same objects immediately become terrifying.
If that’s the case, focus on your work and more or less ignore the horse’s behavior and the object of his concern. Once horses learn that their histrionics don’t produce the intended result, most will learn to go on with their work quietly after a momentary spook.
But if your horse is truly afraid, then it’s time to analyze the cause and to best determine how to combat it.
Sometimes you can remove or alter the cause of your horse’s anxiety. Perhaps he prefers to be in a quieter stall or turned out with different pasture mates or a different pasture. Perhaps he’s more comfortable in a taller or lighter-colored trailer.
But the only way to deal with most things that cause equine anxiety is repetition, because they’re things you just can’t change or that your horse just has to deal with.
Dealing with objects that cause your horse to shy can be extremely vexing. Most horses, if given a chance to look hard at an unfamiliar object-and especially to sniff and to touch it-will lose their anxiety. Usually, if you remain calm and just let them take a deep breath and assess something they haven’t seen before, they’ll accept it. Often letting them put their noses on it seals the deal.
If your horse is really unglued by an object, to the point where he becomes dangerous to you or others, discretion is always the better part of valor. Dismount and lead him to the object. You can even longe him near the object until he calms down.
Situational anxiety can be trickier. Horses that are worried about dark or enclosed places will likely always be that way, probably because they’re genuinely claustrophobic or they have poor eyesight. You just have to plan ahead.
Know that if you’re going to show in an indoor arena, you have to get there a few hours or the day before the show to school him in the ring so he’ll be comfortable.
Make A Circle
Horses that are barn-sour or buddy-sour can be a long-term challenge-and sometimes you can’t completely cure them. Be sure to ride barn-sour horses strongly and actively away from the barn. Don’t hesitate to use your spurs or your whip to make them really walk (or trot or canter) away from the barn, because you want to develop their own belief that they’ll be fine and to confirm their respect for your aids.
Buddy-sour horses usually call repeatedly for other horses and jig, and sometimes the fireworks are even more explosive.
Five Tips For Anxious Moments
1. Don’t look at the object or area of fear. Focus your eyes on a spot in the distance and ride to it. This prevents you from acknowledging the object as something fearful and keeps your eyes, head and balance up and forward.
2. If you have a horse who’s perpetually spooky, try riding with a breastplate, racing yolk or grab strap. This will give you something to grab if he wheels or bolts, other than his mouth. Catching nervous horses in the mouth can often send them over the edge.
3. If the horse is contorting its body to look at an object in or near your ring every time you go past it, and thus disrupting your work, instead of fighting to force him not to look at it, force him to look-but keep working. Ride a leg-yield or half-pass (or even a simple outside bend) that puts the horse’s eye on the object, but follow it up with strong leg aids that force him to continue stepping forward and working.
4. If your horse is walking like a tense ball about to explode, pick up the trot and start riding figures like serpentines or figure-eights. Concentrate on the geometry of the figures and the rhythm of the trot. Ignore everything else. Some top riders sing while they’re doing this to force themselves to breathe consistently and release tension, and the rhythm of the song helps them create a consistent rhythm in the trot.
5. Remember, the hardest thing for some horses to do is walk on a loose rein. The loss of contact with the rider can feel like abandonment, and they’re more likely to become anxious or startled. Although being able to walk on a loose rein is a must, be patient with horses and riders who struggle with this concept. Begin by trying brief periods of loose rein between two letters of a standard dressage court, increasing the amount of walk over time.
Put the horse to work. Don’t just try to walk calmly around, because it usually doesn’t work. Make him work to force him to pay attention to you, using circles and leg yields, to get his mind off his friends heading toward the barn. Then, when he’s settled and answering your aids correctly, walk, reward him with a pat or two, and walk to rejoin the other horses or to the barn. But be prepared to go back to work, right away.
Barn- and buddy-sour horses usually balk or refuse to move forward, away from their friends or home. Balking can evolve into the extremely dangerous behavior of rearing and is not to be tolerated. When you ask the horse to go, he must GO. If your horse balks, you must IMMEDIATELY become far scarier to him than the cause of his initial anxiety.
Use your legs, spurs, whips and voice (growl and scold, don’t scream) and GO FORWARD. Having to gallop out of the barnyard for a week to get past this problem is worth it, if it prevents the horse from eventually rearing.
Noise anxiety is extremely tough to school. How do you prepare a horse to stay calm in the midst of a backfiring engine or gunshots until it happens? The most useful advice is to hang on and stay calm. And immediately return to whatever work you were doing, so that the horse sees that you weren’t fazed by the sound. He should learn from your example.
But if your horse is unusually anxious about noise, you can condition him with a sensory-overload type of training, like they use in police-horse training. Shake, rattle and bang pots and pan, bells, rattles, plastic bags or other common items around him while you reassure him (with your voice, stroking or food) until he accepts the sounds.
It’s rare that you can’t convince a horse who’s afraid of clipping or other care requirements to relax. But it can take considerable time and repetition, repetition, repetition. There’s nothing wrong with using some Acepromazine or other mild tranquilizer to settle his mind, if you don’t have the time or the situation is too urgent to take a slow, proper training route.
For most horses, 1 to 3 ccs of Ace (depending on his size and temperament) will do the trick. But, remember, tranquilizers are not training substitutes, and some horses won’t learn anything while under their influence. Plan a proper training session in the near future. Note: If you use tranquilizers to facilitate care, be sure it’s under veterinary guidance and far enough ahead of competition to avoid breaking the show or event’s rules for using performance-enhancing substances.
Convincing horses to not be afraid of other animals is usually an uphill struggle. If they’re afraid of cows, pigs, goats, dogs or wildlife, often there isn’t much you can do, except try to avoid them and hang on if you can’t.
The anxiety you have the best chance of changing is that caused by horses who are worried about the work they’re doing or the ride they’re getting. Everyone who’s trained more than a few horses has come across horses who don’t like to do certain things (such as jumping) but love to do certain other things (such as herding cattle).
Your job as rider or trainer is to determine if they can be convinced to do the job you want them to do or if the horse (and you) would be better off by selling him to someone who wants to do the same job. Almost always, both horse and rider are far, far less anxious if they’re both doing a job they like.
From a training perspective, it’s often extremely challenging to meld a partnership between a horse and rider who aren’t suited. Perhaps it’s a mismatch in style-the horse is hot-blooded and his rider is so busy in the tack that the rider is, in effect, shouting at him all the time. Or perhaps the horse and rider are too similar-each is green, nervous or unambitious.
One, or both, has to change, and sometimes that’s not possible. And, although it’s always far preferable for riders to truly work to improve their skills and suppleness and to expand their experience, sometimes trainers just have to admit that a change needs to be made. Sometimes, though, riders can’t bear to make the change.
As trainers, it’s our job to tell our students when things are going wrong. Make riders aware of the tremendous challenges they’ll face with their current mount given their respective personalities. Honestly explain what changes will have to take place to achieve harmony. But, ultimately, it’s up to the student to decide.